Long admired for its straight forward industrial beauty, the Roundhouse is a building of major historical significance to the City of Vancouver both from an architectural and a social perspective. Originally the Roundhouse was comprised of a cluster of buildings whose function was to house and service the great steam locomotives of the day. The people who worked in these buildings were involved with the railway link that played such a central part in the growth of Vancouver.
As the western terminus of the CPR, the Vancouver Roundhouse was the largest facility of its kind in British Columbia. The formation of the Roundhouse group of buildings spanned many years and incorporated several expansions. Construction of the original ten-bay building took place in 1888. A wood post and beam structure with brick walls was built on a stone foundation. In 1911, the original structure was expanded to include twelve additional bays. There was a further expansion in 1940 when three of the existing bays were lengthened by thirty feet. In 1950, three bays were converted to the diesel servicing shop.
The gradual acceptance of the diesel-powered engine signalled the end of steam locomotives as workhorses of the railroad. The buildings in which they had been housed and serviced were no longer central, and slowly slid into obscurity and disrepair. The Roundhouse and the surrounding rail yards, a once vibrant transportation hub for the City were forgotten as the CPR turned its sights to more profitable adventures.
Hidden away in the midst of the industrial debris of the rail yards on the north shore of False Creek, the Roundhouse was forgotten, except by special interest groups such as steam train enthusiasts. When the Provincial Government announced the purchase of the CPR rail yards on the north shore of False Creek in 1980, plans for the Vancouver Roundhouse became clear – they intended to demolish it. Fortunately, only part of the demolition occurred, thanks to the efforts of heritage and train buffs, supported by numerous Vancouver residents who refused to see this historic building disappear.
In 1984, Norman Hotson Architects was retained by the BC Place Corporation to restore and renovate the Roundhouse. The immediate goal was to bring the building up to the standards as prescribed by current building codes to prepare the Roundhouse for use as a theme pavilion for the World Exposition of 1986. The Roundhouse proved to be a favourite of the crowds at Expo 86, the adaptation of the building was an unqualified success.
After Expo 86 closed, all of the temporary buildings used during the fair were dismantled and removed leaving the Roundhouse sitting alone on Pacific Boulevard at the foot of Davie Street. Except as a backdrop for the occasional film being shot on location, the Roundhouse sat empty waiting for the next phase of its use as a key building in Vancouver’s history.
When Concord Pacific developed the Overall Development Plan for the new community on the 204 acres of the False Creek north waterfront, the historic Roundhouse was designated as a public amenity and plans for a new community centre began – but only after attempts to turn the Roundhouse into a collection of boutique shops were defeated by concerted citizens’ action. The zoning that ensured its rejuvenation into a public facility was finalized in 1993.
The Park Board then took a major leap and agreed that the Roundhouse would be unlike any other community centre in Canada – a unique facility dedicated to community development through arts and culture – an arts oriented community centre that would serve not only the residents of the area but all citizens of Vancouver. In 1994 design began and the Park Board created the Roundhouse Advisory Committee to guide the development of the new community centre. Chaired by founding president Gerry Thorne, the Committee included past president Ingrid Alderson, past president Ralph McKnight, artists Ed Varney, Barb Clausen, Pamela Leamen, Sheila Foley and many others representing a variety of interests, including Evelyn Atkinson and Doug Starink representing Engine 374 and the railway buffs. Solid and consistent support also came from then Park Board Commissioner Alan Fetherstonhaugh, a key player on the political side, as well as numerous dedicated Park Board staff.
Finally in March 1997 Concord turned this $9 million facility over to the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation to own and operate, under the able guidance and direction of Coordinator Derek Simons. Its features include a black box Performance Centre, an exhibition hall, woodworking, pottery and dance studios, a full size gymnasium, a cafe area, and various multi-purpose spaces. The architecture and design of the refurbished Roundhouse is stunning.
The community centre is proud to also house Engine 374. Engine 374 was the first passenger train to enter Vancouver on May 23, 1887. It sat lonely and deteriorating in Kitsilano Park for many years until train lovers rescued and restored it in time for Expo 86. After a major fundraising campaign by the Vancouver Central Lion’s Club it found its new home in the glass pavilion attached to the Roundhouse, where it is a designated heritage monument.
The Roundhouse is a beautiful building with a wonderful history that has been made available to all the citizens of Vancouver. We applaud those people who had the vision, fortitude, and perseverance to make Vancouver’s oldest heritage building still on its original site, a public facility for all of us to enjoy.
Expo 86 on Wikipedia (web page)