In the winter of 2016, I joined Sean Heaney and his crew at Fat Pooch Deconstruction who were busy preparing the rehabilitation of the uppermost four floors of the historic Hotel Vancouver. This has been one of the jewels in the crown of the Canadian Pacific chain of hotels, landmarks in major cities across Canada. Built in 1939, it has a stood the test of time as an enduring classic, pointing to an era of luxurious style.
As I ascended a labyrinth of service elevators and ancient passages, I reflected on the decades of history that this building has witnessed. Finally at the top, it became obvious why deconstruction by hand was the obvious solution.
The uppermost floors are only accessed by a series of winding staircases, then finally a gantry and scaffolding opened up right beneath the iconic copper roof. Not conducive to any kind of mechanized removal, the majority of these ancient installations have been standing – and some still operational – for nearly a century
Sean has a history with Hotel Vancouver, removing various antiques to upgrade to a more functional and modern look. When I first met him, he was furiously hunting for a place to temporary store 200 beautiful antique solid fir doors, otherwise destined for the dumpster. These used to be the entrances to 80 bathrooms spread out over four floors, which he lovingly removed by hand.
When I arrived amidst dust and concrete chips at this new gig the crew was already hard at work taking down massive block walls beneath the roof. The place had an eerie feel halfway between Dante’s Inferno and a movie set in a dystopian future, workers jack-hammering huge pieces of cinder block, illuminated by strings of lights that cast spooky shadows.A giant chute delivered the pieces of block to be carted away in bins or totes. The noise was tremendous – fans on full blast to remove dust elsewhere, jackhammers pounding away at concrete.
Several massive metal tanks dominated the middle of the floor, at least a storey high, with piping and valves that seemed to belong to some Victorian waterworks. I imagine many years ago they were delivering water to the floors below.
Deconstruction is all about manual labour. All the materials had to be handled a number of times in order to get them out of the building. Everything had to be walked by hand (and some on wheels) and loaded to an elegant temporary lift, descending through a hole cut through the four floors. 50 feet below, these were then wheeled to the first set of elevators, down several corridors to the big service elevator, finally delivered to a large container in the rear of the hotel receiving area.
The 15th floor is occupied with vast fans, dating back decades, as part of the air-conditioning/heating system for the hotel. Some still seem to be grinding away and actually operational. Quite primitive by today’s standards, which is why we are dissembling some of them. It’s a tricky task, as the actual rotating part has to be taken out of its casing, and it’s a messy job to be covered in the grease that lubricates the shaft and bearings. Not to mention the weight of everything. It takes a whole team of us to pull it apart.
Seans crew combine street savvy and simply hard manual grind. Many have been in construction their entire lives, and their work ethic is etched into their faces of a lifetime of labour, I am amazed just how resilient people who seem to be my age are with repetitive heavy tasks. My body just isn’t cut out for this onslaught of lifting. Six long hard hours in, I capitulate, and Sean, ever sensitive to the energy of his crew, assigns me to the sweeping crew. Definitely more my pace, and he sends me one floor down to another fascinating slice of hotel history, where i am to remove the remnants of the last alterations. I am back in 1939, surrounded by memorabilia, such as individual paper records of bar tabs and hotel expenses incurred by people probably now long gone.
What catches my eye is the play of light coming through the windows, combined with stunning views of street life 14 stories below. Ever the one to capture a photo op, here are some of my visions peering out from inside a time gone by.