LUXTON, Donald

Author Tags: Architecture

Born in Vancouver in 1954, Luxton is a preservation consultant for heritage. He's a founding Director of the Heritage Vancouver Society and the Victoria Heritage Foundation, Director of the Vancouver Heritage Conservation Foundation, and founding and current President of the Canadian Art Deco Society. He has also been active in the field of public education through the teaching of heritage conservation courses. His heritage consulting firm, Donald Luxton & Associates, has carried out numerous municipal planning projects, heritage inventories and the restoration of public buildings throughout B.C., Alberta and the Yukon. He is co-author with Lilia D'Acres of the multi-award-winning history Lions Gate (Talonbooks, 1999) -- see review below -- and editor/author of Building the West: Early Architects of British Columbia (Talonbooks, 2003) -- see review below. The latter book received the Architectural Institute of British Columbia Award for Special Achievement, the Roderick Haig-Brown Prize, the City of Vancouver Heritage Award of Honour and a Heritage Canada Foundation Achievement Award. A second, revised edition was released in 2007 (Talonbooks).

Together with: Kiriko Watanabe--see entry, assistant curator at the West Vancouver Museum, Adele Weder--see entry, architectural writer, curator, and cultural journalist, and Barry Downs--see entry, longtime associate of Selwyn Pullan, Luxton has co-compiled Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism (D&M, 2012).

[BCBW 2012] "Architecture"

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Building the West: Early Architects of British Columbia
Lions Gate
Selwyn Pullan: Photographing Mid-Century West Coast Modernism

Lions Gate (Talon $29.95)

As the Golden Gate Bridge epitomizes San Francisco and the Eiffel Tower is synonymous with Paris, the Lions Gate Bridge is a death-defying construction of Vancouver’s collective imagination. “Perhaps in your city,” writes Douglas Coupland, “there is a structure so potent and glorious that its existence in your mind becomes the actual architecture of your mind—a structure through which all of your dreams and ideas and hopes are funneled. In my city, Vancouver, there is one such structure, a fairy-tale bridge called
Lions Gate Bridge...

“I figure I have driven across the bridge maybe five or six thousand times in my life—that’s all the way from Vancouver to Halifax and back—and never in all of those miles have I once tired of the view, endlessly renewing, endlessly glorious... Here is Lions Gate Bridge, one last gesture of beauty, of charm and grace before we enter the hinterlands...”

Coupland’s mystical, almost hallucinogenic reverence for Lions Gate Bridge is placed at the outset of Lilia D’Acres and Donald Luxton’s Lions Gate (Talon $29.95). Reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion and Mark Helprin’s Winters Tale, fantastical novels that celebrate bridge building, Coupland makes a joyous and grand statement on par with the audaciousness of the bridge itself.

“This is what I figure: if there is a heaven, and if heaven has a bridge to take us there, then surely that bridge is Lions Gate Bridge. And this bridge is ours.”

Lions Gate Bridge was first envisioned in 1890. Prior to World War One many believed a bridge to West Vancouver via Stanley Park would be an unsightly imposition and serious alternative plans to build a tunnel were made as early as 1894.

In 1925, a low-level Second Narrows bridge was built to North Vancouver, kick-starting North Shore expansion. Not to be outdone, West Vancouver offered two million dollars of tax land— the British Properties—in exchange for a viable bridge.

The little-known story of how a Vancouver industrialist and engineer named A.J.T. Taylor went about single-handedly attracting British capital to finance the bridge is at the heart of Lions Gate, a coffee table history for visitors and locals alike.

As the son of an impoverished entomologist and lay minister, Fred Taylor was born in Victoria in 1887. His formal education ended at age 14 and two years later he was at the Vancouver Ship Yards earning five dollars per month as an apprentice. In those days he lived in a rented CPR shack near Hastings and Burrard.

A good marriage, hard work, British connections, good luck, fearless ambition and visionary risk-taking led Fred Taylor straight to the top, literally to the penthouse suite atop of the Marine Building, from where he could look down at the still-standing CPR shack in 1933.

But first Taylor needed the support of Lord Southborough and the Guinness syndicate. While living in London, Taylor had hobnobbed with the likes of H.G. Wells and gained the trust of Lord Southborough, a confidante of King George VI. More importantly, Lord Southborough was a representative of the Iveagh Trust (Guinness family investments) and had visited Vancouver in 1908.

To develop West Vancouver real estate, Lord Southborough, Fred Taylor and a retired British banker named W.S. Eyre established British Pacific Securities in 1928. Lord Southborough was able to obtain the support of Rupert Guinness, the second Lord Iveagh and one of the ten richest men in the world, because Guinness had visited Vancouver in 1917.

Taylor’s efforts to build a bridge were enhanced in 1930 when a shipping accident knocked out the existing Second Narrows Bridge, stranding hundreds of cars on the North Shore and plummetting the District of North Vancouver into receivership.

Simultaneously, British capital was keen to escape high taxes and to take advantage of Depression labour. West Vancouver agreed to part with 4,000 acres of mountainside and the Guinness family, chiefly Rupert Guinness and his two brothers, agreed to finance the Capilano Golf Course, sewers, roads, water lines and a school site.

The provincial government approved bridge construction in 1933 but Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett—consistently the villain of the piece—refused to grant assent. Bennett remained in cahoots with rival developers, the CPR, and resisted all of Fred Taylor’s diplomatic and technical arguments.

Taylor hosted the Guinness delegation in 1934, feeding them fresh-caught salmon at the Vancouver Club and taking care to provide imported Irish whiskey—because none of the Guinness party drank stout.

Lord Southborough was finally able to convince his old friend William Lyon Mackenzie King to grant federal approval to Taylor’s initiative in 1936, after Mackenzie King had defeated Bennett in 1935.

The construction of the Lions Gate went absurdly well, ahead of schedule, under budget, overcoming many technical challenges and only blocking shipping for one hour in total. The main span is 472 metres with a ship’s clearance of 61 metres. Trucks exceeding 13 tonnes are now prohibited. The bridge was opened for less than six million dollars in 1938 (emergency repairs in 1979 would cost eight million).

Just as workers and engineers had placed all their spare change, amounting to 35 cents, at the bottom of the first steel footing, Taylor placed personal mementos, including a pair of his baby shoes, inside one of the lion statues. After Taylor died of cancer in New York, his wife spread his ashes from the centre of Lions Gate Bridge in 1945.

Today Fred Taylor is only recalled by the thoroughfare leading to the British Properties, Taylor Way, but his dogged determination and shrewd ambition built the Lions Gate Bridge as much as cement and girders.

The British Columbia Toll Highways and Bridges Authority acquired title to the bridge in 1955 for five-and-a-half-million dollars; but tolls would not be removed until 1963, thereby allowing the provincial government to recoup its costs.

In effect, motorists have paid for their ‘bridge to heaven’ in full, twice. 0-88922-416-1

The longest suspension bridge in the British Empire was embellished by two Art Deco sculptures of lions, made by Charles Marega. These guardians were unsubtle reminders that the Lions Gate Bridge was a symbol of empire, built by English capital.

No such reminders were needed by the Squamish Indians. In 1936, without consultation and little compensation, the Minister of Indian Affairs recommended transfer of lands from Capilano Indian Reserve No. 5 to the First Narrows Bridge Company, pursuant to Section 48 of the Indian Act.
Three years later, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth became the first English monarchs to visit Canada, they drove over the Lions Gate Bridge to ‘honour it’. The Squamish requested the royal entourage stop at Capilano Road to receive gifts and to present their own queen, Mary Agnes Capilano.

She was the first-born daughter of the marriage that had united two previously warring tribes, the Yaculta and the Squamish. Mary Agnes Capilano stood on the roadside, in full ceremonial regalia, with Chief Joe Mathias, who had attended the coronation of King George VI in 1911.

The royals didn’t stop. As well, nobody from the Squamish Band was invited to partake in the honouring ceremony. “This was the only time that we could present my grandmother to the Queen,” recalled Chief Simon Baker, “but the car drove past us... It was terrible for my grandmother.”

In a condescending letter, the Honourary Secretary of the Vancouver Committee for the Reception of Their Majesties reassured the Squamish their gifts were sent to Buckingham Palace.

“We can assure you that every effort was made to fulfill the wishes of Their Majesties and had they desired to stop, it would have, of course, been done. We are assured that Their Majesties took particular pains to acknowledge the homage of their Indian subjects, and that in passing them the rate of speed was considerably lowered.”


Building the West: Early Architects of British Columbia (Talon $60)

With a brief nod to aboriginal building methods, the collective story of B.C.’s architectural heritage is told via almost 400 biographies and 600 photos in Donald Luxton’s 560-page Building the West: Early Architects of British Columbia (Talon $60).

Cumulatively the reader gains a foundation for understanding the development of British Columbia. For instance, the Southern Transprovincial Highway follows the trail of the Royal Engineers who put the British Empire’s mark on the frontier in 1858. Americans were streaming north with a lust for gold, and “Old Squaretoes,” Governor James Douglas, feared Americanization. The engineers’ first order of business was to survey a border along the 49th parallel to secure the region for the Empire.

Those ‘sappers’ moved on to surveying and clearing land for the mainland colony’s first capital at New Westminster. They built churches, schools, jails, transportation routes and laid out plans for towns from Hope to Quesnel Forks. When the engineers were disbanded in 1863, most stayed on, settling on crown land; some became surveyors and architects. “Their work laid the basis for much of the province’s development,” Luxton says.

Part of their legacy is Building the West, impressive from the stumps up. The mostly male architects—with Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and Sister Mary Osithe as the exceptions—all designed buildings in the period from the earliest colonial days to 1938.

This volume was a major construction project in itself, taking ten years of collaboration by 57 researchers and historians. “Professional qualifications could not easily be verified,” says Luxton, who wrote approximately 80% of the entries, “and the first wave of settlement brought an odd collection of those with bona fide professional training, as well as master builders equipped with pattern books, competent surveyors and engineers who could also draw building plans, real estate speculators, jerry-builders and ambitious entrepreneurs who later spun off into more profitable pursuits. “Often their origins were as uncertain as their fates. Fuelling this volatile mix was a get-rich-quick frontier mentality and a vigorous distrust of authority.”

It was decades before the profession was regulated. Surviving the unpredictable boom and bust cycles required versatility. An early photo of R.H. Parkinson’s business shows signs advertising his services as an architect, surveyor, draughtsman, and mining broker. Victoria’s Richard Lewis doubled as a cabinet maker and undertaker.

Much of Victoria’s development was propelled by the influx of gold seekers headed for the Cariboo. John Wright and George Sanders took full advantage. Arriving from Upper Canada in 1858, they dominated house, church, commercial and institutional architecture until they departed for San Francisco. They built some of that city’s most important buildings, but almost all of them were lost during the 1906 earthquake and fire. Today their legacy remains in Victoria’s Richard Carr House and Temple Emanu-El, both designated federal historic sites.

British Columbia’s entry into Confederation and the long overdue railway brought development, stability and speculators to Vancouver. “Solid commercial structures and sprawling dwellings demonstrated ambition, greed, pride and hubris, anchored and watched over by the ever-present highest point in town, the church spire,” writes Luxton.

Money flowed from Ottawa for various Dominion projects, but east/west power struggles were apparent from day one: “The bureaucratic habits of DPW (Department of Public Works) seriously hampered work on the west coast because virtually every action by a resident architect had to be approved by headquarters...”

By the 1880s the railroad was opening up the interior and architects weren’t far behind. New wealth created demand for more refined homes and businesses; ornate stone and masonry replaced the early wooden structures that were also prone to fire. Many towns— from Fernie to New Westminster and Gastown—were rebuilt on the ashes of the old.

Henry Bell-Irving, one of Vancouver’s earliest architects, rowed three miles to work every day to his Gastown office, and after the great fire, set to rebuilding the city. He later made sockeye famous by shipping salmon from his canneries to markets around the world.

The new frontier welcomed Frances Mawson Rattenbury from Yorkshire in 1892. The late Terry Reksten describes his mercurial rise: “He was only 25 when he arrived in British Columbia in 1892, but within months he pulled off an astounding architectural coup, defeating over sixty other architects to win the design competition for the new Parliament Buildings.” Over the next 38 years, Rattenbury designed some of B.C.’s most impressive structures. Today they’re icons: Victoria’s CPR’s Steamship Terminal, the Empress Hotel, Vancouver and Nelson’s courthouses and various CPR tourist hotels. He gambled and lost on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway when its promises for the north were never realized. In 1929 he returned to England with his second wife, and was bludgeoned by her lover in 1935.

Samuel MacClure is possibly B.C.’s second-most famous architect; a water colour artist who designed almost 500 homes in Victoria, Vancouver and the B.C. Interior including Hatley Park for the Dunsmuirs, the richest family in the province. His elegant, half-timbered Victorian Arts and Craft style has been recognized internationally.

William Dalton and Sydney Eveleigh formed a powerful partnership, and for two decades built many of Vancouver’s commercial and institutional buildings—from the Royal Bank on Hastings street (site of today’s Vancouver Film School) to supervising construction of the Rattenbury-designed Vancouver Court House (now the Vancouver Art Gallery). Building the West comes replete with details. “Eveleigh wanted the massive stone lions flanking the entry to resemble the profile of the twin peaks on the North Shore known as The Lions, so he carved small models for the sculptor out of Ivory soap bars to show his idea of how their noses should be flattened.” The firm also designed buildings in Revelstoke, Vernon, New Westminster and the Tranquille sanitarium near Kamloops.

John McCarter and George Nairne started small by building houses and apartment buildings, but by the late 1920s they were designing Vancouver’s first skyscrapers including the Art Deco Medical-Dental Building (blown to dust after much protest in 1989) and the Marine Building with its much-admired terra cotta motifs of coastal history and wildlife. The firm was behind dozens of projects across the Lower Mainland, including Vancouver’s General Post Office in the late 1950s.

Building the West is about the famous and almost forgotten, thanks to the membership files of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and hard digging by the book’s contributors. Compiled and edited by Luxton, a founding director of the Heritage Vancouver Society and the Victoria Heritage Foundation, and co-author of a prize-winning book about the Lions Gate Bridge, Building the West is destined to become an important reference work for students of architecture and B.C. history. It has a three-tiered index that’s a little cumbersome (Architects, Buildings, General), and the prominent appearance of Luxton’s name on nearly every other page beneath the photos of architects is downright distracting, but this volume will clearly serve as an important and enduring work. 0-88922-474-9

[Mark Forsythe/BCBW Winter 2003]