THE MANHATTAN; A ONCE-DOOMED BUILDING IS REBORN
The Province, September 4, 1983 - Peter Miller
A posh residential address, a place to be seen dining, a hippie hangout, an anti-demolition protestors' squatting grounds - the Manhattan Building at Robson and Thurlow has been all these things.
Today it has re-emerged as one of the city's fashionable locations. The city's Heritage Advisory Committee recommended the owner and architects for a Certificate of Merit which was presented by Mayor Mike Harcourt earlier this year.
In addition, the project has attracted attention farther afield and has been submitted for the prestigious Credit Foncier, Heritage Canada award, which is worth $20,000.
Although its shops, such as CustomColor, Jerry's Cookies, the Manhattan Bookstore and Binky's Oyster Bar, have become familiar fixtures on Robson, it was not always certain that the Manhattan Apartments would be retained.
When they learned in 1975 that the owner intended to demolish the building, a group of tenants organized a save-the-Manhattan campaign.
Three years later, the owner was refused permission to demolish, and many protesting tenants were able to form a housing co-operative.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) subsidized renovation of the apartments in the upper portion of the building. This lifted an insupportable financial burden from the building's owners, who were then able to concentrate on creating commercial accommodation on the ground floor without detracting from the building's heritage qualities.
But an antagonistic relationship had developed between the building's owner (Sunco Enterprises) and the former tenants, now called the Manhattan Housing Co-operative Association.
When both parties decided to retain their own architects, an unusual situation developed whereby two different firms were commissioned to carry out design and supervision of renovations.
In fact, each was concerned with separate portions of the same building, but the whole process was organized smoothly and amicably and has resulted in a successfully renovated building. The architects for the original building owner were Thompson Berwick-Pratt & Partners. For the co-operative, it was Norman Hotson Architects, of Granville Island fame.
Hotson had the easier job. His responsibility was to bring the suites up to modern standards of comfort and convenience and yet remain within the criteria of reasonable improvements stipulated by CMHC. He managed to retain much of the building's original character and charm. Even the bathtubs and sinks have been left in place.
Thompson Berwick-Pratt & Partners were presented with a more difficult problem by the city's insistence that the owner/developer not demolish the building.
From a strictly commercial point of view the most valuable asset of this site was its location because of the vast numbers of pedestrians passing by. However, with a building of such a deep plan only the shop window frontage on Robson can benefit from this passing trade. Thompson Berwick-Pratt & Partners decided, therefore, that a means would have to be found to persuade the passing trade to detour through the building to the shops behind. They decided to "carve out" the ground floor in the central light wells and create a new thoroughfare through the site, connecting Robson with Thurlow. They formed a patio at the rear when landscaping, a waterfall and people dining alfresco can be glimpsed from both streets.
Another original feature of the building has influenced the design of the canopy structure that covers pedestrians. The large barrel vault frame is intended to echo the semi-circular shape of the extensive stained glass windows which provide so much of the character of the apartment block's hallways.
The Doric columns, stained glass and bevelled glass in the main doors were all installed by the first owner of the building, William Lamont Tait, who decided in 1907 that he wanted to create the best apartment building in Vancouver.
Florence Mercer, 81, saw the Manhattan being built and says, "It was the apartment of its day." Among the innovative design features were light wells, an electric elevator and a rooftop restaurant with full-height windows on all sides for a 360-degree view. To achieve this unobstructed vista, all service rooms for the restaurant were located in the basement and meals were conveyed to the top by a dumb-waiter.
When the present owners purchased the building in 1958 it was in a dilapidated state but it was a promising financial investment because of its location. Their professional advisors recommended total demolition of the old building and erection of a single-storey structure to house stores and other commercial premises.
Much of the credit for saving this fine old building must go to a small group of original tenants and their supporters. By a series of tactics which included squatting in the empty building for eight months without heat or hot water they drew enough public attention to the building's plight to not only prevent its demise but also to establish a housing co-operative with many of its former tenants.
With help from the city and CMHC, a mortgage subsidy was arranged to finance the renovation of 44 suites on the upper floors of the building.
The tenants' tenacity has paid off. Today the members of the Manhattan Housing Cooperative enjoy spacious homes in the centre of downtown Vancouver for $250 to $500 per month, and a vital part of the city's history has been preserved.
A note from the co-op's housing handbook: "P.S.: Housing charges were not $250 at move-in."