Equitable Real Estate builds a foundation from Vancouver heritage

By John Mackie, Vancouver Sun November 30, 2012

VANCOUVER — Most Vancouverites have never heard of Equitable Real Estate, but almost everyone knows some of the company’s buildings.

Equitable owns the Vancouver Block, the handsome heritage building with the giant neon clock on the roof at 736 Granville. A couple of blocks up Granville, Equitable owns the Rogers Building, another classic Edwardian office building with a white terra cotta facade.

The company owns almost an entire block of vintage apartment buildings in the 1500-block West 15th, as well as the lovely Mission/deco Willingdon Lodge at West 16th and Fir. In Kitsilano, it owns the Wellington Apartments, a beautiful brick block that has a commanding view of the water from the corner of Trafalgar and York. Fans of the X-Files know it as the home of Agent Fox Mulder.

All told, Equitable owns four office buildings and 28 apartment blocks. Many are heritage buildings, and they’re all in great shape. “The company is made for the long term,” explains Equitable’s president Mark Rahal. “The mandate includes not selling assets, hence the necessity of maintaining (the old buildings), and maintaining the cash flow that is derived from them. So you have to maintain them and keep them in good repair.”

The mandate he’s referring to comes from Equitable’s founders, John and Lotte Hecht. The couple left the bulk of their estate to a charitable foundation that dispenses Equitable’s profits to a variety of causes, such as alternative medicine and cancer research. This year, it will hand out more than $7 million. It does so quietly, because that was the directive of the Hechts, who managed to build up a sizable real estate empire without attracting much attention.

The Hechts were Jewish emigres from Austria (John) and Germany (Lotte) who fled Europe on the eve of the Second World War. They married in Vancouver in 1945, and five years later John Hecht started Equitable, focusing on buildings in good locations.

All four of Equitable’s office buildings were completed in 1912, and the company plans a 100th birthday celebration for them in December. So we went on a tour of the two landmarks, the Vancouver Block and the Rogers Building. The Vancouver Block was built by Dominic Burns, whose brother Pat built Burns Meats into a cross-Canada powerhouse. Burns hired prominent architects John Parr and Thomas Fee to design a 17-storey building that stretched over three lots and soared 265 feet into the sky. It’s a unique structure. The first 12 storeys were offices and retail, topped by a two-storey penthouse where Burns lived. That’s right, he lived on top of his building, which had to be the most swinging penthouse in the city in 1912. Particularly since the top two floors of the office portion of the building were occupied by a private men’s club.

The Commercial Club is long gone, but traces of it remain in the oak paneling and elaborate plaster ceiling of parts of the 11th and 12th floors. A law office now occupies Burns’s old apartment, where he died of a heart attack on June 19, 1933. Many towers of the time had special features to attract clients — the World (Sun) Tower had a cupola on top, the Dominion Building had a mansard roof, the second Hotel Vancouver had buffalo head gargoyles.

Burns decided to put a three storey-high clock tower at the top of his building. The clock face is 21 feet in diameter, was made of sand-blasted glass, and weighed two tons when it was installed. In 1927, the familiar red and blue neon was added. For many years, the clock was topped by neon signs for three gas companies, “76” (Union Oil), Shell and B/A (British-American).

The inside of the clock is a big open space, only occupied by the small motor that runs the clock and a stairway that goes to the roof.
“They filmed the last Mission Impossible here, with Tom Cruise,” Rahal relates with a laugh. “I was so excited, I took my kid to the movie. (But) it was about four seconds of someone running down the stairs (inside the clock tower), and that was it. It was
supposed to be some building in Budapest.”

Burns also had an observation space up top where he installed a “long-distance telescope” so visitors “can see the ships that come through the Straits of Juan de Fuca.” It had a commanding view, because the Vancouver Block was built at the highest point of land downtown. The exterior was clad in 13,000 cubic feet of “ornamental” terra cotta, and the floors were terrazzo, “with Belgian and Tennessee marble border.” The corridors had Italian marble walls.

Over the years, though, much of the original opulence was covered up. Equitable has spent “millions” bringing the building back to its original design, including restoring the entrance to its full 20-foot height, with a coffered ceiling and marble everywhere you look. There’s even a vintage bronze mailbox that reads “Royal Mail Canada,” the name of the post office a century ago.

The Rogers Building has a Royal Mail Canada mailbox as well, and it’s still in use. The building is currently being restored back to its original look, floor by floor. “They covered this really nice travertine marble floor with asbestos-laden tiles,” notes Rahal. “Someone thought that was an upgrade, years ago.” Like the Vancouver Block, the offices in the Rogers Building have a lot of character — lots of wood, high ceilings, windows that open. The 10-storey building was designed by Augustus W. Gould and Robert S. Wood, cost $600,000 to build, and has impeccable provenance — it was built by Jonathan Rogers, a Welsh immigrant who arrived on the first Canadian Pacific passenger train to reach Vancouver on May 23, 1887.

Rogers made a fortune in the construction business, and was a longtime member of the Vancouver park board. When he died in 1945, he left $100,000 to the city to purchase land for what became Jonathan Rogers Park at 8th and Columbia. He was also instrumental in keeping the fledgling city afloat during an economic depression in the 1890s. “In 1894 they had a town hall meeting, and they were going to roll up the sidewalks,” says heritage expert Don Luxton. “Everybody was going to leave town, because everything had troughed after the railway came, the economy tanked. They had a town hall meeting, and Rogers announced ‘I’m going to stay.’ “So he built his first building, which is where the Cannabis Cafe is (on Hastings). Then he built several other buildings, and then he built this one.”

Luxton’s office is in the Rogers building, which is located at the northeast corner of Granville and Pender. “It’s the perfect location,” he says. “We’re in the heart of Vancouver, and it has beautiful details and character — it’s one of the fantastic buildings from the Edwardian era in Vancouver.”

You could say that about Equitable’s apartments, as well. The 28 structures were built between 1908 and 1957, and contain about 560 suites. (There are about 400 offices in Equitable’s four office buildings.) “The residential component is primarily three-storey walkups,” says Rahal. “The benefits of those types of buildings (is that they’re) primarily without elevators, and were cost-effective to operate.”

The apartment blocks have been kept in mint shape. The Oxford (1585 West 15th) has a unique curved stained glass arch over the entrance; the neighbouring Madrona (1575 West 15th) still has its original wall sconces in the halls. Willingdon Lodge has little doors where the original tenants would have put their shoes at night, so they could be shined by morning.

All feature spacious one- and two-bedroom suites, with amenities like hardwood floors and fireplaces. And many have tenants that stay for decades. “(Hecht) chose strategic locations — South Granville, Kitsilano, West End west of Denman, Cambie,” says Rahal. “These are all very desirable neighbourhoods, hence over the years on the residential side we’ve virtually had zero vacancy forever.”

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