masonry, stone, brick, chimneys

New Life on Hastings Street

Hand-carved stonework revitalizes Vancouver’s historic Flack Block.

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By Nicole V. Gagné
In the late 1890s, the Canadian city of Vancouver, British Columbia, was transformed by the frantic activity of the Klondike gold rush. Settled only in the 1860s, Vancouver was conveniently located north of Seattle, WA, and soon became a valuable locus for the supplies and transportation arrangements needed by prospectors who were headed for the Yukon. The expansion of mercantile trade vitalized Vancouver, and building construction boomed in these years.

In April of 2008, the carved-stone phase of the restoration of Vancouver’s Flack Block was successfully completed. The artisans of Architectural Stone Masonry hand carved approximately 80,000 lbs. of limestone to re-create this historic entry, an arresting display of fierce griffins, sage faces and elaborate ornamentation. The original entry had been carved in sandstone and first saw the light of day with the building’s construction in 1899-1900; but the material weathered badly, and the entire entry was torn off the facade more than half a century ago. All photos: courtesy of Architectural Stone Masonry

One of the most prominent commercial locales in turn-of-the-century Vancouver was Hastings Street, and one of its largest and most noteworthy commercial structures was the Flack Block. Named after Thomas Flack – one of the lucky ones who really did build up a fortune in the gold fields of Alaska – the Flack Block was designed in 1898 and constructed in 1899-1900. Its architect, William Blackmore (1842-1904), ranked among Vancouver’s most respected and prolific practitioners of the era.

Alas, much of his work was razed in 20th-century redevelopments throughout the city. Today, one of the most significant of Blackmore’s standing commissions is the Flack Block – envisioned by the architect as an impressive structure in the Romanesque Revival commercial style, with a rough-dressed stone facade, round-arched windows and twinned columns. Its crowning glory was a massive 20-ft. sandstone arch at its entry, emblazoned with the building’s name and number. Based on heavy twin pediments, the arch was further distinguished with a pair of relief-sculpture griffins at its outer corners, gargoyle faces in the pediments and other intricate and detailed carved-stone ornamentation.

A Blackmore building in this style summed up the qualities of corporate might and stability, which were admired by the city’s late-Victorian population. It helped define the character of Vancouver’s profitable, forward-looking commercial districts, Gastown and Victory Square, and promoted further commercial development. Overlooking Victory Square, the building also welcomed an array of professional tenants, from lawyers and brokers to doctors and dentists, as well as several ground-floor retail tenants.

Hastings Street was prized as Vancouver’s primary commercial and shopping street until the first half of the 20th century, when the entire area began falling on hard times. The 1950s, besides writing finis to the district’s streetcar service, also ushered in the growth of new suburban shopping malls, and by the 1990s, Hastings Street was virtually devoid of retail life. All these unfortunate developments were reflected in the deteriorated face of the Flack Block. Sandstone tends to weather badly, and the building’s once commanding facade was showing its age by the late 20th century; worse, its mighty sculpted archway had been completely removed long before, leaving behind an unimpressive blank. The rest of the ground level had turned into a patchwork of inappropriate windows, doors, stucco cladding and other materials, as it was continually remodeled into the ground-floor storefronts of enterprises that ultimately failed.

Artisans in the Canadian workshop of Architectural Stone Masonry work on aspects of the re-created entry for Vancouver’s Flack Block. “It was all done by hand,” ASM founder Tony Rogac says. “No machine touched any of that stone.” The detail shows the careful hammer-and-chisel technique needed to produce an intricate, finely detailed ornamental piece.

Now the property of a new developer, the facade of the Flack Block is finally experiencing the careful and loving restoration it deserves, under the supervision of Vancouver’s Acton Ostry Architects, Inc., with Donald Luxton & Associates, also of Vancouver, as heritage consultants. Features from later periods have been removed, and surviving original elements preserved and restored. The entire structure also received a seismic upgrade and new building systems, and more office space was incorporated with the addition of a fifth floor (which follows the contour of the building and has a 9-ft. setback so as not to compromise the original facade). But just as the jewel in the Flack Block’s crown was its majestic archway, so, too, the outstanding feature of this massive restoration effort is the re-creation of the original carved stonework.

Atlantis Rausch Granite & Marble Installations, Ltd., of Richmond, BC, was brought in as masonry restoration contractor on the project, and when it saw the extent of the work that needed to be done, it turned to Architectural Stone Masonry (ASM) of Richmond and Abbotsford, BC, a firm of stone carvers established in England during the 1970s.

The original 20-ft. arch for the Flack Block bearing the building’s name was re-created in the workshop of Architectural Stone Masonry. The new arch, like all the rebuilt elements, was sculpted in Indiana grey limestone because the original sandstone quarry that had supplied the first arch and its carvings was exhausted years before. Divided into 15 sections and adorned with a lower ornamental arc, the arch will again become a defining feature of its Vancouver streetscape once it’s set in place.

ASM founder Tony Rogac recalls the condition of the Flack Block when they first started working on it: “The sandstone had weathered quite dramatically. A lot of the cornices had to be replaced, and the sandstone ashlar, which is split-face, had to be dressed back. It was a corner building, and being near the water, it had also suffered quite a bit from wind erosion. And, of course, the arch was no longer there. It was structural, and I think it had deteriorated to such a point that it probably became unsafe, so they took it down and replaced it by putting an I-beam in there. This was years ago, not the best time for restoration, and it was also in a more rundown part of town. That area is now being revitalized, but then there wouldn’t have been the urgency to put such an expensive piece of work back in there.”

Replacing the sandstone features of the Flack Block with the same materials was no longer an option. The Newcastle Island quarry that had originally supplied sandstone for the building had been tapped out, so a substitute material was selected. “All the new work that was put in is actually Indiana grey limestone,” Rogac says. “The Indiana grey is actually quite a good match for the existing sandstone and should weather better.”

Two large, complementary, hand-carved reliefs of griffins are about to spring back into life on the restored entry of Vancouver’s Flack Block. This photo gives an idea of the weight and size of these striking sculptures, which had to be elaborately anchored to the entry’s new and upgraded framing.

Of course, coming up with an acceptable match to the building’s original stonework becomes a lot tougher when no model exists. The solution lay in historic photos of the Flack Block in its glory days, but even this source had its limitations, according to Rogac. “Although they were small, the photographs we had were of such a high resolution that we were able to blow them up to quite an extent. But a lot of the details of the fine carving, we had to improvise.”

All those minute but essential details required a fair degree of improvising, which significantly complicated ASM’s initial phase of work on the project. “The drawings, getting everything to fit exactly as was originally intended, I think was the most difficult aspect of the work,” Rogac says. “Once they were done, we were able to proceed, but months of work went into the drawings. Previously, there was an architect’s set of drawings, and we had a semblance of some drawings from the architect, but we really had to start afresh from the photographs, along with some of the details given to us by the current architect who was responsible for the building. The task of getting all that together, with the anchoring details, too, that was hard; but once we got it all worked out, we could start to produce it.”

The building’s seismic upgrade required that the new ornamental stonework be clad around a steel frame, which entailed some complex anchoring details. As a result, the re-created entry for the Flack Block was installed not by ASM’s own team but by the masonry-restoration contracting firm of Atlantis Rausch Granite & Marble Installations, Ltd.

Then came the epic job of hand carving some 80,000 lbs. of stone. “The main emphasis of the carving was the replacement of the two pediments and the main archway. It was all done by hand,” Rogac says. “No machine touched any of that stone.” Although himself a master architectural stone carver, for once Rogac was able to put down his tools with this job. “I was more in a supervisory capacity, basically overseeing the project,” he says.

Slowly and surely the long-lost details were re-created. Two large and complimentary relief-carvings of snarling griffins took shape, and pairs of sage faces once again peered out from the entry’s heavily ornamented pediments.

Once the sculptures were completed, the installation of ASM’s work was turned over to others – an atypical aspect of the project for Rogac and his colleagues. “We’ve done all our previous installations but not on this building,” he says. “Its original construction had been more structural, but our new installation is clad around a steel frame to make it earthquake proof, and the anchoring details were actually more difficult. People had to go through, cladding every piece to a steel member, and so the installation was actually done by Atlantis Rausch. ASM were the carvers, and we were also there in a sort of supervisory capacity, to ensure that things went as intended. But there were really no surprises, because all the elements had been totally worked out before we got into it. And the general contractor, Haebler Construction [of Vancouver, BC], was quite generous with their time on this. We were working within a certain time schedule, but there was no pressure on us.”

The carved-stone phase of the restoration of the Flack Block’s facade was successfully completed in April 2008. The entry is once more charged with life, a display of fantastic animals, unexpected faces and lush ornamentation. “We are devoted to building enduring showpieces that are sources of pride,” Rogac says. “The end product of any of our projects involves far more than what can be seen with the eye.”

Had its entry not been restored, the Flack Block would never be able to reassert itself in the renewed commercial life of Hastings Street and enjoy again the role it had once played in Vancouver street life. It’s a legacy that truly does involve far more than they eye can see.

Click here for a list of stone carvers