These old walls can’t quite talk, so we’re proud to do it for them. (More photos in our Gallery)Built between 1895 and 1898 in the Edwardian style by architect William Blackmore (and formally recognized on the list of Canada’s Historic Places in 2003), we began as the Commercial Hotel, a tasteful, middle-class traveller’s hotel – quickly accessible from the docks and the train station – flourishing in the early years of the Gold Rush. A sleek silver cream jug, stamped with the year 1898 and the name Commercial Hotel, heralds our unquestionably grand opening and hints at the level of service at the time. Cambie and Hastings was the business centre of Vancouver in those days, bustling with the frontier spirit of the Klondike, buoyed by the promise of an intercontinental railway and the glamour it might bring (including a visit from the Duke and Duchess of York and Cornwall in 1901, celebrated right in our front yard opposite the courthouse that used to be there). With so many shopkeepers setting up in Gastown, and the convenience of streetcars and the Inter-Urban rail connecting settlements in Burnaby and New West, the whole area seemed to be thriving. So striking in our earliest photos, the ornate, “Commercial Hotel”-inscribed cornice and the rooftop flagpole that once capped our building are both sadly gone, as is the splendour of the original entrance to our ground floor, depicted in photos from the early 20th century (above), and set back amid bay windows under magnificent arches and Richardsonian Romanesque columns. The entrance and the staircase to the basement (where supplies were received and guests’ horses were stabled via the alley) were renovated sometime after 1921, but not fully enclosed until much later. By the 1930s, a new sign had been added, and it would be the last time the arches across the front facade are fully visible, with the current marquee making its first appearance in 1940. Doors were added separating the gentlemen’s beer parlour and the ladies hotel entrance, and over the years the building is said to have had both a cafe and public baths, as well as a tobacconist, the latter clearly visible on the right in several photos including the one below, taken in 1946. Also worth noting is the constant presence of the tiny Rose Brothers barber shop to the right next to the Flack Block.
Of course, the veneer of decorum in some of the early photos conceals decades’ worth of secrets. From the rumoured cockfighting pit in our basement, to a dumbwaiter and side entrance tucked away from the glare of streetcars turning down Cambie, plenty of hints suggest the subterranean space (which now serves as humble bar storage) has had a torrid past as a thriving speakeasy in a city that blossomed as a result of liquor profiteering off the nearby United States. But even when prohibition was lifted, the depression ground the tourist trade to a halt, and the hotel’s sleekness began to dull and minor face-lifts did little to jump start a sputtering boom trend.
Even in the post-war years, after the boys came home and the city came awake to greet them, the streetcars and Inter-Urban were being mothballed and land prices had begun to send people moving to the suburbs in droves.By 1955, the ornate iron gates that fronted the hotel were removed from the front vestibule, but the facade and the marquee still remained the same, with just a few minor cosmetic changes. Vancouver’s famous mid-century candid photographic artist, Fred Herzog, captured a lonely occupant in 1966 staring out from behind the Commercial Hotel’s unfortunate brown-and-yellow marquee signage, in a photo that seems a long way from that antique silver milk jug long since discontinued from the room service trays.
The Commercial Hotel lasted until October of 1973, when a fire upstairs in a fourth floor washroom (later deemed arson) claimed the lives of five male residents, including, heartbreakingly, 40-year-old Walter Wolanek, a part-time waiter in the hotel’s beer parlour. Essential new sprinkler by-laws in the city went into effect as a direct result of the headline-making tragedy, and amid all the pressure, the hotel’s owner either sold the property or dissolved the business, allowing the new management the opportunity to move in an entirely new direction.
At some point in the mid-to-late 1970s – before Vancouver’s heritage preservation movement started gathering civic steam – a well-intentioned (if somewhat clumsy) renovation swallowed up much of the beauty of the elegant columns at the front entrance.
That major refit of the building also moved the hotel entrance over to the former Rose Brothers barber shop, and repurposed the old hotel entrance into our front room – used then, as now for pinball. We assume this is when they added ’70s glass brick over the original windows, still visible via the alley, and brought in many of the details inside the main room, including the kitschy mezzanine level that’s still home to much of our audio/visual hardware.
At this time, the hotel upstairs was also treated to a campy, Spanish-inspired makeover that featured crushed-velvet wallpaper and heart-shaped waterbeds. Re-named the El Cid, they decided to cater openly to swingers, offering triple-X movie channels in the rooms, and in this spirit of excess, the basement was turned into a steakhouse. One patron remembers being wowed by the presence of a “grand” fountain in the middle of the main floor bar, re-named the Pancho Villa Pub. After selling the property, the colourful owner moved to Whistler and continues to keep the community talking. Some time afterwards, we became the Churchill Arms Pub, but at this time, little evidence remains of that era, save for the sign attached to the front of our building.
In 1987, perhaps bowing to some public pressure, but mainly to capitalize on the proximity to Expo 86’s newly constructed BC Place, The Churchill Arms and the infamous El Cid became the Stadium Inn, then after the owner sold the hotel to the to the city as non-market housing (which closed permanently a few years later), the Stadium was followed by a brief but memorably surreal pre-millennium era as The Element Pub, whose sombre grey decor and King Arthur theme included costumed mannequins seated at tables up along the mezzanine, presumably to create the illusion that not only could people have fun up there, but they could have fun in another time period.
In 2003, friends at the now-defunct Nerve Magazine and Night Creature Productions took over promotion of live music at the venue, and shortly afterwards it was rebranded as Pub 340, a welcome venue for local fans of independent, underground music. Initially limited to a punk and heavier rock focus, our current management’s respect for the challenges of the increased population density in the Woodwards District means that we’ve expanded to include a wider variety of live performances every week, including Open Mic, Sunday Afternoon Jam, Karaoke and Monthly Techno DJs, allowing us to welcome the full spectrum of voices in our amazingly creative community.
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– Researched & compiled by Heather Watson