Mr. Arthur Julius Bird (1875 – 1967): architect for Blenheim Court
Mr. Bird was born in Bradford, England; was apprenticed and architect to Edward Burgess, distinguished architect, in London until 1903; as an architect until 1906, with J. Alfred Gotch, architect, architectural historian and President of the RIBA; and, as a partner with Boucher & Bird, until he emigrated with this new bride, Alice Wills, to Canada, Vancouver in 1907.
Once in Vancouver, he began a prolific career incorporating many ‘modern’ building innovations and techniques, such as the multi-storey apartment building with the “H” plan in Trafalgar Mansions (1910), Blenheim Court (1910) and Washington Court (1911) in the West End.
Mr. Bird’s pre-war list of buildings was substantial and included many notable examples, such as: Fire Hall No. 6 (1907), Nelson and Nicola; Lee Building (1910), Broadway and Main; Lotus Hotel (1912), Abbott and Pender; and, numerous apartments and commercial buildings throughout the City. The pre-war period in Vancouver experienced a building boom, with Mr. Bird a prominent player in that boom.
Mr. Bird enlisted in 1914 to 1918 in the Great War, and survived, to return to Vancouver, and take the position of City Architect and Builder (for Vancouver) from 1919 until 1933, when the position was closed. After that time Mr. Bird and his wife returned to England, where he served the London County Council and the War Damage Commission, and upon retirement, he returned to Victoria in 1959, until his death in 1967.
In his post war service as City Architect, Mr. Bird was involved in the design of numerous and varied civic buildings including: the Isolation Hospital (1925) and Maternity Ward (1927) at Vancouver General Hospital; Livestock Pavilion (1927) at Hasting Park Exhibition Grounds; Fire Hall No. 16 (1927), False Creek; and, the City Morgue & Coroner’s Court (1932), East Cordova Street.
The West End Context – The West End Prior To The Great War: A Relatively New Form of Densification in the New World
Blenheim Court, 1910, 1209 Jervis Street, for Mr. John A. Seabold, Esq.; and Holly Lodge Apartments, 1910, 1210 Jervis Street, by Wright, Rushforth and Cahill architects, formed an ‘anchor’ of a new apartment prototypes for the West End, at Davie and Jervis Streets, when they were both built, (see Illus. 1.) – in what appears to be within two years of each other.
Both of these new “H” form apartments created new residential rental building forms which ‘internalized’ exterior yards to create courts, and significantly increased their perimeters. This new model floor plan, for this city, significantly increased the amount of natural light to the building’s interior, which in turn, allowed for an increased number of residential units/residential density on a given lot. In comparison, Blenheim Court’s three-storey plus basement massing provided superior natural light to all of its units over Holly Lodge’s six storey plus basement massing.
The original Blenheim Court plan had a mixed residential programme of 33 one-bedroom units and 9 sleeping units. This 1910 project had 27 one-bedroom units with both a parlour and dining room; and, the remaining six with a living room. Fifteen of the one-bedroom units also had small exterior balconies. Strategically located “lightwells” distributed over the floor plan also insured every bathroom, and some interior hallways, in Blenheim Court, received indirect natural light and natural ventilation.
Currently, Blenheim Court has 45 self-contained dwelling units, comprised of a variety of units with: 15 three-bedroom units; 21 two-bedroom units; and nine one-bedroom plus den units. The current plan maintains the spacious internal 6 ft 6 in. wide corridor from the original building.
An examination of the 1912 Goad’s Atlas Map, (see Illus. 2.), for the West End indicates no “H” shaped apartment plans within a 20 block area between Thurlow and Broughton Streets (east/west); and, Nelson and Beach Avenue (north/south), except for the “H” plans of Blenheim Court and Holly Lodge. Reference to the aerial photo, (see Illus. 3.), (circa 1920’s) looking west along Davie offers further confirmation of the general 2 to 2 ½ storey wood frame, and heavily treed, character of the West End after WW I. This photo also confirms the major densification and built form departure of Blenheim Court and Holly Lodge from its neighbours – a full decade earlier than this photo.
Blenheim Court and Holly Lodge with their “H” plans; granite/sandstone foundations; and brick walls created a new form of high density residential development in this young city – barely 24 years old. Further, Blenheim Court’s combination of large and medium-sized self-contained units, and small sleeping units brought together residential uses that would generally comprise separate buildings, i.e. boarding houses and apartments, throughout the district.
Vancouver and the West End were experiencing new forms of development and densification in a development boom – just prior to WWI. Along with the War, came a domestic recession; and, it was not until well after WWI that new projects once again came forward, to reflect the ambition of Blenheim Court and Holly Lodge.
CDE: Character Defining Elements
Blenheim’s Historic Reference:
Blenheim Court may be taken as a variation on Blenheim Palace and its Court — whose grounds were presented to the Duke of Malborough by Queen Anne, after the English victory in the Battle of Blenheim in Germany, 1704. Important features of the Palace are its Great Court; significant assymetrical ornamental garden; significant collection of tapestries; and, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
Current Heritage Registry Status:
Blenheim Court was built at the close of the reign of Edward VII, (1901 – 1910). It is currently listed on the “Vancouver Heritage Register” as a “B” building. The “B” classification is defined as: “B” – Significant “Represents good examples of a particular style or type, either individually or collectively; may have some documented historical or cultural significance in a neighbourhood.”
General Construction Features:
The original 1910 building was a three-storey plus basement heavy timber structure – with granite foundations projecting above grade around a partially excavated basement. The exterior of the building consists of a brick façade with wood sash and frame windows with granite sills – including a series of major bay windows (i.e. ‘oriel’ windows) on the second and third storeys on three public and semi-public sides; and, a prominent top cornice with a major projecting eaves and soffit, with significant dentils/brackets.
CDE: Massing – the “H” plan & the Entry Court
The “H” plan was not common in this period in the West End; and, the development of two “H” plan buildings literally across the street from each other, i.e. Blenheim Court and Holly Lodge, 1910 to 1912, must be seen as bold move in terms of densification of the West End.
Blenheim’s 21 foot wide entry court and granite stairs and balustrades, (see Illus. 4.), provide an impressive sense of arrival, then and now. The three-storey massing maintains a semi-private character while still allowing direct mid-day light into the court. The balance between direct light and degree of enclosure achieved in Blenheim Court can readily be lost – as occurs in the six storey court in Holly Lodge across the street.
CDE: the Walls
The exterior consists of three storey brick façade for the ‘high profile’ facades, i.e. Jervis and Davie Streets, and, painted stucco for the ‘low profile’ facades, i.e. the lane and interior lot sides. A granite foundation wall, (see Illus. 5.), of variable height, forms a ‘base’ around the building. The basement consists of fully and partially excavated areas – with the 1910 plan indicating partial excavation in a portion of the ‘west leg’ excavated for a janitor’s office and residence, and service uses, such as laundry, storage and heating. Since that time, the entire ‘west leg’ has been fully excavated.
The structural status of the foundation wall, and existence of footings, if any, remains to be determined. Signs of stress and wear on the granite foundation walls and brick facing; and, on the original heavy timbers, in the basement, supporting the building, are evident.
CDE: the Top Parapet with its Cornice/Eaves
The ‘public’/’high profile’ side of the building – Jervis and Davie Street – has a significant top cornice with a major eaves projection, (of some 24 in. to 30 in.) complete with dentils/brackets, (see Illus. 4.).
The ‘private’/’low profile’ side of the building – the lane and interior property line – does not have the cornice and soffit detailing – but only a flashing cap. The original 1910 drawings confirm this difference in the ‘high profile’ versus ‘low profile’ roof parapet treatment.
CDE: the Windows & Bay Windows (i.e. oriel windows)
The original wood window frames and sashes throughout the building remain in various states of repair. All glazing is single pane and restoration appears technically possible; however, financially undetermined, at this point. The steel lintels over each window are also in various states of repair – with some requiring significant attention, and expense.
The extensive use of 15 projecting bay windows/floor, i.e. oriel windows, (see Illus. 6.), offers much street ‘charm’, with these human scale elements providing much visual interest. These architectural ‘features’ are located on the second and third storeys, nine times for a ‘dining room’ and six times for a ‘bedroom’. These bays soften the building’s massing profile; and, greatly improve the liveability of the affected units.
In consideration of the high ‘profile’ status of Jervis and Davie Street – the bay windows have recessed panel detailing of wood and metal — conversely, the bays on the ‘low’ profile sides, i.e. the lane and interior court elevations, off the interior property line, have no such detailing.
CDE: “High Profile” Street Treatment versus
“Low Profile” Lane/Interior Property Line Treatment
Blenheim Court maintained a sharp pencil with costs relative to the location and amount of high quality materials and detailing.
The ‘high profile’/highly visible’ Jervis and Davie Street elevations were faced with brick; had recessed panel detailing on their projecting bays; and, had elaborate cornice and eave/dentil treatment to their roof parapets.
Alternatively, the lane and interior property line elevations were finished with stucco; no recessed panel detailing on their window bays ; and, simple flashing caps for their roof parapets.
Blenheim Court is an example of a low rise building replacing side yards with interior court yards. This innovative densification exercise, at the time, in the newly formed West End district created zero property line massing on three sides, that was architecturally mitigated with high quality materials, i.e. a granite base and brick body; use of architectural bay windows; and, use of a significant cornice and projecting eaves.
This massing approach — importing an old world court yard model to a ‘boom’ town only 24 year old – provided a three storey plus basement building over 2.5 fsr; and, a variety of large and medium sized self-contained dwelling units and sleeping units, all with ample natural light and air.
On its first century anniversary, since its construction, Blenheim Court remains a valuable heritage resource in this city for its innovative densification; property-line massing, creatively softened with architectural detailing, (see Illus. 7.), and bay windows; and, mixed residential programme. This building is an early example of one of a series of pre-WWI market buildings by Mr. Arthur Bird, English architect, and soon to be City Architect and Builder, for the City of Vancouver.