Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Lower Mainland Region: Customs Examining Warehouse

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

While many locals and tourists can spot the distinctive clock tower of Vancouver’s former post office at Hastings and Granville, few step around the corner to see the classically inspired architecture of the Customs Examining Warehouse on Howe Street.

Black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the Customs Examining Warehouse in Vancouver, B.C. There is a wooden sidewalk in the foreground, and horse-drawn carts are delivering goods to the building entrance.

Examining [or Customs] Warehouse, Vancouver, B.C. (a046650-v8)

In the boom years leading up to the First World War, increasing trade led to the need for more substantial customs warehouse facilities in cities across Canada. In 1908, the federal government approved the purchase of a Vancouver warehouse site for $75,000. Located on the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, the building served as an annex to the post office. It is one of four federally owned buildings on the site.

Document outlining the decision to purchase land to build an examining warehouse in Vancouver. The document is signed by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.

1908 Order in Council to purchase a site for an examining warehouse in Vancouver (e010701436 )

As one of eight new customs houses built across the country, the Vancouver warehouse shared many design elements with counterparts in Montréal, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Port Arthur. Public Works Chief Architect and his team selected a classically inspired façade with a rusticated stone base, rectangular windows, a heavy cornice at the roofline, and ornamental brick pilasters to give the appearance of supporting columns. Constructed from 1911 to 1913, the building was also one of the first structures in Vancouver to use modern steel framing and reinforced concrete floors.

Black-and-white photograph showing the construction of the Customs Examining Warehouse in Vancouver. The lower section has a stone exterior, and the upper section has a steel structure and unfinished brickwork.

The Examining [or Customs] Warehouse [under construction], Vancouver, August 5, 1912 (a046662-v8 )

In 1983, the federal government formally recognized the Customs Examining Warehouse as a heritage structure, along with the adjoining Post Office, Winch Building and Federal Building. The Department of Public Works then began an ambitious conservation project, connecting all four buildings with a glass atrium. Completed in time for Expo 86, the complex is now known as Sinclair Centre, in honour of politician and businessperson James Sinclair (1908–1984). Sinclair Centre currently houses several federal government offices and many retail shops and businesses.

This marks the end of our series highlighting early infrastructure in British Columbia. While federal infrastructure projects varied according to the needs of the diverse geographical areas of B.C., increasing settlement was often the impetus for these expanded federal services. This settlement and accompanying federal infrastructure led to significant and continuing impacts on local First Nations and Métis communities. It also changed the landscape of towns, cities and rural areas across the province. Explore Library and Archives Canada’s extensive collections to discover more about how B.C. has transformed over the 150 years since joining Confederation.

Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

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