The demolishers are down to the last few remaining bricks of the Pantages Theatre. By the end of this month, Western Canada's oldest vaudeville theatre should be nothing more than an empty lot.
Owner Marc Williams couldn't find a way to save the theatre, which was built in 1907 and fell into disrepair from water damage within the last decade. But more than 90 per cent of the Pantages Theatre at 152 E. Hastings has been saved as material, because Mr. Williams chose to recycle the building, quite literally, brick by brick.
Because of the cost and the time it takes, it is rare that an old building is demolished without the rubble going to the landfill. The Pantages has taken about eight months to demolish because it is being salvaged by hand, and that's only because Mr. Williams is not in a rush to build anything new.
"It costs a little bit more, it's a slower process, but on the other side of things, it won't go to the landfill, and we do get money back from the materials," Mr. Williams says. "And we are going through the development process right now, so the timing works for us. We don't have to have it down tomorrow. Why not take advantage of that and re-use as much of the material as possible?"
The other three buildings on the site are completely gone, and the lot has become a dumping ground for the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, filled with syringes, beer cans and garbage.
The theatre was one of Seattle-based mogul Alexander Pantages's chain of vaudeville theatres, built in the heyday of vaudeville. Its location was in the heart of what was then Vancouver's downtown, around the corner from the old city hall. The theatre switched touring performances every week, with shows moving between cities around North America. It was such a successful theatre that Pantages opened a second, more opulent one, a little further west on Hastings. That theatre was torn down in the mid-1960s.
On a recent visit to the demolition site, a crew stood high on scaffolding, dismantling what's left of the Pantages front wall, and throwing bricks down a chute to the ground. Later, the bricks-cleaning crew – residents from the area that demolition chief Ron Bates hires daily – will chip off the old mortar with hammers and stack them onto pallets.
The crew will have recovered 750,000 bricks, and most will go to a developer who is using them for interior walls on an Annacis Island project. The buyer wanted the 104-year-old, bright orange bricks because the old ones are a particular colour that can't be replicated with modern technology.
The old-growth timbers were also sold off, and the broken bricks will become road base. Hardly anything goes to waste.
Mr. Bates, owner of Tham Demolition, has made a 28-year career out of salvaging material from his projects – enough, he says, to fill more than 10 football fields. If, like most every other old building that is razed in Vancouver, the Pantages had gone to the landfill, it would have filled 300 dump trucks. He points to the small pile of rubble that will go to the landfill instead. It will only fill about 30 trucks.
"I wish more and more people were doing the same. Here I'm trying to do my part for the environment for the last 28 years, but a lot of companies will smash buildings down and they don't care. They throw it in the landfill. Goodbye Charlie, and it's gone."
Mr. Bates's profession has also fuelled his own passion for collecting found treasures. Along the way, he has found gold coins, a Nazi dagger with built-in poison vial for suicide, and the hangman's hood from Oakalla Prison. He also has a big painting of The Last Supper that was painted by an Oakalla inmate, circa 1937. If he's a hoarder, he says, he's a well-focused and organized one.
He has sold bricks salvaged from an old Wosk's store on West Hastings to Microsoft founder Paul Allen, as well as Douglas fir timbers to Bill Gates, for their Washington homes.
Because it was so dilapidated, there was little to recover from the Pantages' interior. Private collector Robert McNutt purchased a "van load" of plaster, including 30 sections from the proscenium and a small balcony. Mr. Bates recovered some terra cotta from one of the other buildings.
"It's a certain person looking for this stuff," Mr. Bates says. "It's not your average Rona guy. These guys appreciate the material."
There have been challenges along the way. Mr. Bates's tools and generators were stolen. Everything on site that contains copper and aluminum, which can be resold, has been stripped. Area protesters held up demolition for a few days last summer.
The Pantages, including three lots next to it, will become 79 units of affordable housing, 18 units of social housing, and an arts centre. The new development will be called Sequel 138, a reference to Mr. Williams's failed effort to save the building and come up with a new plan.
Special to The Globe and Mail