June 13, 2024

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Balmoral Hotel neon sign may be preserved after building demolished

Distinctive curving sign is four-storeys high and features red-and-green neon.

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The Balmoral Hotel was one of Vancouver’s most notorious SROs before the City of Vancouver closed it down in 2017. Now owned by the city, the building has deteriorated so badly that Vancouver has decided to tear it down, rather than rebuild it.

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But it once was a very elegant structure, with one of Vancouver’s tallest and most striking neon signs. The four-storey-high sign is looking as rough as the building — the paint is peeling off its metal facing, and its neon hasn’t been turned on in years.

But neon expert John Atkin says the sign is still intact, and hopes it can be saved and resurrected on whatever building replaces the Balmoral at 159 East Hastings St.

“I think it’s a piece of public art now, and the new building should remember the Balmoral,” said Atkin. “The Balmoral has a history to it, it’s part of the street.”

Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry concurs.

“I’ve got this great Ian Tiles silkscreen print of a gig by (the late western swing singer) Ray Condo at the Balmoral in my kitchen,” said Fry.

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“It’s an iconic Vancouver sign, and is definitely worth preserving. That building also has a really complicated history that needs to be acknowledged.”

The Balmoral Hotel sign at 159 East Hastings St.
The Balmoral Hotel sign at 159 East Hastings St. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

The Ray Condo poster features an illustration of Condo in front of the sign, which has unique lines.

“It starts at the top and flips out in a bit of a curve away from the building, comes into the building and then curls up and around the clock (at the bottom),” said Atkin. “It’s just a really nice piece of graphic design. This was designed in the early 1930s, and you’re right in that period of art deco with those sorts of curvy motifs.”

It’s an artistic design, because many of the neon sign-makers from the 1930s through the 1960s were artists.

“They had gone to art school, and many of them came out of the sign-painting industry,” said Atkin. “I think that’s reflected in the quality and design of these signs.”

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The current Balmoral sign is probably the second or third one on the building. When a bomb went off at the Royal Theatre across Hastings on March 20, 1933, the Balmoral’s windows and façade were damaged. No one has an exact date for the current sign, but it may have been a replacement for the one damaged in the bomb blast.

Neon came in Vancouver in 1928, and within a few years businesses were building giant, imaginative signs to lure in customers.

“Hastings Street was one of the main routes into town,” said Atkin. “It was the main streetcar route, and the route for the Interurban trains going down the station at Carrall and Hastings (streets). These signs were meant to attract your eye: ‘Look at me, look at me!’

“This thing is huge, what is it, four storeys? I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s important. If you look at the Hotel Patricia, the Astoria, the Save-on-Meats (neon signs still on Hastings), these are four-, five-, six-storey signs. These are giant chunks of public art. They need to be preserved.”

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Exterior of the Hotel Balmoral, between 1940 and 1948.
Exterior of the Hotel Balmoral, between 1940 and 1948.

Another factor that makes the Balmoral sign stand out is that it’s outlined with incandescent light bulbs, which were often used to illuminate signs pre-neon. The sign also had vivid colours, ruby red letters for Balmoral, a green ring around the clock at the bottom.

In an email, the city said the demolition plan for the Balmoral “includes heritage considerations such as the preservation of the historic Balmoral sign.” There is no date set for the demolition, which “will be complex,” given its location on a busy stretch of Hastings in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.

The nine-storey Balmoral Hotel opened in September 1912, when Vancouver’s downtown was still on Hastings. It was designed by Parr and Fee architects, and had a big beer parlour on the first floor that may have had a mural at one point.

“There has been a very persistent rumour about Emily Carr (painting) something in the lobby or beer parlour of the Balmoral,” said Atkin. “It’s one of those urban myths or legends you can’t seem to find anything about.”

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The Balmoral Hotel when it had a smaller, pre-neon sign, circa 1926.
The Balmoral Hotel when it had a smaller, pre-neon sign, circa 1926.
A Ray Condo poster for a show at the Balmoral Hotel beer parlour uses the Balmoral’s sign, 2004.
A Ray Condo poster for a show at the Balmoral Hotel beer parlour uses the Balmoral’s sign, 2004. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

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