The giant red “W” atop Woodwards in Vancouver is make a reappearance tonight as it will be lit up for the first time in a decade.
Woodward’s means far more to Vancouver than simply being a defunct department store. Founded by Charles A. Woodward, he opened his first store in Vancouver on Main Street in 1891. In 1903 it moved and expanded to Hastings & Abbott. This Woodward’s building was indeed a fantastic department store complete with the famous “Food Floor” in the basement, it was the first self-serve food department on the continent. “In a day when grocery stores were small, this gigantic emporium was—the right word—exciting” (source).
It was the first major department store in BC to open for business on Sundays and of course what long-time Vancouverite doesn’t remember the $1.49 Day jingle. The first Tuesday of every month was known as $1.49 Day with store-wide deals for shoppers.
The bright red “W” perched on an Eiffel Tower replica atop the store would act as a beacon for retail shoppers. It guided them in around Christmas time as it soon became tradition for families to come downtown just to peer through the frost-dusted holiday window displays. The “W” was as much of the Vancouver skyline as the old Sun Tower and the North Shore mountains.
In 1993 the Woodward’s chain went bankrupt. Across the Lower Mainland Woodward’s stores turned into The Bay or Zellers stores and the iconic flagship location in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver fell into disrepair. For years it stood untouched, boarded up, and in the middle of a “what do we do with this space now” type of battle. Eventually, squatters moved in — they needed shelter and housing and this building was one mighty appealing location for a base camp. In 2003 the City purchased the building from the Province and the wheels started turning.
The building was emptied and demolished in 2006, leaving only a facade of the old structure standing on the corner of Abbott and Hastings Streets. What has been in the making over the last decade isn’t just a building, it’s a community – with Woodward’s at the centre.
The new $400 million Woodward’s project includes 536 housing units, 125 non-market housing units (operated by PHS Community Services), 75 family non-market housing units (operated by Affordable Housing Services), Nesters Food Store (who reintroduced $1.49 day recently), London Drugs, and The National Film Board of Canada. There is also a community plaza, and the Simon Fraser University downtown campus with the School for Contemporary Arts.
The W2 Community Media Arts Centre will also take up shop in the community and act as a centre for communication and arts for the Downtown Eastside, “to produce and present new works of artistic significance and social benefit; to empower individuals and communities (young and old alike); and to engage with technology and interdisciplinary artists as producers rather than consumers.”
The Woodward’s “W” rose to the centre of the development last week and this evening it will be lit up once again. It’s no longer a sign of retail and commerce, it’s a throwback to our City’s past, with a hope for tomorrow — building a sustainable community that is already vibrant and ready to shine in its own right.
The lighting of the “W” will take place tonight between 6:05pm and 6:15pm with help from the Bladerunners. Public can come by the Woodward’s plaza or you can catch a glimpse where you can from around Vancouver. The ceremony will also be broadcast live on several local news stations.
For more history, this great little video by the City of Vancouver explains the sort of ‘love affair’ the city has had with a department store.
Update: I stopped by the lighting this evening and took some photos. The inner plaza at Woodward’s was abuzz with performers, media, and people waiting for the monumental flick of the switch on the “W”. I’m trying to look up the name of the funky marching band – they really reminded my of the band we saw at Surrey’s Winterfest last year (March Forth) but with a much more Vancouver Eastside flare. Update: Thanks to the comments I received on the post, the band is the Carnival Band.
I think it’s really sweet that not only is the new complex located at 149 West Hastings (a tribute to $1.49 Day) but Nester’s Market also include the Woodward’s Food Floor in its logo.
This woman was there with her son, a filmmaker who once used the Woodward’s “W” as a prop in a movie he made. She brought it along for the event and was very proud to show it off, including the hole in the letter where a bowling ball (propelled at a high velocity) went crashing through.
Before the lighting, Chief Ian Campbell performed a beautiful blessing with other members of the Squamish First Nation. They granted permission for Woodward’s to be built on this land and so it was important to have them participate in this ceremony.
Staring up at the Stan Douglas installation Abbott & Cordova, which can be viewed inside or outside at the plaza, the crowd counted down from 10 before clapping the “W” to life.
The new Woodward’s complex is truly a part of our City’s history especially when it comes to community building and nurturing the arts. It’s funky, artsy, it pushes a few envelopes (and maybe a few buttons) but It’s just amazing to see it all come back to life.