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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 14

The B.C. Mills Prefabricated System: The Emergence of Ready-made Buildings in Western Canada

by G. E. Mills and D. W. Holdsworth

Commercial Applications and Distribution

The flexibility of the system lent itself to wider non-residential applications. B. C. Mills marketed a schoolhouse series, small one-room structures with optional bell towers which were sold in both Manitoba and British Columbia.1 Urban applications were made in Vancouver and New Westminster, the former employing them as portable classrooms to accommodate rapidly growing enrolments, and the New Westminster board commissioning one for administrative purposes. Several of the Vancouver buildings are still in use at the present time.

10 Schoolhouse design from 1805 catalogue. Multiple use of standard window sections provided light for the schoolroom. These structures were offered with or without the bell tower. (B.C. Mills, Catalogue of Patented Ready-made Houses [Vancouver, 1905].)

At least two churches were built from B. C. Mills panels in the Vancouver area. One, the Robertson Presbyterian Church in the city's east end, survives although a non-prefabricated front wing was later added to the original 1908 structure.

At Rock Bay, the headquarters of the B. C. Mills, Timber and Trading Company logging operations on the north end of Vancouver Island, two Townhouse Series houses were built. One served as the camp's hospital, run by the Victorian Order of Nurses (later moved to Union Bay, Vancouver Island). Several bunkhouses were also constructed from the panels at this location. A Settlers' Series hut was employed as the first post office at Ocean Falls, B. C. in 1908, while a similar structure served as part of the initial sanitorium complex at Kamloops, B.C.2

Just as Mahony's personal home was constructed to demonstrate the system's flexibility for residential use, the offices and outbuildings at the firm's mill sites in Vancouver became models to demonstrate its potential commercial applications. The main office of the B. C. Mills, Timber and Trading Company at the foot of Dunlevy Street on Vancouver's waterfront and the office at the Royal City Mill at the head of False Creek, both erected in 1905, were impressive hipped-roof structures with porticoed full verandahs. They were calculated to impress the public with "to what variety the sections may be put, and how any particular architecture may be carried out, without adherence to any one or two [standard] designs."3 A massive two-storey stable on the B.C. Mills site served similarly to demonstrate possible agricultural applications. Both the office and barn on this location long survived the company's demise. The barn remained intact until the summer of 1973 when it was destroyed by fire; the office remains a familiar landmark, having served successively as National Harbours Board office and Seaman's Mission.

11 Built in 1905 as the B.C. Mills Hasting Mill general office, this structure was possibly the most elegant example of the prefabricated system's potential. A similar building was erected at the firm's Royal City Planing Mills branch in Vancouver. (H. J. Boam, British Columbia: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources, Sells, London, 1914.)

12 The British Columbia Telephone Company exchange, Aldergrove, B.C., 30 miles east of Vancouver. The firm erected six prefab exchanges in Fraser Valley towns prior to 1910.

13 Refreshments room, Canadian Pacific Railway station, Mission City, B.C. (demolished). (British Columbia Provincial Archives.)

The adaptability of the system to commercial buildings was quickly exploited by a variety of firms. Artisans and shopkeepers employed slightly modified standard house designs for shops and offices. The British Columbia Telephone Company erected a half-dozen hipped-roof models in the Fraser Valley towns of Eburne, Ladner, Haney, Cloverdale, Aldergrove and Agassiz as local exchanges.4 The Canadian Pacific Railroad, the chief initial means of distributing the prefabs, is known to have purchased several for crew accommodation and maintenance facilities.5

Chartered banks were undoubtedly B.C. Mills' best commercial customers for prefabs. Banking in western Canada was a highly competitive and speculative field during the first decade of this century: competitive since the first bank to establish a branch in the suddenly emerging local distribution centres was likely to gain a monopoly on trade in the immediate region, and speculative due to the difficulty in determining which of the numerous instant towns being created by railroad expansion were likely to survive as viable communities. The dilemma for banks was one of erecting inexpensive structures in a minimum amount of time which nonetheless reflected an air of stability and security to potential investors. A building system such as that marketed by B. C. Mills offered an obvious solution.

14 a, The first prefab bank commissioned by the Canadian Bank of Commerce was this gambrel roofed structure, erected initially at Latchford, Ontario, but subsequently moved to Cobalt, Ontario, in November 1905. The building currently serves as the township office. (V. Ross, The History of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, Oxford Univ. Press, Toronto, 1922.) b, The walls of the same bank in place in the Royal City Planing Mills erecting shed, receiving the primary coat of paint. (B.C. Mills, Catalogue of Patented Ready-made Houses [Vancouver, 1905].)

Two firms. the Bank of Montreal and the Winnipeg-based Northern Bank, purchased a number of standard Townhouse Series prefabs as branch buildings and managers accommodations in towns in British Columbia.6 It was the Canadian Bank of Commerce, however, that most fully exploited the potential of the prefabs and made them enduring features of the western Canadian landscape. The bank initially experimented with a slightly modified gambrel-roofed Townhouse design for a branch in Cobalt, Ontario, erected in August 1905. It evidently satisfied its owners, who recalled the circumstances of its erection 17 years later.

Tar-papered shacks and log cabins sprang up all over the town like mushrooms during the night, and by January 1 there were possibly two hundred shacks. In the meantime a few nice buildings were being erected. In our case we imported a ready-made building from Vancouver, which proved to be, and still is, the most attractive in the town.7

15 Front elevation and section, from original building plans. Bank of Commerce, Bay and Douglas streets, Victoria, B.C. Darling and Pearson, leading Toronto architectural firm commissioned by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, designed this series of three bank styles [see Figs. 16, 17, 18], adapting the B.C. Mills sectional building system. (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.)

The Bank of Commerce, however had clearly defined policies regarding the image it wished to project to the banking public vis-à-vis its buildings.

The buildings erected by the bank are not the product of passing fashion. While modern in spirit and diverse in every legitimate respect, they are founded both in general design and in detail on those classical traditions which never fail to command respect.8

In major urban centres this carefully nurtured image had been achieved through impressive neoclassical stone buildings. Branches in suburbs and in smaller communities were scaled-down versions usually in brick, of these structures. With the B. C. Mills prefabricated system, the bank perceived a means of translating this image yet again into small wooden structures which nevertheless could be cheaply and rapidly erected in small western communities. Darling and Pearson, perhaps the leading architectural firm in Canada and the architects responsible for the design of many of the bank's major stone buildings as well as many other major institutional buildings of the period, were now commissioned to produce classical designs based on the prefab system.9 The result was a series of three designs ranging from a small hipped-roof model with a multi-columned front verandah to a massive looking two-storey structure with neoclassical features including a handsome pedimented entrance and fluted pilasters. Banking facilities, including the vault and manager's office, were located on the first floor. The second storey contained dormitory rooms to house junior clerks. These rooms were occasionally converted into a suite for the manager in areas where the housing shortage was particularly acute. In some cases, a Townhouse design prefab was erected in the vicinity of the branch to serve this purpose. The two larger models featured fireplaces on both floors, located in the manager's office and upper dormitory lounge.

16 Prefabricated bank in Creston, B.C., featuring pilastered first floor; built 30 July 1907. (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.)

These three models, termed by the bank as their "Prairie Type" branches, proved to be an ideal solution to the various problems confronting the firm during its period of western expansion. The bank's policy was to keep several of these structures in reserve at the B.C. Mills headquarters in Vancouver, from which they could be shipped on short notice to meet sudden demands for branches as expanding railroad lines opened new regions to settlement. Components for a single structure could be packed in two boxcars for shipping.

The most spectacular demonstration of their usefulness occurred in 1906 when two hipped-roof models were shipped to San Francisco to serve as temporary quarters for the firm's offices demolished by the earthquake. One was subsequently employed as a sub-branch in that city.10

17 Prefabricated bank in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, featuring multi-columned verandah; built 14 May 1906. (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.)

18 Prefabricated bank in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, featuring two-storey pilastered and pedimented façade; built 2 March 1906. (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.)

19 A trainload of banks leaving Vancouver, 1906, taken from a full-page advertisement of the B.C. Mills range of products in the B.C. Review during the peak phase of the bank's western expansion. (Vancouver Public Library.)

20 Bank built in Graham (originally Leavings), Alberta, on 21 February 1906. (Glenbow-Alberta Institute.)

21 Crossfield, Alberta, 1914; typical streetscape featuring prefabricated Bank of Commerce, built 17 April 1906. (Glenbow-Alberta Institute.)

Although precise figures are not available, it can be safely estimated that close to 70 prefabricated "Prairie Type" branches were erected in western Canada between 1906 and 1910.11 During this period a pattern emerged whereby new bank branches appeared in newly established towns within months of railway construction. A notable example is the Canadian Northern Railway line crossing central Saskatchewan in 1905-06. A series of prefab banks was erected in seven distribution centres — Kanask, Canora, Wadena, Watson, Humboldt, Vonda and Radisson — within a few months of the line's construction.12 Branches similarly appeared along Canadian Pacific feeder lines throughout western Canada. Distribution ranged from Winnipeg (excluding the Cobalt branch) west to Ladysmith and Victoria on Vancouver Island. Because they were frequently the most sophisticated structures in remote communities, they became well-known and frequently cited landmarks.13 Although the inhabitants of diminutive communities featuring a prefab bank were most likely unaware of or indifferent to the fact, their town or village shared the distinction, along with the major cities of eastern Canada, of having edifices designed by Darling and Pearson gracing their main streets!

Over a decade after the last prefab branches had been erected, the bank remained satisfied with their performance,

No one can travel to any extent over the prairie provinces without becoming familiar with the typical frame buildings erected by The Canadian Bank of Commerce, such as those at Elbow, Canora, Humboldt and Radville.... They have ... justified themselves, having proved durable beyond all expectation, commodious, popular and creditable in architectural effect. The pilastered and pedimented example illustrated by Canora, and the broad and massive effect illustrated by Radville are particularly satisfying in their effect, and dominate their surroundings to the proper degree, without seeming out of harmony with them.14

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