April 1966 was a heady time in Vancouver~it was the year before Canada’s centennial year, and was the City of Vancouver’s 80th birthday. Oddly it was also the  80th anniversary of the so called “colonial” union between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and that’s what the  Provincial government wanted to celebrate.

At the time, Premier Bennett  of the Social Credit party had planned to create a “legacy public work” by building in secret a large water fountain on the north side of  what is now the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was still functioning in 1966 as the Court House. (The building became the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1983.)

The fountain with its very mod mosaic patterned floor and large spouts of water was truly an expression of the 1960’s. The fountain was supposed to be never turned off, and was designed by Alex von Svoboda who was an Austrian count that immigrated to Canada after World War Two.

Twenty years later, visiting  Architect Michael Turner, the  UNESCO Chairholder in Urban Design and Conservation Studies pondered at the UBC architecture school why a city in a pretty damp rainforest climate needed to have a large fountain continually spewing water. The fountain was plonked directly in what had formerly been a large gathering place for Vancouver citizens. The students in his class had no answers.

During the secretive construction of the fountain, the public space in front of the Court House was cordoned off by large wooden hoarding painted green and white, which just happened to be the colours of the Provincial party in power. The Berlin Wall had been constructed commencing in 1961 and the Mayor of Vancouver Bill Rathie wanted to ensure that everyone knew he was not responsible for the usurping of  this much used public space.

There was no love lost between the Premier and the Mayor.

Since the Premier intended to keep the hoarding up for a Big Reveal of the fountain in December, Mayor Rathie invited artists, amateur and professional to paint the hoardings and closed down Georgia Street for an afternoon to facilitate the art on April 6, 1966.

Mayor Rathie was quoted by the press as saying that the Province’s green and white paint job on the one hundred panels of the hoarding would make “excellent primer” for mural art work.

Mayor Rathie personally put up cash prizes for the mural art for art students. Artists Jack Shadbolt and Toni Onley both approved of the mural scheme. In a Vancouver Sun article Mr. Onley said the only sadness would be when the murals came down and the horrors of the hideous fountain construction would be exposed for all Vancouverites to see.

Over one hundred amateur and professional artists painted murals on the hoardings and the day was a tremendous success. Even the Provincial government who had been so reticent to have the murals painted admitted that they were creative, and the concept of mural painting for other outdoor projects commenced.

The mural paintings became very popular to visit  and families came down to look at them over the summer and fall months, and to have their picture taken with them. This is a photo of Susan Marie Smith in front of an abstract.

No one is really sure what happened to all the murals, and they probably have been disposed of. But residents said at the time that the mural painting was the very best thing that ever came out of the secretive fountain construction project. You can take a look at this article in Scout Magazine by Stevie Wilson that has some excellent images of the murals.

Stu Garret has posted this YouTube video taken by his father of the murals after they have been painted. There is a portrait of Premier W.A.C. Bennett at 33 seconds, and a woman looking at the murals with a high beehive hairdo at 1:00. The video provides a remarkable look at a time when public wall art provided the placemaking and the conversation, and was one of the first times that murals as an artform appeared on Vancouver streets.

And that celebratory fountain of the Social Credit party? It was demolished in 2014 after leaking into the vaults of the art gallery below.



Images: StuGarret,AllanDoolan,BryanNess,SusanMarieSmith,TrevorKramer.


  1. I didn’t love the fountain, but the fountain was the least of the problem of the north plaza. The problem was the badly placed shrubbery and steps that cut off the natural circulation routes and the grass. Grass in the middle of a public square gets walked on and becomes mud. Leaving the fountain and getting rid of the grass, steps and shrubs would have basically solved the problem and hugely improved the square.

    The grass became emblematic of the difference between popular and public opinion. The grass had quite a bit of public support, but he experts knew that grass in that location was really just dirt in summer and mud in winter. We went with the expert opinion in the redesign, and that was the right move.

    The north plaza is also emblematic of the paralysis that can take hold when we make a problem too big. Really the only problem with the north plaza was the grass, steps and shrubs. Getting rid of those at fairly small cost would have done the trick. Of course there is value is sometimes moving beyond just problem solving and trying something completely new like a complete redesign, but it can also create an unnecessary burden. The redesign of the Burrard Street Bridge for cyclists is a good example. That was paralyzed for more that 20 years over an imaginary problem – the width of the arches in the piers. The arch is quite narrow, too narrow really for both a cycle and walking path in normal circumstances. But the narrow parts were at the top of the bridge, the top of a hill, so the cyclists were all at their slowest meaning that there really wasn’t a problem squishing everyone through the narrow arches. Yet the first proposals for expanding cycle paths tried to solve this small problem with huge and expensive solutions. Outriggers and even outrigger that came back and went through the pier under the current sidewalk. The cost estimates for these endeavours froze all activity. I am a regular cyclist and appreciate the current redesign that has plenty of room for everyone, but I also remember that this came after a 25 year delay. And I also appreciate the redesign of the north plaza, but does anyone else thing it could do with a little something in the centre?

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