Sidewalk prisms of Vancouver

[This post has been updated since it was first published in 2016]

I was a shy child. Consequently, I spent a lot of time avoiding eye contact by looking down at the ground. All this time looking down at my feet allowed me to regard the ground upon which I was walking. Thus it was as a Vancouver kid of the 1970s that I first noticed the glassy purple squares embedded in sidewalks.

Have you ever been walking in an older part of the city and noticed a checkerboard grid of purple squares under your feet?

Sidewalk prism light mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen
Sidewalk prism lights mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen

No, they are not simply sidewalk decoration [wouldn’t that be nice?] but rather a system to illuminate spaces under sidewalks called areaways. Sidewalk prisms, also known as vault lights (or pavement lights in the UK), are glass prisms set into sidewalks in order to reflect the natural light from above, safely illuminating these subterranean spaces. [Why are they purple? The answer to that is at the end of the post].

Continue reading “Sidewalk prisms of Vancouver”

Local History Advent Calendar 2019 – Day 5 – Sidewalks

Last year I took on the challenge of the first-ever Local History Advent Calendar! For 24 days in a row, I presented random historical tidbits I’d collected over the previous year and presented them in the form of “treats” for my 2018 Local History Advent Calendar. This year, the “Heart of Mount Pleasant” was number 1 on Heritage Vancouver’s Top 10 Watch List for 2019.  So I decided to choose Mount Pleasant as the theme for the Vanalogue Local History Advent Calendar for 2019.  Each day you can “open” a new historical treat. Think of them as holiday cocktail party fodder – 24 facts about Mount Pleasant history that can be used as conversation starters at your next social event.

1907MP
The oldest sidewalk in Mount Pleasant. 1907 Sidewalk date stamp at 7th and Alberta.

Anyone who has regularly followed this blog or my column at Scout Magazine will know I am a bit obsessed with sidewalks – specifically sidewalk prisms, and sidewalk date stamps. In my sidewalk date stamp article I stated that the city started installing cement sidewalks in 1906. Well, apparently that is incorrect. It was as early as 1903 when the city first started to install cement sidewalks. However, it wasn’t until 1904 that a systematic program of installing cement sidewalks began; replacing the existing 3-plank wooden sidewalks or, in some cases, no sidewalk at all.

So imagine how early residents of  Mount Pleasant felt when they learned in early 1904 that they were on the list to receive these permanent sidewalks:

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Sidewalk editorial by publisher Rena Whitney in the March 26th, 1904 edition of the Mount Pleasant Advocate.
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Mount Pleasant Advocate, July 9, 1904.

These “modern” cement sidewalks were first installed in the West End and downtown neighbourhoods. That is where we find the oldest surviving examples of these early sidewalks in the city: two ‘1906’ sidewalk date stamps in the West End – the oldest sidewalk date stamps in existence.

The oldest surviving sidewalk date stamp in Mount Pleasant is from ‘1907’ and is located on W7th Avenue at Alberta. The house at 303 W 7th was built in 1905 and first occupied by Charles J. (an engineer) and Elizabeth Ellis and their two children. I can imagine the Ellis children excitedly watching out the front window of their house as workers installed the new sidewalks and stamped ‘1907’ into the wet cement.

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303 West 7th at Alberta.

Other early examples of sidewalk name and date stamps found in Mount Pleasant are found on 10th Avenue at Columbia Street and 10th and Manitoba – the same block that is home to the famous Davis Houses. At 10th and Columbia, a ‘1908’ stamp and a ‘1909’ stamp can be found. At the other end of the block there is another ‘1908’ stamp.

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1908 on the corner of 10th at Columbia.

On his Sidewalk Contractor Stamp website, Lincoln Cushing states that “much can be learned from these artifacts, including construction dates and patterns of urban development” and sidewalk stamps aficionado Andrew Alden refers to sidewalk name and date stamps as “fossils in the city’s hardscape”.

2545Main
Covered, but there… the only example of sidewalk prisms on this side of False Creek at 2545 Main (10th Avenue side)

Oh, and for those of you who like sidewalk prisms, there’s an example of those in Mount Pleasant too! They are found along the E. 10th side of Belvedere Court (formerly the Harris Block), which dates from 1911-12. They are special because this is the only location of sidewalk prisms found outside of the downtown core. They are a visual example of what commonly happened to sidewalk prism lights, once they become damaged and a hazard – they were covered with asphalt and only an impression of them remains.

Sidewalk prisms of Vancouver

I was a shy child. Consequently, I spent a lot of time avoiding eye contact by looking down at the ground. All this time looking down at my feet allowed me to regard the ground upon which I was walking. Thus it was as a Vancouver kid of the 1970s that I first noticed the glassy purple squares embedded in sidewalks.

Have you ever been walking in an older part of the city and noticed a checkerboard grid of purple squares under your feet?

Sidewalk prism light mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen
Sidewalk prism lights mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen

No, they are not simply sidewalk decoration [wouldn’t that be nice?] but rather a system to illuminate spaces under sidewalks called areaways. Sidewalk prisms, also known as vault lights (or pavement lights in the UK), are glass prisms set into sidewalks in order to reflect the natural light from above, safely illuminating these subterranean spaces. [Why are they purple? The answer to that is at the end of the post].

Continue reading “Sidewalk prisms of Vancouver”