The massive, cedar plank houses of the Coast Salish were very distinct from the smaller but highly decorated, gabled buildings of the Central and North coasts of British Columbia. Very few photographs or paintings have survived, even though this impressive single-pitched, shed-style architecture is thought to have been predominant in the Vancouver area for well over 3,000 years. Buildings were very large—up to 200 metres long by 20 wide, and two to three stories high. The buildings were supported by massive post-and-beam frames covered by horizontal cedar planks which were fixed in place by exterior lashing poles.
In effect, the structures were large, multi-family, apartment buildings. Each family occupied a partitioned apartment consisting of a raised platform around its own fire pit. The size of the apartments was usually eight “talcs” square (a talc being the length of a man’s outstretched arms). Like modern buildings in Vancouver, the larger and more important Coast Salish structures had official names and employed a full-time concierge. In the old, cedar buildings, it was the concierge’s duty to keep the roof water-tight and to adjust the smoke holes according to need.
In 1808, Simon Fraser described this architecture at length in the journal of his travels to the mouth of the Fraser River. He mentioned that, although Coast Salish buildings were usually plain on the outside, on the inside they were comfortable and highly decorated, with richly carved posts and beams and intricately patterned mats. It is estimated that the larger buildings housed up to 300 people.
The Tsleil-Waututh, who are based on the Burrard reserve on Vancouver Harbour, maintain that before the smallpox epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries, the known number of villages in their traditional territory contained an estimated 40,000 people. Their massive cedar buildings were similar to the structures of the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsawwassen, Kwantlen, Kikait, Coquitlem, Katzie, and Semiahmoo, who occupied the rest of Greater Vancouver.
Before the arrival of Europeans, there were at least four substantial villages in what is now Stanley Park. The last traditional Coast Salish longhouse on Vancouver Harbour was called Stah-hay and it was located in the village of Whoi-Whoi at present-day Lumbermen’s Arch. It was demolished in 1891 after the residents had been coerced by the government to move to the present-day Capilano and Mission reserves in North Vancouver. This building had been the location of one of the last great traditional potlatches of the 19th century, which occurred shortly after the founding of Gastown. It was a potlatch said to have attracted thousands of people from both sides of the Strait of Georgia.
Douglas Aitken is the author of the book Three Faces of Vancouver. Every Monday, Faces of Vancouver looks at the city’s buildings, past and present, with a focus on Vancouver’s European, Asian, and First Nations cultures.