Update: March 24, 2017
This post has been revised since it was first published about 10 days ago. The most significant change has been to its scope. It was originally a very lengthy discussion that wandered into topics well beyond Beatrice Lennie’s sculpture at the Hotel Vancouver. This update has carved off the non-Lennie aspects of the original post and created a separate one.
Behind the wall shown above, in the elevator court of the current Hotel Vancouver (1939- ), lies, in all probability, Ascension, a work of bas-relief sculpture created by Beatrice Lennie (1904-1987) a renowned and very able local sculptor. Doris Munroe, in her M.F.A. thesis (UBC, 1972, p. xix), described Ascension, installed in 1939, as follows:
The theme with its vertical lines, arches, elongated figures, sun and stars was one of ascent. It was finished in tones of blue steel, brass and chromium which harmonized with the cream marble walls and bronze elevator doors. The hotel was opened on May 25, 1939. At the time of the reconstruction of the hotel in 1967 the ceilings were dropped and the artist believes the mural was then boarded up and faced with a new textured facade.
The poor image reproduced below is the only one I’ve found that shows all of Ascension. But, taken together with Munroe’s evocative description, we can imagine how stunning the work must have been. (Also shown below is part of Ascension from a Hotel Vancouver publicity brochure.)
Ascension and the Artist
In an August 1, 1975 interview for the Vancouver Province, Lennie said:
I used to think your sculpture would outlive you, but they boarded up one of mine, a 12-foot panel in the elevator court on the main floor of the Hotel Vancouver. They covered it with a wooden wall when they lowered the ceiling. It’s discouraging in one’s own lifetime. At the time (1939), the CNR [for whom the hotel was initially built; it later became a CPR property] asked me to do something that wouldn’t be out of date in 30 years.
In another piece published about Lennie, she remarked (with bitterness and some overstatement): “I never go back to see my work because they always do such dreadful things to it” (emphasis mine). To the best of my knowledge, Ascension is the only Lennie work that is ‘lost’.
An article was published, likely in the Sun, shortly after the sculptor’s death in 1987, that recalled Lennie’s body of work and related something of her history and family background in British Columbia.¹ It is interesting that the article noted that Lennie came from a pioneer B.C. family, but there was mention made only of her maternal grandfather, Benjamin Douglas, who arrived in the province in 1862 for the Gold Rush (the Douglas border crossing near Blaine, WA was named in his honour). No mention was made of Lennie’s paternal grandfather, Rev. Robert Lennie, who came to New Westminster in 1884 and established the Baptist church that is still there, Olivet Baptist Church. Lennie also served as ‘the first missionary pastor’ to the small body of believers who would ultimately form First Baptist Church, Vancouver.It seems likely that Beatrice, one of Rev. Robert Lennie’s twenty grandchildren, had grown away from her grandfather’s Baptist roots.² But I wonder whether she may have been subconsciously paying tribute to her dad’s dad with the creation and naming of Ascension.
At one level, of course, the naming of her Hotel Vancouver sculpture was a case of word play. Ascension would be located in the elevator court and was one of the last things which guests would see as the elevator doors closed and they were lifted to their rooms.
But at another level, I cannot look at the image of Ascension without wondering about the prominence of stars and halo-like objects, which taken together, seem to me to speak of Easter, the highest and holiest holiday in the Christian calendar.
According to a concierge at the Hotel Vancouver with whom I spoke in preparing this post, there are other things buried behind that wall. The original hotel drawings called for eight elevators, but part way through its construction, it was decided that six elevators (three on each wall that flanked Ascension) were ample. The abandoned two elevator shafts remain hidden behind the wall, to this day. Along with Beatrice Lennie’s bas-relief work.
¹The article referenced here was found in the Vancouver Art Gallery library’s clipping file and no attribution was noted. So I’m guessing that it was a Vancouver Sun piece. (For a detailed list of Lennie’s extant work and biographical info pertaining to her, see this excellent site.)
²I didn’t find in my research indication of Lennie’s religious denominational affiliation, if any.