|Yale Hotel | 30 x 36 | Oil on canvas | 2013|
After 123 years, the Yale Hotel is closing for a year and a half for renovations
By John Mackie, Vancouver Sun November 11, 2011
The late Robbie King was the master of the Hammond B-3 organ; he played it on countless recordings and live gigs with acts like Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, The Poppy Family and Diana Ross and the Supremes.
It didn’t make him a lot of dough, though. For the last few years of his life, he lived in a small room directly above the stage at the Yale Hotel at Granville and Drake.
But that was his choice. The Yale bills itself as “Vancouver’s home of rhythm and blues,” and King loved being upstairs, listening to the music of legends such as Charles Brown, James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite through the floor.
King had no patience for bad performances, though. “He’d hear something not being played correctly, and he’d storm downstairs in his house robe, bump the guy to the side and start playing,” Yale owner Waide Luciak says with a laugh.
That’s the kind of effect the Yale has on people. It’s a true blues palace, a beautiful old brick building that has thrived by eschewing the latest musical and cultural trends to concentrate on what it does best.
That is what bassist Jack Lavin envisioned when he established the blues format in 1985.
“[Then owner] Sam Sorich was looking for somebody to host a jam there,” Lavin says. “I had just left Powder Blues, so I was somewhat high profile. We hit it off pretty good. I said, ‘I’m from Chicago. I love blues, and I think this should be a blues club. If you serve the same plate every time, you’ll have a guaranteed crowd.’ ”
Lavin used his contacts to bring in legends like Otis Rush, Lowell Fulson and Joe Duskin for weeklong gigs. “Since we began it as a blues club, it was inarguably Canada’s best blues bar,” Lavin says.
Lavin left the Yale in 1993, but the blues played on. Over the years a who’s who of blues musicians have played there, from Pinetop Perkins, Johnny Winter and John Hammond to Jeff Healey, Jim Byrnes and Long John Baldry.
But the landmark bar is about to go silent. The Yale will be closing Nov. 20 so it can undergo a heritage renovation. It will be closed for about a year and a half, but will still feature the blues when it reopens, although not exclusively. “It’s going to be the old Yale, but a modernized old Yale,” says Luciak, who has co-owned the bar since 1987. “We found that the people that really enjoy the blues are getting old, [and] we can’t survive off what those people are drinking. So our target over the last year or so has been, as the night goes on, to put on a band that gets a little bit younger [audience]. We think we can survive into the future if we make some subtle changes.”
The Yale will be marking its exit with a week of multi-act gigs featuring headliners such as Chilliwack (Nov. 17), David Gogo (Nov. 18) and Dal Richards (Nov. 20). Luciak also has also a new space at 1050 Granville, which he hopes to open in the new year to accommodate many of the Yale’s acts. But it’s a new building, which just won’t be the same. Part of the Yale’s aura is its age, which gives it soul.
It was built in 1888 — when Vancouver was only two years old — and cost $9,000. It was originally called The Colonial, and was designed by Noble Stonestreet Hoffar (yes, that’s his real name), a prominent architect who also designed the Cordova Street side of the Army and Navy department store.
When it was built, The Colonial was out in the sticks: Vancouver was centred in Gastown. The Canadian Pacific Railway was developing rail yards nearby in Yaletown, and The Colonial catered to CPR workers. Some lived there; many more drank there. “This was out at the end of Granville Street, and law and order was a little bit iffy,” says heritage expert Don Luxton. “When it was raining and the streets were muddy, [the clientele] loved to party it up, because they knew the police couldn’t make it.”
In 1907, new owners changed the name to The Yale, and two years later tacked on an addition at the back. The addition gave it 44 rooms upstairs for rent, while the bar was extended over both buildings.
You can tell where the buildings meet because there’s a slight dip in the floor.
The building is so old Luciak says they found some horseshoes in the basement, a remnant of a stable in the early days. The basement features one of Vancouver’s nicest mosaic tile floors, and retains vintage equipment like an old wooden “keg lift” they still use to roll down kegs of beer.
A more recent addition is the stripper poles from the Cecil, the hotel next door that was recently torn down as part of the Rolston condo development.
The Yale is being refurbished as part of the Rolston, a $75-million project by Rize Atlantis. The 23-storey, 186-unit condo tower may turn out to be Vancouver’s most startling new building — the design by Busby Perkins + Will architects features a series of “ribbons” that jut out of the building.
Rize Alliance will spend about $5 million fixing up the Yale as part of the development. It will restore The Yale’s Granville Street facade to a glass storefront, fix up the hotel rooms upstairs, and do some seismic upgrading. “It’s a wood-frame building, with what they call a single-lace brick veneer,” explains Luke Harrison of Rize Alliance. “We’re restoring all the brick, making sure it’s attached to the building in a good manner, and repointing it and cleaning it up. The seismic upgrading we’re doing is to the wood frame — you’re basically tying in the vertical and horizontal elements of the building.”
It’s a complicated deal. Luciak says he sold the Yale to Rize Alliance on the condition they will sell the bar back to him. But he won’t own the upstairs; Rize Alliance is handing that over to the city, which will be renting the rooms to low-income earners.
Luciak’s son Joe has run the bar for several years, and promises the new Yale will be like the old one, only better.
The ugly dropped ceiling panels will be removed, restoring the bar to its full 14-foot height (albeit with some special drywall that will dampen the sound that travels upstairs to the residents). There will be a new, longer bar, and a larger wooden dance floor. The basement will feature spiffy new dressing rooms for the bands, and there will be a kitchen to serve food.
But it will still retain the brick walls, the neon signs and the Hammond B-3 organ that Robbie King insisted the club had to buy if it was to be a proper blues bar. “We’re going to spend a lot of money to make it look and feel the same,” says Joe Luciak. “I’ve been here since I was six years old, and there’s no way I’d let the city down [and change it]. The Yale is its own cultural landmark and entity; it means a lot to people.”