Vancouver Feature: Mysterious Count Funds City’s First Skyscraper

Behind the construction of Vancouver’s first skyscraper lurks the flamboyant Count Alvo von Alvensleben, son of a Prussian nobleman who arrived on the West Coast with a mysterious past, made and lost a fortune, then was branded as a German spy during the First World War.

The enigmatic Count Alvo von Alvensleben

Photo by George T. Wadds, City of Vancouver Archives.

Dominion Building, 1915

Vancouver Public Library 8393.

The Dominion Building, overlooking Victory Square

The Dominion Building, with its striking mansard roof and colourful terra-cotta exterior, is a landmark of the city’s old centre on Hastings Street. Vancouver’s first skyscraper, it was the tallest building in the British Empire when it opened in 1910, and a symbol of the city’s pre-war energy and prosperity

The Dominion Building was constructed by the Dominion Trust Company, with a large investment from Count Alvo von Alvensleben, who arrived in Vancouver in 1904 with hardly a dollar to his name. Rumours circulated that he had gambled away his inheritance, but once in Vancouver he soon made a fortune in real estate. He raced around the city in a chauffeured Packard – he drove, the chauffeur sat in the back – and owned a large house in Kerrisdale, staffed by 13 servants, where he and his wife entertained lavishly.

Then came the 1913 depression. Von Alvensleben’s fortune took a terrible hit, and the Dominion Trust Company went bankrupt. When the war followed, von Alvensleben lost almost everything. Suddenly he was an “enemy alien”; the federal government seized his assets and he was rumoured to be a German spy. Von Alvensleben went to Seattle to wait out the war but in 1917, when the Americans joined the conflict, he was interned. He never returned to live in Vancouver, but the Dominion Building remains as a reminder of one of the city’s more remarkable pre-war developers.