It’s Vancouver’s signature noon hour sound: At 12 p.m. sharp, horns blast from the rooftop of the Pan Pacific Hotel at Canada Place, signalling lunch time for thousands of office dwellers.
“I wish people would think more that these are the first four notes of ‘O Canada!’ Think about what it is to be Canadian, then go for lunch,” says Jeff Marshall, facilities technician for Canada Place.
Marshall maintains the 10 ‘Heritage Horns,’ which use 115 pounds of air to blast the notes in six seconds. He keeps them in-tune and a digital clock keeps them on-time.
“They’re on time 99.9 per cent of the time. When we had the old mechanical timers, it failed and it failed at a very bad time… at 3 a.m. It fired off the horns and there was a hockey team staying [at the hotel] and they weren’t too happy. I do believe the Canucks won the next day. Good for us, bad for that team.”
The horns are heard throughout Vancouver and the North Shore. They’re so loud, Canada Place prohibits entry to the hotel rooftop 10 minutes before noon with strobe lights alerting visitors to clear the area.
“It’s so loud you can feel it in your lungs. You’ll feel the notes!”
The horns moved to Canada Place in 1994 when their original home, the BC Hydro headquarters at Burrard and Nelson, was converted to condominiums. They were installed in 1967 for Canada’s Centennial by a man named Robert Swanson. To say he was a ‘character’ would be an understatement. The BC inventor had a whistle testing farm in the backwoods of Nanaimo. Kilometres from any neighbours, he would blast his horns until the sound was just right.
Before Swanson built the ‘Heritage Horns,’ he was hired by premier W.A.C. Bennett to create horns for the BC Ferries fleet.
“It’s a very carefully tuned major chord, and the premier at the time seemed to like that kind of a chord and I tried to please him and give him what he wanted. Major is an exhilarating sound and minor is sad – a going away sort of sound. A major chord is marching and he was that kind of a fellow, he bobbed up and down when he walked,” Swanson told Global News in 1988.
Swanson died in 1994, but he left behind a noisy legacy. You can hear his work on ships and trains around the world. And of course, every day at noon in downtown Vancouver.