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Visiting the old Vancouver post office's ghost world

Ghost Wars one of the TV shows that gives new life to heritage building

There was a point during the filming of the first season of Ghost Wars when the show’s creator realized it would be really neat to shoot a scene inside the bowels of a hydroelectric dam.

For most shows, this would have presented a problem.

For Ghost Wars, it was simply a matter of moving the set down a couple of floors.

The Syfy/Netflix series was filmed primarily inside the old Canada Post sorting facility in downtown Vancouver. Passersby on West Georgia Street might not have realized that within the confines of the six-storey monolith, all paranormal hell was breaking loose.

For fear of any spoilers, let’s just sum up the show’s plot this way: In a remote Alaskan town, unknown forces have blocked the portal to the afterlife following an earthquake. The ghosts of people who die, including the earthquake victims, have nowhere to go. And they’re pissed about it.

As the show’s informal tagline used to say, Ghost Wars wants to “Make America Scared Again.”

Dead letter office

While Fort Langley and Squamish double as the show’s fictional town, the cavernous interior of the old postal building made it an ideal home base for the crew and cast, including Avan Jogia, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kim Coates, Kristin Lehman and Meat Loaf.

In the underground parking lot where trucks once disgorged an average of 3.2 million pieces mail every day, a phalanx of production trucks free up valuable Vancouver street parking. The show’s sets inhabited another two floors of voluminous high-ceilinged space that used to accommodate endless mail-sorting machines and almost 1,800 full-time workers. One floor up, it was all in a day’s work for Ghost War’s production crew to modify existing office space into rooms for writers, costume designers, makeup artists and admin staff.

It was an eerie experience to visit a building that has its own lingering ghosts.

On the street level, you can look through the window and see a wall of unassigned mailboxes — quaint reminders of how we used to connect with the outside world. Inside, tunnel-like escalators climb steeply towards a far-off shard of fluorescent light two lonely flights up. Everywhere there’s a dim, melancholic hum of a building that almost seems to be pining for the frenetic Canada Post days.

Ghost Wars set
From the outside, the Ghost Wars set looks like the buildings are inside out with all the labels showing. - Martha Perkins

Once you’re on set, it’s as if a town’s buildings have been turned inside out with their labels and stitching showing. The exteriors are unadorned plywood and exposed two-by-fours. Photocopied signs pinned near the entranceways indicate each set’s role. Walk inside one of the sets, however, and you are instantly teleported into a bar, a stone church, a mortuary or a lab where a particle collider does not seem out of place. There’s even a dark crypt where it’s too spooky to linger. As the cast and crew like to joke, you’d be wise to leave a trail of crumbs to navigate your way through this disembodied town with no streets.

“One day I passed by zombies having lunch on one floor, a post-apocalyptic fog on the next floor and then, when I walked up to another floor, there was Liam Neeson sitting there,” says Syd Lazarre, the show runner’s assistant.

When 349 West Georgia opened in November 1957, it was “the largest welded steel structure in the world, capped with a rooftop helipad,” writes Vancouver historian Eve Lazarus.

Stretching the entire block from Homer to Hamilton streets, “the Taj Mahal with escalators” had 11 kilometres of conveyor belts and chutes, and “a 2,400-foot long tunnel that connected the post office to the CPR train station (now Waterfront Station.) The tunnel was outfitted with two conveyor belts to move the mail and was maintained by engineers on bikes.”

The tunnel, which was filled in three years ago when the City of Vancouver decided it was too expensive to refurbish, was always popular spot for movie sets and “some rocking Halloween parties,” Lazarus reports.

Built during the Cold War, on the Ghost Wars set the bunker-like building was rumoured to be designed as a safe haven in a nuclear attack.

“It was the most modern, high-tech building at the time,” says Fred Dannels, a former plant manager who has nostalgic yearnings for the camaraderie and community he experienced there.

Nuclear bunker the $13-million building wasn’t, Dannels says, but it was designed as an emergency centre in case of an earthquake, with stored rations ready to distribute.

Dannels remembers Arnold Schwartzenegger’s helicopter scenes on the roof (Six Days), and visits by Martin Sheen (Cold Front) and Sylvester Stallone (Daylight.) Parts of the television series Smallville were also filmed here.

“I miss her, I’ll tell you that,” he says of the building, which was closed in 2016 when the sorting plant was moved to Richmond. “It was a great place to come to work.”

Syd Lazarre Ghost Wars
Syd Lazarre says you never know what to expect when working on the set. She has a role in season one of Ghost Wars and was also the show runner's assistant. - Dan Toulgoet

Close to home

Ghost Wars creator Simon Barry (Van Helsing, Continuum) and executive producer Dennis Heaton (Motive) are sitting in Barry’s third-floor office. They take their feet off the table when a visiting journalist arrives but the bottle of whiskey remains. The relaxed, convivial atmosphere speaks of their personal friendship and mutual respect as industry veterans — as well as the sense that they still have a lot of fun doing what they’re doing.

When Barry was approached to take on the series — he is the show runner, responsible for all of its moving pieces, and wrote the first episode — having the show based in his hometown was a deal-maker. He knows and trusts Vancouver’s production crews who, like him, appreciate working close to home. Barry then asked Heaton to join him to “put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

“I promised him the show would be visceral and horrific enough to keep him entertained,” Barry says.

It was Barry who came up with the dam scene and Heaton who wrote it into the script. The building’s boiler room filled in as the set.

Ghost Wars set
Script changes could be done in real time since Ghost Wars' offices were a floor above the set. - Martha Perkins

The building’s “natural shape is working into the show,” Heaton says, calling it a vertical back lot. Outside its walls is a vibrant city; inside “it’s like this impervious-to-reality facility where we can run around and do whatever we want.”

It’s rare to have a show’s set and production offices in such close proximity, Barry says. “We can write a scene in one room, walk it into the next room to photocopy and shoot it in the next room,” he says. “We can do it in almost real time.”

Season one of the show is now on Syfy. Netflix is slated to pick it up for Canadian viewers some time in the new year, and a season two has not yet been announced.

Barry and Heaton are hopeful, especially since such a terrific cast is giving life to their ghostly tales. “You don’t realize how much better it will be when you have great talent,” Barry says. “We look at each other and say, ‘Wow, this is turning out better than we thought.’”

Old Canada Post building
On the fourth floor of the old Canada Post office in downtown Vancouver, there's almost a sense of melancholy. It's as if the building was yearning for the hectic pace of years gone by. - Martha Perkins

What's next for 349 West Georgia

The Canada Post building is now owned and being developed by Bentall Kennedy and QuadReal. The proposed development, which was last updated in October 2016, includes retaining the heritage building and converting it into a seven-storey podium for a mixture of retail, office and residential developments. Plans include:

• three towers above the podium

• 427 market rentals (including 24 three-bedrooms)

• 372 market condominiums (including 43 three-bedrooms)

• 273,900 sq.ft. of retail space

• 512,300 sq.ft. of office space

• a 9,000 sq.ft. daycare

• 1,004 parking stalls over five levels and

• 1,148 bicycle racks