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dave obee Empress marks its centennial

By Dave Obee

One hundred years ago today, the Empress Hotel opened its doors to the public. The story of the hotel started much earlier than that, though -- in the 1860s, when members of Victoria's first council debated what could be done about the mudflats at the east end of the Inner Harbour.

A bridge across the flats, connecting the south end of Government Street with the north end of Birdcages Walk, had been built in 1850. The bridge was lower than the streets, so there was a steep grade down on both sides.

In the summer of 1867, the bridge was declared to be unsafe and was closed to vehicular traffic. Work on a new bridge started a year later, with the last nail hammered on Feb. 13, 1869.

The bridge lasted just 18 years. Another one was built to replace it and was opened on April 23, 1887.

By 1894, with the third bridge barely seven years old, the city once again raised the notion that a permanent roadway should replace it and that the mudflats should be filled in.

The Times argued in an editorial that the city needed to be more specific about the idea: Simply doing the work without knowing what should go on the reclaimed land would be a waste of money.

It took time for plans for a causeway to be completed. The city sponsored a competition in 1894 seeking proposals for work with an $80,000 limit. The contest did not end well. The city refused to pay the $350 reward to the first-place finisher, saying the plan exceeded the $80,000 cap. The matter ended up in court.

The causeway was finally started, just west of the old bridge, in 1902.

It took even more time for the hotel concept to come together. Several people had already suggested a high-end hotel for the site, but ideas are cheap. Concrete proposals take longer, and the city didn't want just anybody to get the site.

By 1903, Mayor Alexander G. McCandless was deep into negotiations with Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had already built several hotels that had become landmarks.

On June 1 that year, a deal was struck. Shaughnessy took it to the Canadian Pacific board in Montreal, and on June 8, McCandless received a telegram confirming that the deal would go ahead.

The city granted concessions to the CPR, and those concessions would need to be approved by voters in a referendum.

The terms, which were drafted by a special committee, included:

- The CPR would spend not less than $300,000 on the hotel and would furnish, operate and maintain it as a first-class hotel, to the same standard as at the Chateau Frontenac at Quebec City.

- Victoria would give to the company all of the land on the James Bay esplanade -- the reclaimed land -- bounded on the south by Belleville Street and on the east by the extension of Belleville Street. The CPR did not have to pay a penny for the land.

- The hotel would be exempt from taxes for 15 years.

- The hotel would be exempt from water fees for 15 years.

- The street past the hotel would be known as Hotel Street.

- The city agreed to modify its regulations so no building could be erected fronting the hotel that would be a detriment to the property.

With the deal in place, Canadian Pacific started planning the look of the building. The assignment went to Francis Mawson Rattenbury, the Victoria architect who had also done the Parliament Buildings.

Rattenbury went to Montreal in November 1903 to discuss his proposals with Shaughnessy. When he returned to the city on Nov. 30, he told the Colonist the seven-storey building would be a picturesque castle of the French Renaissance school, and would be reminiscient of the Chateau Frontenac. More symmetrical, though.

The site was still not ready, because gravel was still being brought in as fill. Rattenbury promised, however, that construction would begin as soon as the plans were finished. The main wing of the hotel would be built first. A second wing would be built at the rear, on the Douglas Street side, Rattenbury said.

Rattenbury's plans were to use a variety of styles that reflected a variety of cultures. "The entrance hall will be panelled in oak, and have large old English fireplaces," the Colonist reported.

A large palm garden with a glass roof was also included in the design, with Chinese carvings, frescoes and decorations in red and gold.

Rattenbury's plans also called for a reading room and library modelled on one in the Touraine hotel in Boston, which the Colonist described as "one of the best tourist hotels in the east."

Decorations and arrangements in this room would be handled by Kate Reed, the wife of Hayter Reed, the manager of the Cheateau Frontenac, "who has already displayed charming taste in decorating and furnishing the Chateau Frontenac."

The basement would have a German grill room, a billiard room and a large Turkish lounging room and bar, that would be based on one found in the Hotel Portland in Oregon. Rattenbury noted that Shaughnessy had vowed that this new hotel would become "the beauty spot of Canada," so the grounds would be laid out by the best landscape gardeners.

Rattenbury went to work on his plans for the new hotel.

It took four years for his masterpiece to be created. Finally, on Jan. 20, 1908, the hotel -- given the name Empress -- was ready.

The Colonist said that the opening of the hotel was an important landmark in Victoria's progress "to her rightful position as the Queen of the Pacific."

"For the Empress hotel means much to this city. It is more than the finishing link of a chain of hotels with which the greatest railroad system in the world has girdled the continent. It is more than an exemplar of what wealth and taste and twentieth century ingenuity can do to make the path of the wayfarer pleasant and attractive.

"It is a permanent token to the wealthy travelling public that Victoria can offer them entertainment that is not to be surpassed in any city on the continent."

The Colonist added that Victoria offered every kind of outdoor amusement and a minimum of expense in the balmiest climate in North America.

"The great hotel will bring the people here, and Victoria will do the rest, while those that cannot stay cannot fail on their return to be missionaries shouting the praises of the manifold beauties both of art and nature which were lavished upon them during their sojourn."

The hotel has evolved in the past century, with an addition to the north (rather than the east, as Rattenbury had proposed) in the 1920s as well as a salt-water pool across Douglas Street. It had a motor hotel for a while, and later Victoria's conference centre was added to the Empress's grounds.

It has brought hundreds of thousands of people here, including notables such Bob Hope and Glenn Ford and royalty such as Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.

More recently, it was given a new name: Fairmont Empress.

Beyond that, the hotel has become synonymous with Victoria and one of the true landmarks on our Inner Harbour.

Posted January 20, 2008


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