Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Old Postcard Wednesday—The Empress Hotel, Victoria, B.C.

I would like this old postcard for the beautiful b&w photo that it is, even if the building was not internationally known and a designated National Historic Site of Canada. The waterway and ships are what draw my attention most; what a lovely scene. The original hotel entrance we see here is no longer used. The main entrance (and driveway) is now to the left of the main facade. Victoria is fortunate that far-sighted preservationists saved the hotel for such modern alterations, as it could have gone the other way in the 60s and the whole thing might have been leveled:
In 1965, there was much debate on whether to tear down what was becoming a faded, dowdy hotel, to make room for a more modern, functional high-rise hotel. One local newspaper warned that, 'Without this splendid relic of the Edwardian era, literally tens of thousands of tourists will never return. This is the Mecca, this is the heart and soul of the city.' A decision was announced on June 10, 1966: The Empress would not be demolished. Instead she would embark on a $4 million campaign of renovation and refurbishment, playfully dubbed 'Operation Teacup.'

In 1989, over $45 million was spent in additional restoration known as The Royal Restoration. All the guest rooms were renovated, and a health club, indoor swimming pool and guest reception were added. With an emphasis on craftsmanship, no attempt was made to give the hotel a new image. Instead, the goal was to restore The Empress to its original, pre-war elegance.

Up until this renovation, the engineering staff from the hotel confirmed that there was what has been described as a tunnel that ran from James Bay into the basement of the Empress. At high tide one was able to visit the basement and see the salt water flood the opening. It is not clear what the purpose was. Some have suggested that it was part of the hotel's waste management system and that at one time the sewage from the hotel was being flushed into James Bay.

In 1998, Ian Powell took over as the General Manager of the hotel. He was there through 2004 where he oversaw many of the changes to the hotel both esthetically and internally through staff and management. [Source for this and following citations: Wikipedia]
Here is some history of the "splendid relic of the Edwardian era":
The Edwardian, château-style hotel was designed by Francis Rattenbury for Canadian Pacific Hotels as a terminus hotel for Canadian Pacific's steamship line, whose main terminal was just a block away.[3] The hotel was to serve businesspeople and visitors to Victoria, but later as Canadian Pacific ceased its passenger services to the city, the hotel was successfully remarketed as a resort to tourists. Victoria emerged as a tourist destination beginning in the mid-to-late 1920s.

The hotel was built between 1904 and 1908, opening for service in that year. Additional wings were added between 1909 and 1914, and in 1928. During this time, The Empress (as it was known then) played hostess to kings, queens, movie stars and many famous people. In 1919, Edward, Prince of Wales waltzed into the dawn in its Crystal Ballroom - an event considered by Victorians to be of such importance that almost 50 years later, the obituaries of elderly ladies would appear under headlines such as, 'Mrs. Thornley-Hall Dies. Prince of Wales Singled Her Out.' In the 1930s, Shirley Temple arrived accompanied by her parents amid rumours that she had fled from California because of kidnapping threats, a story borne from the presence of two huge bodyguards who took the room opposite hers and always left their door open.

On May 30, 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth attended a luncheon at the Empress, as guests of the Provincial Government.

For many years the hotel did not have a sign above the front entrance. The strong emotions the hotel evoked in Victorians and its guests and protectors is exemplified in the statement made by an irate gentleman, as workers raised the sign above the front entrance: 'Anyone who doesn't know this is The Empress shouldn't be staying here.'
The hotel's sign played an interesting role in the name change from (what is still called) The Empress to The Fairmont Empress:
In 1999, Canadian Pacific spun off Canadian Pacific Hotels, along with all its properties. The new company was renamed Fairmont Hotels & Resorts in an effort to reflect its growing global presence and ambitions. As such, all former CP Hotel properties were to be renamed and rebranded with the prefix 'Fairmont'. This led to a loud uproar and consternation by Victoria's newspapers and its citizens, a decision they viewed as sacrilege. Although the new name stuck, Fairmont made no changes to the hotel's original exterior signage, as a compromise to soothe local anxieties and respect its iconic heritage.

Fairmont later sold the hotel on October 31, 2000 to the Legacy Hotels REIT for CAD $120 million. However, Fairmont has a long-term management agreement with Legacy Hotels, and as of August 2005, held an 11.14% ownership in this REIT.
And with all that remodeling, and wheeling and dealing, The Empress has continued to offer its patrons its famous High Tea:
The hotel is well known for its classic Victorian afternoon tea service. During the summer months, the hotel serves tea (along with tea sandwiches, fresh scones, preserves and clotted cream known as Empress cream in its 'Tea Lobby' to more than 800 guests and tourists daily. Afternoon tea is approximately CAD $60 per person,and reservations are often required one or two weeks in advance.

This is a short video of the actual High Tea menu:

And this is a video that someone shot at The Empress during Christmas 2010 with the intention of showing High Tea, but well.... you'll see. (pssst, how many Christmas trees can you count?)



Don't Feed The Pixies said...

well, to get into the spirit of the Edwardian era - huzzah for Operation Teacup

It's great to know that this place still exists and continues to serve high teas

Apparently at The Ritz they place the crest on the teacup and saucer so that they align directly with where the customer is sitting. One waiter was asked on a documentary, "so what happens if the customer turns it around?" only to reply that a customer of the Ritz would never do such a thing :-)

It's on my to-do list, just to see the expression on their faces

izzy said...

Wow that is a fabulous array of food
I particularly want to try some of the sandwiches!
The other video made me dizzy- so I stopped; but will search out more info! thanks.

sewa mobil jakarta said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Lydia said...

Pixies~ The day you go to The Ritz to check off that to-do you must catch it on video. I want to see their expressions, too. :)

izzy~ That other video was a dizzy sort of affair, I agree.
Yea, that smoked salmon sandwich made my mouth water.

sewa mobil jakarta~ I appreciate your visit and comment.

Rob-bear said...

I have stayed there on a couple of occasions. Business trips. Elegant is the word, though I was there before all the massive renos. We have another of those "railway hotels" in our city, too. Interesting fixture.



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