The Empress Hotel
By Danda Humphreys
The Empress, perched on pilons in what had once been James Bay, opened its doors in 1908.
The Empress Hotel in 2008
It’s hard to believe that boys once paddled their canoes to school across the present-day site of the world-famous Empress Hotel. Yet way back in the 1860s, water lapped at the edge of the grassy bank behind the Church of the Lord.
Over the decades, industrial buildings lined the Humboldt Street waterfront, and by the 1890s, James Bay was fouled by floating debris and rank with rotting garbage. Each ebbing tide revealed mudflats soiled with scum from a nearby soap factory.
The city was suitably embarrassed by this blot on its landscape. Canadian Pacific steamships were already tying up at the dock in the Inner Harbour. There was talk of a bridge from the mainland. And in the middle of it all, right where it mattered the most, was this evil-smelling eyesore.
Local businessmen and politicians lobbied for a clean-up job and construction of a major hotel. Citizens approved a bylaw that authorized construction of a causeway and filling-in of the mudflats. Many schemes were proposed, but only one—for a tourist hotel in grand CP style—was seriously considered.
Tempted by the promise of property, along with tax and water concessions, CPR president Sir Thomas Shaughnessy agreed to investigate the possibility. Francis Rattenbury, architect of the recently constructed Legislative Buildings, sketched his vision of Victoria’s harbour. His drawings were received with enthusiasm. The city struck an agreement with CPR to build the hotel, and in the early 1900s, work began.
A cofferdam was constructed on the site of the old James Bay Bridge, and over several months, all the water was drained out of the bay. Close to three thousand 50-foot-long Douglas fir pilings were driven deep into the mud. Rocks and gravel were trucked in from surrounding areas. Poured concrete piers and a platform provided a firm foundation for the new structure.
Victorians watched with amazement as Rattenbury’s design took shape. Work carried on apace, and by the end of January 1908 the hotel was open for business. What to call it? Let’s recognize the connection between the city’s namesake, who was also Empress of India, and my company’s fleet of Empress liners, said Shaughnessy. So “The Empress” it became.
What a place! The dining room had noise-absorbing, fabric-covered walls and richly wooded pillars. The lounge was spacious, its large windows affording a sweeping view of the Inner Harbour. Guestrooms were furnished with exquisite taste. Off the main floor lobby, the ladies’ drawing room, with its unique painted plaster ceiling, allowed wives to wait in comfort while husbands registered them at the hotel desk. At the bananas-and-cream-coloured porte-cochère, a coach with solid brass mountings and leather-upholstered seats waited to take guests to places of local interest.
The new hotel’s 160 rooms were soon booked solid. By 1914, north and south wings had been built, along with a ballroom, a stained-glass-domed Palm Court, and a reading and writing room (now the Bengal Lounge). The Humboldt Wing was completed in 1929.
The hotel employed and attracted a wonderful cast of characters including locals, members of royal families, famous Hollywood actors and high-ranking international politicians. However, it was badly affected by the Depression years, and was also the victim of changing styles. Grand, expensive hotels were not as popular any more. At one point, Empress management allowed wealthy widows to rent rooms for one dollar a day in order to keep the hotel occupied, but by the end of the 1950s it was clear that more drastic action was needed.
In 1965, “Operation Teacup” attempted to modernize the hotel by replacing the antiques with teak furniture and polished-wood floors with broadloom. The Humboldt Wing proclaimed itself “The Empress Motor Lodge.” These changes carried the hotel through the next two decades, then saner heads prevailed. In 1988, a “Royal Restoration” saw the teak taken out, the antiques returned, and the broadloom removed.
The Empress has regained much of its former glory. All that’s missing is the cast of characters who added so much colour during those early years. Still, it’s quite an achievement, reaching 100!
Danda Humphreys is the author of a number of books about Victoria’s history. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the February 2008 edition of Focus Magazine.