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  • The New England Hotel

    By Danda Humphreys

    Sweet memories of days gone by


    The New England Hotel in 2007


    Wandering north along Government Street on a warm, sunny day, it’s hard to pass people on the side-walk with ice creams without giving in to temptation and joining the line-up at the counter inside. Several blocks closer to the Inner Harbour, it’s just as hard to pass Victoria’s most famous chocolate shop without our noses leading us inside to sample the wares.

    Two stores serving tantalizing treats, several blocks apart. Yet a tragic tale links them, as we’ll soon discover.

    The fourth-floor façade of the heritage building at 1312 Government Street boasts the words “Established 1858.” That’s when— at the very beginning of the Fraser River gold rush—George and Fritz Steitz founded an eatery here. They called it “The New England Restaurant,” and it quickly earned a reputation up and down the coast.

    Business was brisk, but by 1864 the Steitz brothers were itching to get back to the gold fields. George had a notion to import camels for use as pack animals in the Cariboo. It seemed like a good idea, but the poor beasts’ soft hooves were totally unsuited to the rocky ground, and the venture failed. Steitz, sensing that in any case his restaurant days were over, sold the Victoria business.

    It changed hands several times. In 1877, new owners Michael Young and his son Louis opened a bakery and added a room “For Ladies and Families Exclusively,” which served reasonably priced meals at all hours. The business was such a success that soon they were ready to expand. The old 1858 structure was demolished; architect John Teague designed its replacement; and in October 1892, the new “New England Hotel” celebrated its grand opening

    The four-storey brick building was an impressive sight, thanks to Teague’s use of iron structural piers and tall, cast iron bay windows. The 40 guest rooms were illuminated by electric light, and were served by hot-water washrooms and bathrooms on each floor. Ceilings were high, and the full-length windows were hung with plush velvet drapes. On the main floor, the restaurant was complemented by a huge dining room and rooms for private parties. The basement housed extensive wine cellars and the bakery’s great stone ovens.

    The hotel became a firm favourite with visitors from far and wide, but toward the end of the 1890s a smallpox scare quarantined Victoria, and the city’s hotels suffered tremendous losses. Somehow, the New England Hotel survived. In the early 1900s, it was at the height of its glory. Guests were appre-ciative, food was cheap, and business was brisker than it had ever been. But around this time, a terrible tragedy occurred. A teenaged boy died in one of the hotel’s rooms.

    The boy was 15-year-old Fred Rogers. As Charles and Leah Rogers’ only child, he was heir to their chocolate-making empire, and his father was anxious to bring the boy into the family business. Fred, however, had not the slightest interest in making chocolates. Instead, he developed a morbid fascination with explosives.

    In 1905, one tragedy followed another. First, Fred lost three fingers in an explosives-related accident. A few months later, he rented a room at the New England Hotel, a few blocks from his parents’ store, wrote them a note saying that he could not fulfill their dreams, then shot himself to death with a handgun.

    Over the years, the hotel’s fortunes changed. World War I and the ensuing Depression took their toll, and by 1934 the hotel was in debt. The furniture and fixtures were sold a year later for a total of $1,100.

    Subsequent owners rented its rooms, ran restaurants, leased space to a tattoo parlour, an antique shop, and a dance hall, among others. Eventually, in 1978, the current owner declared himself unable to come up with the $55,000 needed to comply with fire regulations. The upper-floor renters were forced to leave, and the space they vacated has been empty ever since.

    Present owners Shukry and Connie Reggep, who ran Ivanhoe’s Restaurant on the main floor for some years and have operated an ice-cream parlour there since 1982, would like to see the building in full use again. But the cost of renovations and upgrading is daunting. It would take an awful lot of ice- cream cones to bring this building back to its former glory.

    Today, the aroma of freshly made candy draws customers into Rogers’ Chocolates. Just three blocks away, the smell of freshly made waffle cones has people lining up at “Sweet Memories,” on the main floor of a building that serves as a faded reminder of the once-vibrant business that started on this site 150 years ago.

    Danda Humphreys has eaten more ice cream than she cares to admit while taking a peek into Victoria’s fascinating past. Dandahumphreys.com.

    This story was published in the October 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.

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