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The Empress Hotel

Terry Reksten

Terry Reksten on the Empress Hotel.

Accession Number Interviewer SSI Historical Society Address
Date September 12, 2000 Location Central Hall
Media tape Audio CD mp3
ID 175 Duration 40 min.




Unknown Speaker 0:06
What I'm going to do this afternoon is show you some slides give you a feeling for the appraisal challenge and the different areas through which it's existed. And then turn back the lights on and he just in case maybe you've come to hear some gossip and scandal or give it to you there. I hate going to see an illustrated talk where you have a slide up on his screen for 10 minutes while somebody's talking about something else. So I'm going to blast through the first part and then get to the second. So without further ado, if somebody can turn on the projector and kill a few lights

Unknown Speaker 0:54
This is Victoria. At the turn of the century, Victorian 1900 was desperately looking for a new identity. The city had been the largest in the province, the most important city in the province, a center of business, industry, and commerce. But that role have now been taken by Vancouver, thanks to the CPR deciding to em the tracks on the mainland instead of Vancouver Island. industries were slipping away to the mainland. And Victorians were trying to think trying to find another identity for their city. Another reason that their city could could do well, economically. Tourism of course, was a possibility. By 1891, the CPR have started to bring it sleek, white Empress liners to the city's outer war. And they were carrying with them a new kind of traveler, people who weren't traveling just for business people who were traveling for pleasure, wealthy people, just the kind of people Victoria hoped would come stay look around their city and perhaps invest for travel was the only hotel in town was the dream. It had been in large it was right downtown. It was a city hotel. It was a very Victorian era hotel full of heavy red plush and carved mahogany furniture. And well, you certainly couldn't have called it a resort hotel. It was really more designed for businessmen. And that was one problem. The second problem Victoria had and making itself over as a tourist destination were the James Bay MUD flow until 1901. Victoria's Inner Harbor extended well inland of where it is today. Here were the old bird cages now beside of the parliament buildings, then a bridge going across the old mud flats connecting the legislative precinct to the downtown area. In this old view that my flat seen, well, maybe sort of picturesque garden nice waterfront, but the reality was somewhat different. When the tide went out, and sun shone down on walking seaweed, a certain aroma came up from those girls plague cloud bed Cloudbeds. The other trouble was that the people who lived in the James Bay residential area as they went across the bridge, going into the city, why often carry your garbage I got him to the middle of the bridge click into the water. The building on the right of the bridge the three storey building there was the Pendry soap factory, and the Soap Factory released everything leftover from the you know all the golf good fats and oils leftover for making soap into the water web, where it would ride back and forth on the tie. In 1901, citizens were asked to support a money by law to spend $100,000 To have the old mud flats filled in and the bridge replaced with a causeway. The medical health officer encouraged us to support the by law. He said the old mudflats were an absolute menace to health. He reported finding not one but two dead horses floating off the water. Well, citizens were alarmed. They began to say typhoid disease and they happily supporting the notion of raising their cats. Work began almost immediately. 700 wouldn't pilot We're driven down into the clay behind a coffer dam that was built to keep back the waters of the Inner Harbor, you can still see the old bridge on the right. And below it there are our Douglas fir pilings being driven in. Once the pilings were in place, a stone wall was built on top of them again, still see the old bridge up above. This way, I mean, this was making an enormous change to the whole look or have the potential to make a real change to the whole look of this area of the city. The whole thing was that once you got the cause when he built that bridge replaced and filled him with a permanent roadway, what were you going to have or kind of or you're going to have the old mud flats. They brought in a dredge that sat on the other side of the causeway and scooped all the mud out of the harbor by him and shot it over the causeway into the old mud flood all fine, you end up with five and a half acres of mud 30 feet deep. What are you going to do with it? Well, I mean, at least it didn't smell anymore. At least it wasn't Minister hell. Victorians thought and city council thought, well, we can let it settle. And then we'll plant grass on it and it'll be a public park that somebody else had a better idea. Frank Rattenbury was the rational architect to 10 years earlier, and won the contract to design the parliament buildings in Victoria. He recognized those reclaimed my flats as the single most spectacular building site in the city. He also knew that the city council was desperate for the CPR to build a tourist hotel. If the CPR built a tourist hotel in Victoria, Victoria would become the subject of worldwide publicity campaigns that the railroad was running. So Rattenbury knew about the site. And he knew that city council was getting pretty desperate about the notion of a tourist hotel. When CPR President Sir Thomas Shaughnessy came to Victoria, in 1903, the mayor and members of his council waited on him on bended knee, begging him to build a hotel, a first shot as he played hard to get. But he had written briefs five and a half acres in mind. And finally he said, Well, I mean, we don't really want to build a hotel. I mean, the railroad really isn't in the hotel business. But if you'll give us the land free of cost. And if you exempt us from taxes for 15 years, then we'll agree to Bill Well, city council sets sounds good to us, they could hardly wait to hand the land over to the CPR. The city also had to guarantee to continue filling the land right up to the level of the causeway in this photograph, the old bridge has been replaced by the permanent roadway the causeway now now an extension of Government Street, and now sand and gravel, and all kinds of fill or being trapped to the site. Put on top of the mud that it's settled, trying to get it up to the proper level. Meanwhile, Chicago engineers worried about how are you going to build a six storey brick and stone Hotel on 30 feet of mud. They came up with an interesting solution. But while they were working, disaster almost struck. I don't know if you've ever if you've been to Victoria walked along. And there's this sort of look out there you can go and have a look. It's bigger. But you can go and have a look can sort of stand out and look into the harbor. And it looks like it's there artistically or on purpose and isn't in 1904 when the field was busy going on. somebody walking along here notice that the coping stone on top of the causeway retaining wall was eight inches off true. The whole fill all the mud flats, were in danger of just voids push right out and back into the harbor. The city engineer was in a panic. He ordered the construct well again more pilings driven down under construction of a huge concrete buttress. And so that is there to keep the causeway in place in large now, but that was its basic function. People wonder, you know, if you if you walk out the front door, push the old front door, and there's the walkway right down to Government Street. And you would think that that would be squared with it that you could go on and it's not it's off center. And that's why. So when you sit down there, you're standing on a well, an

Unknown Speaker 10:33
architectural improvisation problem of the foundation would solve by driving 2855 Douglas fir pilots down through the sail down through the mud and into the clay, the law, they do not go to bedrock, their friction pilot, each one was 50 feet long. If you laid them end to end, they'd stretch for I think 27 miles. It was a huge undertaking. After the pilots or there have been myths over the years that that exotics wood woods were used, I mean, I've heard Australian gum wood and I've always thought Scheepers you know, they were surrounded by Douglas fir. And the contract called for Douglas. The the pilings themselves were examined in 1988 and found to be sound without rot. Partly because they're, they're not exposed to air. After the pilings were in place, huge concrete piers, you can just see the forms at the top of the picture. Huge concrete piers were built on top of them. And on those piers that the hotel was built. This is what they look like in the empty space today. So these huge concrete pilings, or piers on top of the wooden pilings. And it's not quite true that the tide still comes in and out in the output space. But there are times at a high tide really high tides, when the basement is definitely wetter than it is at others. There was a time in the 1930s when this sub basement area was full of a colony of feral cat. Staff members have told me they would go down there with a flashlight for one reason, you know, inspect pipes or something and shine their light into the darkness and all these eyes would be looking back. But I don't think they're there anymore. By 1906, the Empress was looking like this. It was an enormous structure for Victoria at the time where you get better again, remember the old mud flats earlier? Here's the hotel going up where those mud flats used to be. I mean, it just dwarfed everything in town. It was well, I mean, it was way out of scale for a city hotel, a city the size of Victoria. But of course it was never just going to be that it was going to be a resort hotel, a true tourist hotel. When the hotel finally opened in 1908 people lining the decks of the CPR schemers could really appreciate the genius of Frank Rattenbury, the man who had chosen this site. You know, in the old days, the CP coastal steamers used to sail right into the Inner Harbor right into where the wax museum is today in the Inner Harbor. And it's it's not a straight shot with the victory come around a couple of points and it's not a wrap until you come around the last one that you get your view of downtown Victoria and for people lining the railings of the ships as they came around that last point. Bam they saw it done in the CPR corporate style of French toast look and can you imagine the impression that made on people you know, I'm telling you if you find a few collect old postcards and you find postcards set from Victorian you know Nike tan up to the 30s 40s all of them will mention the Empress the Empress was the building that everybody came to identify with Victoria, more so than the parliament buildings in its day. When people arrived, I mean none of this to Wasson knots right into the harbor. It was It was spectacular. It was instantly popular I mean, just the second. I mean, here's the wide veranda, the front, you could get a view of the parliament buildings to your left or look ahead at the waters of the Inner Harbor. All of this of course designed for sitting out for leisure for enjoying the view. The Empress this was the ladies parlor in the prisons, and it was sort of the ladies withdrawing. If it was just too much the hustle bustle of the lobby, you could you could retreat here, and it has the most ornate plaster ceiling of any other room in the Empress Hotel. Some of you may remember it late years later, it became the library bar. Anybody remember drinking the library bar was was my favorite place to drink in the press. I liked it way better than the coronet lounge or the Bengal block. It was always the library bar for union one of the staff members that Alterra you know why that is don't you? They always serve doubles the lounge of the Empress the main lobby. It was well, it was the cutting edge of a Gordion design. You know you think about the Victorian era, the heavy red flash. Look at this clean and green with patches of rescue red, sort of almost almost bare compared to Victorian era styling. This this color scheme was taken throughout the building, including the elegant dining room. I must admit though, every time I look at this, it's proportions remind me of a railroad car died. The stealing of the dining room over the years has won praise. It's this wonderful carved wood ceiling. But it's not. If you go into the Emperor's and you walk through the dining room have a good look. Look up. It's molded plaster painted to look like wood. And it has been fooling people since 19. Oh. The piece de resistance was the palm court the wonderful stained glass dome, again, a place to go and take tea, maybe write letters. It was again, just just real cutting edge stuff for its day. The first summer it filled capacity every night. By 1909. The company had already decided to build an addition for the original hotel. The rat race first design had been designed as a you with two wings going off to the north. And so they built the north winds the first floor of the North wing and put the kitchenette and in 1910 they thought well we're doing well enough we'll we'll add the other stories and enlarge the hotel. It just happened that Lizzie McGrath was working at the hotel at the time. She was 50 years old, her husband was a whaler was a way a lot of the years so Lizzie took her job at the Empress and lived right in the top floor and one of those six floor bedrooms that were designed for live in staff. It happened that she was there when the Empress edition was being planned. Which even know was the first thing the contractor did before he bucket the addition up to the hotel was take down all the fire escapes that existed at the top of the U that night, Lizzie decided to follow her usual practice of saying her rosary in the privacy of the sixth floor fire escape. She marched down to the end of the hall through open the door and stepped out onto the method. People always ask me if there's a ghost em person. I've never heard of one but but if there were, I would, I would normally lose it John the wings of North Wing look like this. By the time it was completed this photograph probably taken probably about 1920. And every time I look at this, just look there's no victory that there must have been worse. Just know Trump. It was decided right away to build another way, the South way. And construction of that this is looking at the back of the hotel, the North wing on the right. And the south wing on the left began in 1912. And if you notice The South wing, the wing on the left, is larger than the North when the CPR got greedy, they decided they built a larger space than had already been designed. The trouble was, the frames hadn't been put in for that for that extra space. So new pilings have to be driven. And therein lies a problem with which the Emperor's is still coping today,

Unknown Speaker 20:27
it gets by the time they got up to about the fifth floor of that 1912 When they noticed that it was set clear. They have had to put all kinds of survey markers around the press because of this settlement problem. And the differential now, between the southern the south west corner of the building, and the North East is over 30 inches. So you wouldn't want to put a marble down in the Empress Hotel corridor and expect it not to move. The 1912 edition included the Crystal Ballroom, this wonderful ballroom hadn't been in the original hotel, but added now was a daylight ceiling. It meant that in the summer, you know, the sun would shine into the crystal chandeliers and at night. At night you could dance away looking at the moon and the stars. Just this room really, ultimately became the social part of Victoria. There was hardly any club or organization that didn't have some connection with this room over the years. Here's the making 12 edition now with the emphasis own tallyho its own special coach for tours. The the Emperor's of course, had the bad luck to complete this new edition just just before the outbreak of the First World War and the hotel and not well nothing in British Columbia did well during the first war. The Empress in particular because all the unpress liners were requisition for war work. But things picked up in the 20s. And by 1929, another huge addition the humble Street wing was being planned. Unfortunately, it opened in December 1929. Right on the eve of the Depression, timing wasn't great. This used to be by the way the vice regal see could always pick it up if you're going to have the highest ceiling. But over the years, the vice regal suite has been shifted moved in. And now there really isn't one. The 1929 edition included the conservatory for lots of people the favorite space in the UK because a lot of people Shirley Temple had her photograph taken here at the fountain people used to go and and to make a wish. This is how the Emperor slept on the completion of the 1929 wing and this is how I think most of us longtime British Colombians remember it that sort of random outline almost looking like the Rocky Mountains in a way like mountains and valleys. The the original part of the building by now really covered in ivy, and the new standard rather starkly. But this is the look of the Empress as it remained for for the next what 60 5060 years. The 30s Of course, we're not too terrific for the Empress. This is this is pretty quiet. This is the main lobby the main lounge the the real center of the building, the Emperor's had to struggle to to make do it was during the theories that they started to really, really promote the idea of long term residents of permanent residents. The little six floor bedrooms that I should say first, it wasn't cheap to say we are Christian. In 1930. You could get a double room with bow and all your meals in the dining room for $375 a month. But a labor a Labor's average wage at the same time was only eight. So you still have to be fairly well heeled to stay. To encourage more people. Yonkers decided to let the six four bedrooms that had been pre staff rent out for $1 a day with no meal. And this began the era of the Empress Dowager the story of Little widows who moved here and counted their pennies. There were stories of they moved Dealing with hot plates didn't want to eat the dining room plates in their sixth floor room. There is one in particular who tended to fill the corridors of the sixth floor with the aroma of liver and onions. Another of these dear ladies was supposed to make strawberry jam on a hot plate they may do other permanent residents though of course we're, we're rather more well heeled. This is Lady Mary Emily sweat. She was the widow of the former governor of Jamaica. This taken about the turn of the century Lady Emily moved into the hotel when she was a widow. And when she was 66, and she remained a permanent guest of the hotel until her death at 77. So she had resided in the hotel for 11 years. You can just imagine the English accent this woman would have had, and statuesque, almost like Queen Alexandra in a way and in her poise, but American tourists would just love the sight of of Lady Emily and the other permanent guests that it sort of gave Victoria this whole feeling of Englishness and eccentricity when you would see somebody like Mary, Lady Mary Emily by the time she's in her 70s coupled with arthritis on two canes, dressed in in block to her ankles with a Chantilly lace shawl over her shoulder. Lady Emily when she first arrived in Victoria was very generous to all kinds of organizations. She made lots of donations. But as her years increased, she began to worry about her finances and charity bazaars became reduced to Lady Mary Emily sweat and standard donation, it would be gift to you hopefully gift tiny bars and so that when you unless you could read the words, Empress Hotel

Unknown Speaker 27:17
in the 30s as well the Empress decided to start capitalizing on its guard. You know Victoria, who more so in the past, I suppose the now that Victoria was known as the City of gardens. And I really, you know, I really think that the Emperor's was responsible for that. Partly because of their nine acres of garden this places. As well as the gift from the city, the CPR acquired additional land until the Empress was literally set in a nine acre garden. This shot is taken in 1908. It hardly looks as if the hotel is open. But already work is begun on the garden on the roads are worrisome. And just well, the landscaping just everything. Younger has had its own team of gardeners done at this contracting out. They grew everything that was planted in the gardens under 20,000 square feet of greenhouse grass or greenhouse glass that was located at the back of the building this shot from the 40s but showing this sort of maturity of the gardens, and how long they were used to promote Victoria. The original landscape architect for the Yonkers hotel was Fred Saunders had had apprentice to betrayed in a serious state in a big country house in Surrey. And when he came to design the postcard was he designed English country house a state guard curving pathways, wide perennial bored with Styria, on warm brick walls and and arborists just heavy the center grows. And remember, there wasn't all the traffic so you can stay at the Emperor's and the wandering through it's brown and you can really feel that you are on the grounds at some country's state. And the Empress really began to promote this idea of people in the summers that time, as much time folded into the deck chairs in the garden, as they did, sitting in the lounge. There were tennis courts there was pitching golf and everything to to underlying the idea that this was a resort hotel. Another thing that really became popular in the 30s was Christmas at Christmas at the Empress began in 1928. Before the depression as a technique of hotels to get Victorians in for dinner. So they promoted The Old English Christmas you know sort of a back chameleon the rebel with the boars head and carolers and, and the full medieval pomp for $2.50. So head, I was very popular. And the celebration began to expand not just from Christmas dinner and dance, but through the whole Christmas week, people started to come from all over North America for the emphasis interpretation of Christmas. And after the light score, I'll tell you about how the fact that people came back year after year after year, the staff told me there is one gentleman now who had been they don't do it anymore, but who had been coming back to the Empress for 24 years, every Christmas. And the fact that people came back and returned and could be counted on accounts for probably the best life story commodity. If I have time when the lights go on. Remember I told you that Crystal Ballroom was the heart and soul of Victoria will one was this is the Firemen's ball from 1937. The firemen, the policemen, the Press Club, every organization had an annual formal down dresses to the four corsages. And of course, the only place to have it was the Crystal Ballroom at the Empress Hotel. Do you know they all associate in this photograph, but there was something else going on at the time. British Columbia and Victoria had very bizarre liquor law. It was possible legal to purchase alcohol, but only for private consumption. In other words, only in your own home. So it adapts like this. There was no cocktail lounge, there was no bar, there was no drinking of any kind. So what people going to these balls used to do, few friends would get together and they'd rent a bedroom to drink. Trouble was, you know, so you'd come down gasps a few dances and scurry back, take the elevator up, go to the bedroom, have a few quick ones and back down to the dance. Dance a few more gets back up to the bedroom belt back a few. Well, you know what happened. Um, people started spending more time in the bedroom bars than they get the ballroom. There was a bellboy from the 1930s had said to me the firemen and the policemen. They were the worst. He could remember fire hoses being pushed out of windows and turned on. We could remember people time sheets together and shimmying out of fourth and fifth storey rooms. Apparently the whole place just practically broke up furniture flying out of the windows. Because, you know, if you bought a bottle of whiskey, you couldn't take it away, and you're certainly not going to leave it half full. So it's one of those times when Well, I think we all know this anyway, that these kinds of restrictive laws do not lead to moderation, or they're more likely to lead to roaring drugs, and they certainly did in the case of the Emperor. During the Warriors, here's the youngers again but now the gap says they'll always be an England a very military turn. The Emperor's did really well out of the Second World War. There were a lot of refugees from Europe from England, and from the south of France who decided to come to British Columbia, to Victoria to the Emperor's to sit out the war, and a very comfortable way of doing that. Until of course the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Vancouver Island the west coast of Vancouver Island suddenly seemed like it was on the front line and the Empress Hotel instituted blackout regulations and converted its lower level rooms into airy children's. But for a while it looked pretty safe. Victoria Philip was servicemen. The naval base it expanded the RAF as well as the RCA if we're training pilots, I would have charged Patricia Bay. Anybody with lead came into Victoria, and most ended up at the Empress for one thing or another. There are lots of young servicemen and women who really learned the art of gracious living or at least gracious dining in the unpressed dining room visits, heavy white linen and heavy silver. It also became the hotel also became honeymoon Center. This is a young sailor from Seattle who's decided that Victorian the Emperor's would be a good place for his honeymoon. And he and his bride photographed each other in the Emperor's grounds. I mean, they were just thrilled with a place. It was so thrilled that they even took a photograph of their honeymoon suite

Unknown Speaker 35:27
Hello, yes, I am present seen better games. This is from the 1929 when you don't matter hold that. Oh, excuse me. But just the Empress by the 40s was sliding into a kind of genteel decay. This is how the palm court remember the stained glass dome. And this is how it looked by the late 40s, early 50s. Stained furniture really bad. The other lobby carpets. I mean every looking down this room is is the lounge, you know that wonderful cream and green and look at it. Now. The thing that's so extraordinary about these pictures if you look at them closely, it's everywhere. You look there ashtrays. It just seems so odd to see them inside. But it had really, if it was trading on anything, it was trading on a name that it didn't deserve anymore. The Emperor's had definitely seen better gauge the CPR was spending nothing on nothing after the 1929 edition other than just make basic repairs. The hotel was just left to go downhill. This is a CPR promotional photograph. Now this is one of their best in the early 1950s. This is what they're boasting about. I look at it. Look at the bedspread, it should kneel. You know it's not luxury anymore. It's not first grade. But the only money spent on young person in the 1950s was when the liquor laws finally changed. And the old reading and writing room became the coronet lounge, the first cocktail lounge, the Empress had seen a magic not until 1954. Could the Emperor's dining room serve wine with dinner was apparently a huge problem. Well, maybe not the wine but the fact they couldn't serve anything else with dinner when Winston Churchill dined at the hotel in 1929. But staff reliably telling me that he was served his favourite tipple the skies in a China teapot. So there were ways around by the 1960s, the Empress was losing money. Now the CPR had promised in exchange for the land to build a hotel and keep it open for 50 years. Those years expired, of course, in 1958. So from then on, you know, it was really, the CPR was really considering its option in an attempt to make money. Honestly, these guys didn't know what they were doing. They get away with the tennis courts to get away with the rose gardens, they built the bus terminal and rented it to Pacific stage lines and tore down the greenhouses that had grown all the plants paved over that whole section of the garden. And you know, they get so little money from renting out that darn bus depot now. And it sure doesn't do much for for the for the What does CPR was trying to come to grips with was that they had a money losing proposition on their hands. It was part of the design of the hotel, you know, it's sort of grown Higgledy Piggledy, this was the 1929 when and it didn't really even join the hotel. There was no way of getting a footing down when they tried to put pilots between that old, old 19 and the new. So basically, they put a bridge between the two of us to be able to drive under that bridge between the two halves of the building. But I can't point to from here, but the registration area was right at the right hand top of this sketch. She came in up there and registered. Well, you know, they always told me it was always the people who didn't want to be shown to their room. Who wouldn't be able to find it or who would lose. It was a mile it's still like a mile. If you've got in up there, got it an elevator and had to get to a room up here. People used to ask Should we get lost? Come back? I can't find it. It was a problem. The design the layout was a problem. What was the real problem was the electricity from 1908. The Emperors had generated its own power from a power station that ended up just across the street. The trouble was that the power generated arrived in the form of direct current. I was finding it noi was fine in 1929 Because all this electricity is doing is the lighting a few lights. By the 1960s people are traveling with things like electric razors, hair dryers, portable radio, small radios that you can plug in, all of which operated on alternating current. If you plugged one of those into the Emperor's power and turned it on it went poor and blew everything out. What the hotel used to keep a stock of direct current sanitary razors at the front desk, and a tourist could come and borrow one of The