The Secret History of the Hotel Vancouver

The following article was contributed by Will Woods as part of our Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past series.

Here is a puzzle for you. Take a walk into the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver on Georgia Street. Stand under the grand chandelier (warning – you may need to move a table and a large bouquet of flowers to do this – best check with the concierge first), and then consider the following question.

In which direction is the ‘centre’ of Vancouver?

Is it north, deeper into the business district? South to Robson Street, the retail centre? East to Granville Street and the entertainment district? West to the dense condo land of Coal Harbour and ultimately Stanley Park?

By my estimation, the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver is the very ‘centre’ of Vancouver. I spend hours every week walking the streets of Vancouver as a walking tour guide. For the life of me, I can’t think of a single spot more central. Other suggestions are welcome!

The lobby of the Hotel Vancouver today – is this our city’s most central point?

If the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver is the centre of Vancouver, does that mean the Hotel Vancouver is central to our city’s history? Let’s find out!

First off, while over 70 years old, the Hotel Vancouver is in fact the third incarnation of the Hotel. The first, rather more modest, version opened in 1888. The Canadian Pacific Railway had arrived in 1886 and delivered its first passenger train the following year. The CPR figured it made sense to build a hotel to house the many tourists, businessmen, migrant workers, tradespeople, chancers and gamblers now flooding into Vancouver on the sparkling new railway.

The first Hotel Vancouver

While modest by today’s standards, the original Hotel Vancouver was by far the city’s largest hotel at the time with 60 guest rooms. It sat at the corner of Georgia and Granville Streets, today a bustling intersection that also has a legitimate claim to be the city’s ‘central point’. Yet in 1888 the Hotel Vancouver was surrounded by forest on all sides. An “utterly foolish location in the opinion of most citizens”, according to historian Eric Nicol.

W.C. Van Horne, the CPR executive who led the expansion of the railway into Vancouver, at the time added further disdain on the city’s new hotel. Upon meeting the architect, T.C. Sorly, he remarked “so you’re the damn fool who spoilt the building with all those little windows”.

W.C. Van Horne. He didn’t like small windows.

Despite its ‘out-of-town’ locale and little windows, the first Hotel Vancouver survived a shaky first couple of years to ultimately do a roaring trade. So much so that by 1916 the CPR replaced it with a far larger and grander hotel – the second Hotel Vancouver. By now the population of Vancouver was well over 100,000, having been around 5,000 in 1888 when the first hotel was built. It was time for Vancouver to have its first truly world-class hotel.

The second Hotel Vancouver. Note Vancouver’s courthouse (now the Vancouver Art Gallery) on the right

The second Hotel Vancouver was considered one of the British Empire’s grandest hotels. Built in the ornate grand Italianate revival style, apparently every bathroom had marble sinks and gold-plate faucetry. The hotel had ballrooms, lounges and even an adjacent opera house. Famous guests included Winston Churchill, Sarah Bernhardt and Babe Ruth. The rooftop dining room and dance floor, the Panorama Roof, was the place to hang out during the roaring 20`s and (as the name suggests) offered panoramic views of the city.

Winston Churchill – stayed at the second Hotel Vancouver

Around the time the second Hotel Vancouver was being built the province was undergoing a frenzy of railway building. Between 1910 and 1916 over 4,000km of track was laid in BC. Much of this railway building was led by the CPR, the builders of both the first and second Hotel Vancouvers. But the CPR was not the only show in town. The Canadian Northern Railway had arrived in Vancouver in 1904 with a modest station on Pender Street in Chinatown. By 1912 they were a serious player in the province`s railway business.

That year Canadian Northern negotiated a deal with the City of Vancouver to fill in the Eastern end of False Creek, which at the time extended almost to Clark Drive, in order to build a railyard and new station. As part of the deal they agreed to construct a new 500-room hotel downtown, on the corner of Burrard and Georgia. After all, why should the CPR get all the city’s hotel business?

The First World War put the brakes on the third Hotel Vancouver’s construction

Then things started to become unstuck. The First World War stopped the hotel’s construction in its tracks. Money and workers were dedicated to winning the war, not building hotels. The project finally kicked off in 1928 after much intense negotiation between the City of Vancouver and Canadian Northern (now Canadian National after it went bankrupt during the war and fell under government ownership). However before it was finished the Great Depression had arrived and funds ran out.

The steel frame of the partially-built hotel would stand over the city for almost a decade. A giant monument to the dire financial plight the depression wrought upon Vancouver.

The unfinished third Hotel Vancouver in 1931 – a monument to the Great Depression

The hotel’s construction was finally re-started in 1937 as a public works project. The aim being to bring much needed jobs and investment to Vancouver and help pull the city out of its financial malaise.

As part of the (somewhat murky) deal to build the new hotel, the CPR agreed to close the second Hotel Vancouver. I’ve been unable to get to the bottom of the precise arrangement between Canadian National, the CPR and the City of Vancouver that led to the closure of the second Hotel Vancouver and the completion of the third. Rumour has it the second Hotel Vancouver was structurally unsound and no longer safe for use as a hotel. It’s also certainly the case that having excess hotel capacity in Vancouver was in nobody’s interest, especially at the tail end of a depression.

The second Hotel Vancouver sat empty for several years after its closure. After the Second World War, it was over-taken by returning army veterans who had been left homeless by the city’s high rents and expensive real estate (sound familiar?). A wonderful account of The Night War Vets Seized the Vancouver Hotel was written by Claudia Cornwall in the Tyee, recounting the exploits of ring-leader Bob McEwan who in 1946 marched a group of homeless army vets into the empty hotel and took up residence.

Following the storming of the hotel and bowing to public pressure the Province announced the second Hotel Vancouver would become an army barracks for returning vets, a purpose which it served until 1948 when it was finally torn down. Looking back, it’s too bad there was no Vancouver Heritage organization at the time to fight for the preservation of the hotel. It may be the finest building ever demolished in Vancouver.

So what of the third Hotel Vancouver? It was constructed in the style of a 16th century French Chateau, heavily favoured by Canadian railway companies at the time. The hotel stands 111 metres high and was the tallest building in the city when finished and open for business in 1939. It has now been in business longer than its predecessors managed combined. It’s remarkable in a city as young as Vancouver that we could have had three versions of any building, especially when the most recent version is 73 years old!

The third Hotel Vancouver in 1939, the year it opened

The ‘new’ Hotel Vancouver has a rich history all of its own. Now part of the Fairmont hotel chain, It housed the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s Vancouver bureau until 1975. It has its own resident ghost, the spirit of long deceased guest Jennie Pearl Cox. And according to my recent conversations with the hotel’s engineering team, it houses a network of underground tunnels long and labyrinthine enough that nobody who works there has the courage to explore them. Originally built as part of a system to heat neighbouring buildings, the tunnels now sit dormant and unused. Perhaps Jennie’s ghost hides in them when she is not spooking hotel guests!

So next time you are on a wander downtown, perhaps in search of the city’s true centre, take a stroll into the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver. Look around and consider a hotel truly deserving of its name and location.

Courtesy David Paul Ohmer

Will Woods is founder and Chief Storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver (www.forbiddenvancouver.ca

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11 Responses to The Secret History of the Hotel Vancouver

  1. Well that is fascinating. I’ll definitely never look at the building the same way again!

  2. Jeff perro

    Great article, but I disagree about it being the centre of Vancouver. Centre of downtown, yes. But Vancouver is much bigger than that. I put the real centre at Queen Elizabeth park.

  3. MercyMathew

    I read and very impressed and happy to see all the details .

  4. As far as I understand it, they rushed to finish the current HV for the 1939 royal visit. The government negotiated to make it a joint CN/CPR project, and part of the deal was that the 2nd HV would be torn down. Then WWII happened and they used #2 as a barracks for the duration of the war.

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  6. David Banks

    One correction to an otherwise excellent article. The steel frame was completed by the end of 1931. Yeah, I too had heard this before; perhaps “Empty Shell” (the interior was incompete for years) has been misinterpreted over the decades as ‘steel frame’, especially when looking at photos like the one in this article.

    Note dates on photos.

    April 1931
    http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/uploads/r/null/1/3/1335535/7350ccb7-1414-49a2-9af3-4c4c2b62ff09-A17365.jpg

    Nov 1931
    http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/uploads/r/null/1/3/1335587/3354b623-afe5-4281-8365-5fc40b9cdd8d-A17372.jpg

    Sept 1932

    http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/uploads/r/null/1/3/1336080/2f14221d-8099-4806-a664-f1741cda5196-A17375.jpg

  7. Jack

    Mr. Woods, I.m interested to find out what those statues are, that sit on the three corners of the east side. I was able to take a picture of them from across the street. They look like a ram sitting on its hind legs. I think.

  8. Jim

    “The Canadian Northern Railway had arrived in Vancouver in 1904 with a modest station on Pender Street in Chinatown. By 1912 they were a serious player in the province`s railway business.”

    The above statement is not quite right. To clarify: It was the Vancouver Westminster & Yukon (VW&Y) that opened a small station in 1910 at Carrall and Pender (later the building housed the Marco Polo Cafe).

    The VW&Y was bought by the Vancouver Westminster Victoria & Eastern (VV&E) and that railroad started building a station on the recently filled in False Creek flats.

    Both railroads were controlled by the Great Northern Railway. The new VV&E (Great Northern) station opened in 1916. The new Canadian Northern Station was built just south of the Great Northern and opened in 1919.

    By then, the Canadian Northern had become a component of the Canadian National Railways. The station is today’s Pacific Central train and bus station.

    The Greast Northern station was demolished in 1965.

  9. Norma Yates LePage

    In 1946, when I was 17, the then named and recently-created Unemployment Insurance Commission was briefly housed in the second Hotel Vancouver. I worked there as a stenographer. The Spanish Grill still existed within the Hotel where the UIC employees sometimes had lunch. Years before, the Spanish Grill was a popular place to dance. I was too young, of course, but I recall my aunt dressing up to go dancing there with my soon to be uncle. My husband’s family also stayed there for a short time when he was about 14 and they had just moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver. That would have been about 1938.

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  11. Emily

    My great grandfather was the manager of the hotel Vancouver at some point. His children (my grandfather and also my mum’s dad) and wife lived there with him. The Burns family. My grandad has told me many memories of his experience growing up there. Always very interesting to hear.

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