The Empress (hotel)
History and museums
The Fairmont Empress (most commonly known as The Empress) is one of the oldest and most famous hotels in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Located on Government Street facing the Inner Harbour, the Empress has become an iconic symbol for the city itself. It has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada due to its national significance.
The hotel has 477 rooms, with most either overlooking the Inner Harbour or the hotel's rear courtyard gardens. It has four restaurants, including The Bengal Lounge, which is decorated in Victorian-era, Colonial Indian style (when Queen Victoria was the Empress of India) or Kipling's, which is named after its once frequent guest and visitor, author Rudyard Kipling. The Veranda is a seasonal restaurant located under the famous The Empress sign and replaces Kipling's as the hotel's fourth restaurant. In 2005, Kipling's closed its doors to the public in order for the hotel to gain more space for private functions. This was renovated in March 2012 and became the hotel's second ballroom, The Ivy Ballroom, for the ivy facade for which the hotel is known. The hotel has gym facilities, a whirlpool bath and an indoor swimming pool. Willow Stream Spa was added in 2002 and is renowned by Conde Nast as one of the world's best spas. The hotel has received several accolades including Travel + Leisure Best Hotels of the World and recognized on Conde Nast Gold List. The hotel became Victoria's first Five Green Key hotel as acknowledged by the Hotel Association of Canada for sustainability practices.
During the 1989 renovation, the Victoria Conference Centre was built on the parking lot behind the hotel and connected to the hotel via the hotel's conservatory. The hotel provides catering for the conference centre.
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. 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.'
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.
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.
The hotel was sold on June 27, 2014 to Vancouver-based owners, Nat and Flora Bosa. They are investing an estimated $30M dollars in renovations.
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 Room' 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.