|From its beginnings, the Empress
hotel brought tourism, history and profit together. In
the 1880's the general manager of Canadian Pacific
Railway, William Cornelius Van Horne, was looking for a
way to entice travellers onto the CPR's routes, and he
hit upon the idea of a chain of luxury hotels from coast
to coast. The quasi-medieval architecture that was
becoming the CPR's signature would serve as an attraction
in itself, providing a touch of "history" --
and a lot of luxury.
In 1903 Francis Rattenbury, the CPR's staff architect in Western Canada, drew up plans for what was then called simply the CPR hotel. Rattenbury was directed to take his inspiration for the Victoria hotel from the CPR's Ch�teau Frontenac in Quebec. The resulting design was his own imaginative Elizabethan, Jacobean and Gothic variation on the CPR's Franco-Scottish theme.
While construction took place, Victorians were invited to make suggestions for the name of their new grand hotel. CPR management rejected several ideas including the Camosun, the Van Horne and the Alexandra. Finally, Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, the president of CPR, announced that the hotel would be called "the Empress". The hotel's name echoed the CPR's luxury tourism campaign perfectly.
|Victoria had been a port of call for
the CPR's Empress liners since 1891. Now, as ship
passengers steamed into harbour they would see another
Empress, their hotel, waiting for them. It was an
advanced piece of brand name marketing by the CPR,
preserving the style and feel of empire from ship-deck to
In many ways Victoria was keen to become a CPR town.
|The hotel would bring tourists to
town, but more importantly it would bring the right kind
of tourists -- wealthy and well-heeled aristocrats and
respectable ex-colonial elite.When the hotel opened on
January 20, 1908 it was an instant success with resident
colonial Victorian society and visiting guests. The
tourists came to Victoria for a little bit of Empire, and
Victoria continued to think of itself as an outpost of
empire because of the colonial guests who came back year
In the years before the first world war the hotel enjoyed increasing success, but it soon faced the setbacks of two world wars in quick succession. WW1 reduced the number of the CPR's liners to one and dramatically reduced tourist traffic to the city. Business picked up again in the 1920's, and a new wing was added in 1929. Visiting American tourists were beginning to supplement the CPR's wealthy world-travellers in search of a little bit of England, and they were charmed by the eccentric colonial ways practiced at the Empress. By the end of WW2 the CPR had left the steam ship busines, and predictably lost interest in maintaining the Empress in the grand style. Over the next forty years, while trying to grapple with changing trends in tourism, the hotel slipped into disrepair.
In 1988 the hotel closed for an extensive program of restoration aimed at recreating the imperial elegance that first drew guests to the Empress in 1908.
|It has been a landmark in the city
and a focal point in the inner harbour for over ninety
years. But perhaps its imperial image is not as natural
as it appears.
From the beginning Van Horne and Shaughnessy chose to emphasize an imperial style to attract customers to the CPR. Eighty years later the imperial style was rekindled to draw tourists back to the grand old hotel.
|Whether this hotel is genuine imperial heritage or not is a question visitors should evaluate for themselves. However it is imagined, the empire still sells.|