Then and Now: Concluding the Story of the Empress Hotel
By Ted Ross
After that good going over in 1967, there was a complete renovation in 1989 costing close to $50 million. Another 20 years had aged the Empress in a developing and competitive tourist market. CPR passenger transportation days were over in Victoria. The Empress would have to do business in a tourist market where newer and shinier inns were appearing. The hotel needed a complete overhaul. After giving a year's warning, the Empress closed its doors on October 23, 1988, for its Royal Restoration.
During the round the clock period of activity, over 500 full-time workers were directly employed, in addition to regular hotel staff. Another 1500 were indirectly employed in service industries.
While maintaining historical perspective, a total commitment to quality could never be questioned. In design, construction, furnishings, restorative work, and everything both public area and behind the scenes, they must reach perfection.
On the west end of the Humboldt wing a health club was added. It included a 25 metre pool, a large jacuzzi, and saunas. The main lobby, which was expanded to take over the original north wing, had many new shops installed in the hallway leading through the conservatory to a brand new conference centre.
January 12, 1989 saw the opening of the Victoria Conference Centre. It was built on a former parking lot and was connected to the hotel through the conservatory. Catering would be administered from the hotel kitchens with special kitchen areas constructed in the new centre.
Following the Royal Restoration of the hotel there were 480 guest rooms, an increase of 60. Each room was individually fitted with a functional armoire holding a large TV, mini-bar, and clothing storage space. Bedside cabinets, and rich colours for drapes, bedspreads, and carpets, were complemented with restored antique accents to make each unit a beautiful place.
The Empress reopened April 12, 1989. It had been totally redone in those months, and was ready for many more years of first-class service.
The Empress left the CPR family in 1999. A new company had been created from Canadian Pacific Hotels dubbed, 'Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.' The Fairmont Empress emerged from this new arrangement, and although the name gained fairly widespread use, the signage on the building remained unchanged, "The Empress" with no added prefix.
On June 27, 2014, the Empress was purchased by Vancouver developer and philanthropist Nat Bosa and his wife Flora Bosa. It was sold to the Bosas by the Quebec pension manager Caisse de depot et placement.
At the time Bosa said, "This is an iconic building and it is a privilege to own it. Every once in a while something appears in front of you. So let's just say that everything seemed to have come together at this point." The Bosas completed the transaction just 20 days after expressing serious interest.
Fairmont Hotels and resorts continue to manage the Empress. Bosa expected Flora Bosa will be active from the sidelines. He said, "I think it is great that it will be owned by an individual instead of a public company. Chances are that it will probably have more care and attention from a small group of private individuals."
It was the Bosas' plan from the start to renovate the classic building. "She's a lovely old princess," Nat Bosa said in an interview. "It's a fabulous hotel. The bones are great. We just need to enhance the hotel, and we have a proper program to do that. We want to make this even a better experience for the guests that come here."
CBC News posted: October 18, 2015, "Victoria's Fairmont Empress Hotel will be behind scaffolding until the spring as renovations are needed for the picturesque building after decades of damage from ivy growth.
"The leafy plant gave the iconic hotel its signature look but now much of it has been cut down from the 1908 building and scaffolding has gone up for crews to do their work."
The Times-Colonist reported January 14, 2016, "The Bengal Lounge at the Empress Hotel, which has been serving martinis for 61 years, will likely shake the last one into a glass in April as it closes its doors for good."
These two renovation moves led to a petition being generated in Victoria against the Bosas' work. Thousands of signatures were gathered protesting the loss of heritage in the hotel restoration project. Nat Bosa responded in the Business in Vancouver journal stating, "We're going to make the hotel the pride of Victoria. The big winners in Victoria will not be my wife and me. We're just the ones fortunate enough that we have the resources to put into this old hotel that was tired.
"The project is part hobby-philanthropy and is a love affair. We're pumping in substantially more than the $30 million originally estimated that the renovations would cost. The building was run down and lacked certain standard amenities such as air-conditioning. By the completion of the work in 2017 all 477 rooms will have new carpeting, lighting, and other upgrades including air-conditioning.
"Nobody is going to touch the ceiling in there or the columns [in the Bengal Lounge]. Whether it stays as food and beverage or something else, we're not touching the heritage. That's what I bought the hotel for.
"Do you know how much damage the ivy has done to the stone and bricks? There was a family of raccoons living in the ivy. Little mice were living in the ivy. With the ivy removed the workers are able to restore the front of the building with brick and stone."
Regarding the ivy, during the Royal Restoration (1987-89) an ivy root was found at the base of the building's southwest corner. Under this sunny well-watered alcove, workers dug up a monster mass measuring six metres in diameter. The spot was ideal for ivy to grow with the warm westerly exposure. The nearby well-fertilized planters gave all the nutrition required for the ivy to thrive. It had started to penetrate bricks above ground and loosen mortar. As a result, moisture was seeping into the walls.
The Bosas were not the first to encounter and deal with this invasive and tenacious weed.
When writing this article the question came up about the settlement of the hotel into the ground on which it is built. C.B. Crawford of the National Research Council and J.G. Sutherland of the Canadian Pacific Railway released a paper in 1970 called, "The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia. Sixty-Five Years of Foundation Settlements." The report said, "Between October 1911 and March 1912, evidence of serious settlement of the main building was observed.... After extensive study it was decided in 1914 to remove 4 1/2 ft (1.4m) of soil from under the south end of the building and to excavate 12 1/2 to 20 ft (3.8 to 6.1m) just outside the building's south side. A reinforced concrete deck was placed over the exterior excavation. The net reduction of load achieved was in the excess of 11 000 tons and the scheme had a noticeable effect on the rate of settlements."
That beautiful lawn south of the hotel in fact grows on the cover for this 1914 excavation. According to the Crawford and Sutherland report, total settlement since 1905 was estimated in 1970 to be about 2.2 ft (0.8m). The 1914 soil removal had obviously worked.
Today, May 2018, when riding the #10 bus across the Causeway, the Empress glistens to the east in its newly refurbished facework. Without its ivy covering, the building's lines are clear and well-defined and are a pleasure to look at. As the bus rolls along thoughts go to Nat Bosa's comment, "I'm open to the idea of ivy one day returning. That decision is not made yet. But the building might be so beautiful when it's finished, people will say, 'Wow. Don't hide it.'"
The Empress is still Victoria's beautful royal. It looks like she's in good hands.
The Victoria Times, "...And 60 Years Ago It Was Nothing But Mud," by Norman Cribbens, July 22, 1961; The Daily Colonist, "Tea and Crumpets at the Van Horne," May 13, 1979; C.B. Crawford and J.G. sutherland, "The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia. sixty-five Years of Foundation Settlements," Montreal, 1970; "The Empress of Victoria," by Godfrey Holloway, pacifica Productions, 1980; Times-Colonist, "Empress facelift, expansion worth $32 million," by Judith Lavoie, December 3, 1987; Times-Colonist, "10-million surprise for Empress face-lift," by Grania Litwin, December 2, 1988; Amazing Stories, "Rattenbury,The Life and Tragic End of B.C.'s Greatest Architect," by Stan Sauerwein, 2003; "Lost Streams of Victoria; A Legacy Lost," Large map with information Panels, City of Victoria Archives, May 2003; James Bay Beacon, "Then and Now - The Pendray Family," by Ted Ross, September 2014; Times-Colonist, "Victoria's iconic Empress Hotel bought by Vancouver's Nat and Flora bosa," by Carla Wilson, August 19, 2014; CBC Nes, "Victoria's Empress Hotel wrapped in scaffolding for renovations," by Megan Thomas, October 18, 2015; The Seattle Times, "After 61 yars, the Empress Hotel's Bengal Lounge may serve its last drink," January 22, 2016; James Bay Beacon, "Then and Now - Fresh Water Canoe Route from Inner Harbour ro Ross Bay," June, 2017; Wikipedia, "Songhees," 2018; Victoria Harbour History, "E&N Railway's Victoria Terminus," Rocket Science Design, 2017; Victoria Harbour History, "James Bay," Rocket Science Design, 2017; Fairmont Hotels, "Fairmont Empress Hotel History," 2018; Fairmont Empress Victoria, "The Bob Hope Suite 330," by The Fairmont Empress, July 18, 2011; Business in Vancouver, "Empress Hotel owner responds to petition that alleges he is destroying heritage," by Glen Korstrom, January 18, 2016; Fairmont Empress, Accor Hotels, "Welcome to the Fairmont Empress," 2018; Wikipedis, "The Empress Hotel, 2018.