Empress Hotel

The Empress Hotel is a luxury waterfront hotel and national historic site in Victoria, British Columbia. Designed primarily by architect Francis M. Rattenbury, it is noted for its picturesque Château-style design and decadent interiors. It opened in 1908 and was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) as part of its network of hotels, which also includes the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise and Le Château Frontenac. Now officially known as the Fairmont Empress, the hotel, along with its afternoon tea, is arguably Victoria’s most popular tourist attraction.

The Empress Hotel, on Victoria's Inner Harbour. Photo taken 19 June 2017.

Geography and Background

The history of the Empress Hotel follows that of the CPR. The railway’s general manager, Cornelius Van Horne, sought to develop a series of hotels along the transcontinental line, which was completed in 1885. British architect Francis M. Rattenbury, who was awarded the project, recognized that the best location for the hotel in Victoria was along the inner harbour. This was in spite of the poor conditions of the site, which was largely reclaimed mud flats. After the reclamation of the mud flats, a causeway was built to establish the frame behind which the hotel would sit on roughly four hectares of land.

The view of Victoria's Inner Harbour from the Empress Hotel. Photo taken shortly after the hotel opened in 1908.

Built between 1904 and 1908, the hotel was intended to cater to the wealthy travellers who used the transcontinental railway and took the CPR cruises that docked in the harbour. The early 20th-century city planning proposals in Victoria sought to showcase impressive landscaping and architectural features in the inner harbour, which was the first image a visitor would see upon arrival. The hotel featured a lush green landscape and ivy-covered facade, which distinguished it from its urban setting. It was also important that the provincial capital show its position as a prestigious seat of government. Surrounding the Empress are the Parliament Buildings, home to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (also designed by Rattenbury), and the Royal BC Museum.

Victoria's Inner Harbour, with the Empress Hotel on the left and the Parliament Buildings on the right.

Style of Architecture

Rattenbury’s design for the Empress can be understood as a Franco-Scottish Château style. It includes six stories in the Château style — evidenced by the unadorned facade, steep roofline and asymmetrical floor plan — but also incorporates elements of Tudor, Gothic, Baronial and Edwardian styles. The interiors, designed by Kate Reed, are decadent, with coffered ceilings (sunken panels that form geometrical shapes), classically inspired columns, a rich colour palette and interior plants throughout.

Lavish ornamentation on the facade and within the interiors — including Tudor arches and Gothic flourishes such as cornice quatrefoils and steep slate roofs with copper-covered dormers — create the fairy-tale quality typical of the Château style, which was a signature Canadian style during this period (see Canadian Architecture: 1867–1914). The influence of the hotel’s west coast setting is evident in such details as the brick facade, which was constructed by local firm M. Humber & Sons. Also contributing to the hotel’s distinct visage are the ornate gables and domed polygon turrets typical of baronial style — a nod to the predominantly Scottish heritage of the CPR executives. The result of this combination of styles was a social setting fit for aristocrats and a style of enduring elegance.

Fittingly, the hotel has been visited by celebrities and royals alike, including the Prince of Wales (1919), Winston Churchill (1929), King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (1939), and Queen Elizabeth II.

A row of quatrefoils, which resemble crosses or plus signs, frame the steep roof and copper-covered windows of the Empress Hotel.

Early Renovations

As is often the case with older, high-profile hotels, phases of renovation, restoration and maintenance have been required to keep the original spirit of the design intact. After the completion of the original Rattenbury design, several renovations were undertaken by other CPR architects, namely W.S. Painter (1909–14) and J.W. Orrock (1928–29), who was Engineer of Buildings for the CPR. Due to their attention to the original design of the Empress, the consecutive additions and renovations retained the quality and character of Rattenbury’s initial design.

The hotel sold out regularly during its first year, necessitating the addition of a North and South Wing, designed by Painter, to address the need for more capacity. In 1929, another $2.5 million was invested to build the 270-room Humboldt Wing, designed by Orrock, which increased the hotel’s capacity to 570 rooms.

Business at the Empress suffered during the Great Depression and did not recover until after the Second World War. The hotel had a Depression-era practice of housing wealthy widows and other long-term residents at a low rate of $1 per day.

Empress Hotel

1960s Renovations

By the 1960s, the hotel was aging poorly and was even considered for demolition. However, Fred Saunders’ four-hectare garden established a fresh face for the hotel. Additional features such as specialty Chrysanthemum Tea, summer and winter sports and attractions became available to the hotel’s visitors. Yachting, Malahat Drive road trips, year-round golf and salt- and freshwater fishing established a new lifestyle for Empress visitors.

In 1966, the hotel embarked on a $4-million renovation to restore its former grandeur. Nicknamed Operation Teacup, in reference to the hotel’s unique and extremely popular tea room, this modernization did not affect the overall design but rather focused on the hotel’s visual impact, changing the color palette from green and cream with highlights of red to orange and dark red with wood details.

Contemporary Renovations

The Empress Hotel's reception area, located in a new wing, was built to resemble the hotel's original Victorian features.

In 1988–89, an extensive $45-million restoration was undertaken to improve the hotel’s original craftsmanship and renew the stained glass roof of the Palm Court, which had been covered up to save cost in the previous renovation but which could now be enjoyed by guests during special events. Since the creation of the original hotel in 1908, additional spaces have been created, such as an indoor pool, spa, lounge, executive suites, health club, reception and port cochère entrance pavilion.

After Vancouver’s Bosa Development bought the hotel in 2014, a two-year renovation project costing more than $60 million was undertaken by Canadian architect James Cheng and hospitality designers Hirsch Bedner Associates. It was the most extensive renovation in the hotel’s history and was completed in 2017. Five suites were removed to create a spacious lounge in the gold room with a deck overlooking the harbor. The ivy, which had damaged the exterior, was removed and the exterior bricks were repointed. All 464 guest rooms were renovated and retrofitted with air conditioning, 1,400 windows were restored with plate glass, the pool, health club and spa were upgraded, and a six-metre-high, 1.8-tonne custom-designed chandelier with 250,000 hand-cut crystals was added to the new lobby. The red and green colour palette was replaced with more regal hues of purple and gold. “If the former Empress was Queen Elizabeth II,” the Georgia Straight’s Gail Johnson wrote, “the new and improved version is all Kate Middleton: fresh, modern and sophisticated.”

The Empress Hotel is perhaps best known for its afternoon tea, served in the elegant tea room.

Afternoon Tea

The afternoon tea offered in the Empress’s 138-seat Lobby Lounge has been a staple of Victoria’s tourism activities since the hotel opened. It features custom-made tea, as well as sandwiches and pastries made from locally grown ingredients, some coming from the hotel’s rooftop garden and honeybee apiary, which produces about 1,110 kg of honey a year. The tea is served with a china pattern custom-made in 1914 and used at the hotel since the visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.

Afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel.

Ghost Stories

An unusually high number of ghost sightings have been reported at the Empress over the years. The ghost of the hotel’s chief architect, Francis M. Rattenbury, who was beaten to death in England in 1935 by his second wife’s lover, is said to haunt the area where his picture hangs (see also Feature: Francis Mawson Rattenbury). The spirit of a woman who died of natural causes in a room that was later demolished to make way for an elevator is said to roam the halls, following people until they reach the elevators and then disappearing. In the 1960s, a construction worker reported seeing a human figure swinging from the ceiling in a room where another worker apparently hanged himself a year earlier. Other ghost stories include a young girl who appears in one particular room and a maid who is seen cleaning on the sixth floor. These have all contributed to the local legend that the Empress is haunted.

Francis M. Rattenbury in 1924.

National Historic Site

The Empress was recognized as a national historic site of Canada in 1981 by Parks Canada, which noted that the “Château-style vocabulary used by the railway hotels evolved as a distinctly Canadian architectural type. The Empress signals the beginning of this evolution from a strictly Château-style design towards one that incorporated contemporary forms.”