From the site of the former James Bay to the home of Winston the dog, the Empress has had a long, fascinating history.
Known to many as a luxurious stay in the heart of downtown Victoria, the Fairmount Empress is celebrating 115 years of hotel service to the public.
Marked as a National Historic Site of Canada, the Fairmont Empress began construction in 1904 with Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway at the helm of the illustrious project.
Over the years, Van Horne had opened grand hotels along different points of the railway in an effort to encourage travel throughout the stretch of the train route.
As one of the last hotels on Van Horne’s lengthy list of hospitality projects, The Fairmont Empress— commonly known as “The Empress” opened in 1908 and over the course of 115 years has welcomed an extensive list of high profile guests and events.
Its luxurious status was solidified with prestigious guests such as Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby, Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand choosing to stay while in Victoria.
In commemoration of this landmark in Victoria, let’s take a trip down memory lane, recollecting some of the pivotal histories at the Empress.
1904: William Cornelius Van Horne—general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway—commissioned the construction of the Fairmont Empress.
Van Horne hoped that the hotel would spark travel to Victoria from passengers making their way along the railroad. Debuting as “The Empress” in 1908, the hotel was one of the last that Van Horne ever built.
1910: The lead architect for the Canadian Pacific Railway—William Sutherland Maxwell—started construction on several new wings that doubled the size of The Empress.
Maxwell was the architect responsible for finishing the original construction work, as the previous person—Francis Rattenbury—had been fired for causing significant delays.
1919: Edward, Prince of Wales—and the heir to the British throne—attended a gala at the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom.
Rumour has it Edward danced with a few too many women that night, many of which recalled their experience decades later.
1928: Heading into the dirty thirties, The Empress was gaining a name for itself as a posh destination for the wealthy stopping into Victoria for a brief period.
Growing in popularity, the Empress began another wave of renovations adding more wings and increasing the number of guestrooms.
1930: Shirley Temple came to stay in the 1930s after rumoured threats of kidnapping. Her bodyguards stayed in the room across from hers and always kept their doors open.
1939: King George VI of the United Kingdom and his wife, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, attended a luncheon held in their honor at The Empress.
The two had travelled to Victoria as part of their Royal Tour of Canada. The trip was intended to strengthen the bonds of friendship between the United Kingdom and Canada.
1965: Despite its prestigious history, The Empress had managed to fall into a period of significant decline.
Its declining state had become so great that many in the community considered demolishing it.
By 1965 a group of local developers came together to invest $4 million into its complete rehabilitation. The name of the project endeavour was “Operation Teacup.”
1981: The Canadian Minister of the Environment, John Roberts designated The Empress as a National Historic Site of Canada.
The historic listing by the minister stated that the hotel’s wonderful Châteauesque-style architecture and its prominent role as a local cultural symbol as cause for the recognition.
1989: Costing more than $45 million to complete, the Empress underwent a comprehensive renovation known as “The Royal Renovation.”
The construction project focused on restoring guestrooms and suites inside The Empress.
Additional renovations saw the development of a health club, spa, and reception area. Engineers even discovered a tunnel that ran from the harbour all the way to the hotel’s basement.
1999: Canadian Pacific Limited (CPL) takes over the management of the Empress hotel and several other businesses owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In doing so the CPL rebranded Empress to the Fairmont Empress.
2000: No less than a year later, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts sold the Fairmont Empress to Legacy Hotels REIT for a sum of 120 million Canadian dollars.
While selling the hotel, Fairmont retained the rights to manage the business on Legacy Hotels’ behalf and even acquired a small ownership stake in the company.
2010: After decades since royalty graced the halls of the Fairmont Empress, Queen Elizabeth II stayed at the hotel as part of their Cross Canada Royal tour.
This would mark the first time in history that reigning monarchs had visited Victoria and stayed at the Fairmont Empress.
2014: Ownership rights to the Fairmont Empress exchanged hands once more, this time going over to the Bosa family of Vancouver.
Upon purchasing the property, the family invested $60 million in renovations that sought to preserve the building’s rich architectural past.
Fairmont Hotels and Resorts retained its agreement to manage the daily operations of the Fairmont Empress, as well.
2017: The Bosa’s massive rehabilitation of the Fairmont Empress concluded with a myriad of new facilities added to the hotel. Among the improvements were enhancements to the historic accommodations, as well as updated spa and dining facilities.
2023: The Fairmont Empress celebrates 115 years of service!
After hosting multiple generations of prestigious guests and locals in Victoria, what are your fondest memories of the Empress?