There are lots of reasons to visit Victoria: our incredible weather, unparalleled natural beauty, friendly people, and beautiful architecture are some of the top reasons visitors from all over the world come to our capital city for their holidays. When it comes to architecture and historical sites, Victoria has some beautiful buildings where you can tour, dine, stay, and even book for events! One of the most recognizable of these is the Empress Hotel in downtown Victoria. Located right in the heart of the city in the lovely Inner Harbour, the Empress has been a historical landmark for Victoria for many years. This building has a fascinating history and today, remains one of the most popular tourist sites in the city. To dive a little deeper into the fascinating past of one of Victoria’s most beloved buildings, we’ve come up with the top ten facts every visitor to Victoria should know about the Empress!
- The Empress was built by the same architect who built the Legislature.
The Empress was built by Francis M. Rattenbury, a British architect who emigrated from the UK in 1892. Rattenbury was awarded the project by the general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Cornelius Van Horne who sought to build hotels all along the transcontinental line. This scheme would make the railway a more popular and comfortable travel option for the burgeoning upper class in Canada.
2. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century.
Construction of the hotel began in 1904 and was completed in 1908. The hotel was to be the crowning jewel of early Victoria and an impressive sight for the upper-class passengers of the CPR cruise line who would dock in the Inner Harbor and stay at the Empress.
3. The Empress is a landmark building in downtown Victoria.
Visitors will find this beautiful hotel in the Inner Harbour located in downtown Victoria. During the planning phase of the Empress, it was Rattenbury who proposed the Inner Harbour as the location of the hotel as an impressive visage to charm upper class Canadians to visit the then, small city at an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company. During the early days of urban planning, it was important to show that Victoria, being the Provincial capital, was a contemporary and prestigious city. While his logic was sound, the site itself was largely reclaimed mud flats and less than ideal to build a massive hotel on.
4. The architectural style is distinctly Canadian.
While the Empress Hotel is in a league of its own when it comes to architecture in BC, the style of the building is categorized as Franco-Scottish Château. The fairy tale quality of the six-story building comes from the Château style which has the characteristics of plain facades, steep rooflines and asymmetrical floor plans and incorporates many eras of European architecture with clear influences from Tudor, Gothic, Baronial and Edwardian styles. This style is widely recognized as a distinctly Canadian style of architecture that reflects the Eurocentric culture and background of many early influential Canadians. One of Canada’s first interior designers, Kate Reed, the favourite designer of the CPR commissioned hotels, created decadent interiors with soaring, coffered ceilings, classical columns and rich textures and colour palettes.
5. It has been renovated many times.
There have been many renovation and restoration projects since it’s completion in 1908.
- 1909: W.S Painter was hired to add an additional north and south wing to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for rooms by Canada’s quickly growing upper class.
- late 1920’s: J.W Orrock was hired to design the 270 room Humboldt Wing.
- Early 1960s: the hotel had fallen into such disrepair that it was slated for demolition.
- 1966: the hotel embarked on a $4 million renovation project to restore the exterior.
- Late 1980s: an extensive $45 million restoration project was undertaken that improved much of the original craftsmanship and renewed some of the important historical elements of the building. It was at this time that the indoor pool, spa, lounge, executive suites, health club, reception, and port cochere entrance were also added to the hotel.
- 2014: Vancouver based Bosa Development bought the hotel and broke ground on a two-year, $60 million renovation project that created the hotel that tourists can visit today. In addition to updating every room, completely renovating the exterior, and restoring all the stained glass, five suites were removed to make room for the stunning lounge and deck overlooking the harbour and the spa, health club and pool were all completely upgraded.
6. It is a National Historic Site.
In 1981, Parks Canada officially recognized the Empress as a national historic site of Canada stating that “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.”
7. Many famous guests have stayed at the Empress.
In 1919 the Prince of Wales stayed at the hotel and was rumored to have danced the night away in the Crystal Ballroom. In the 1930’s, America’s ringleted sweetheart, Shirley Temple stayed at the hotel with her parents. In 1939, King George VI and the then young Princess Elizabeth attended a luncheon at the Empress. Later, Queen Elizabeth II stayed at the hotel and other notable guests include the famous novelist, Rudyard Kipling, Spencer Tracey, Princess Margaret, Rita Hayworth and more recently John Travolta, Sarah McLachlan, and Nelly Furtado.
8. There have been many reports that it is haunted.
There are a lot of people who insist that they’ve experienced supernatural phenomena while visiting the Empress. A few of the more well-known stories are that the original architect, Francis Rattenbury haunts the area where his picture was hung after he was reportedly beaten to death by his wife’s jealous lover. There have been reports that the ghost of a woman who died suddenly and of natural causes in the hotel in the 1920s roams the halls, following people until they reach the elevator where she suddenly disappears. During the construction in the 1960s a construction worker reported seeing a human figure swinging from the ceiling in a room where a former employee had hung himself. Other stories include a ghostly young girl who appears only in one particular room and a maid dressed in clothes of the 1920s cleaning on the 6th floor.
9. It is one of the top places in the city to find incredible dining.
While the Empress has always been known for its elegant, traditional afternoon tea service, since the renovation that was completed in 2017, the Empress has become a culinary destination for many locals and visitors. Visit in the afternoon and join one of the most cherished Victorian traditions, afternoon tea at the Empress. Since 1908, the Empress has been serving high tea in the traditional British style complete with tiered dishes and finger sandwiches. If you’re looking for a pre-dinner cocktail, Q Bar is one of the top places in the city to go for inspired, handcrafted cocktails, incredible local beer on tap and an impressive wine selection. For a special dinner, Q at the Empress is one of the best places to find an elegant, modern and intimate setting with fine Northwest Coast inspired cuisine and on a beautiful evening you’ll want to make a reservation on the Verandah where you can find comfortable fireside seating, warm drinks, festive treats and one of the best views of the Inner Harbour in Victoria.
10. The amenities are incredible and accessible to the public.
If you’re looking to spend a day pampering yourself, Willow Stream Spa at the Empress is one of the top choices of Victorians. With countless services from body scrubs and massages to aromatherapy and facials plus access to the immaculate steam room, sauna and mineral whirlpool, a trip to Willow Stream is a must if you’re in the mood to treat yourself!