Building profile: The Empress Hotel

Designed by Francis M. Rattenbury, the Empress Hotel was built between 1904-08 in Victoria, British Columbia as part of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) hotel network. Cornelius van Horne, the general manager of the CPR beginning in 1888, helped develop the Canadian tourism industry during the late nineteenth century, building a network of hotels across the continent to encourage travel along the length of the railway.[1]

(Lead photo: Canadian Pacific Railway Empress Hotel, ca. 1900-1925, Library and Archives Canada.)

This intercontinental railway was central to British Columbia’s inclusion in Confederation in 1871,[2] connecting the western province to the rest of the nation through a major infrastructure project, much like the Intercolonial Railway had done for the eastern provinces following the Confederation conferences in the 1860s.[3]

Empress Hotel and grounds, ca. 1900-1925, Library and Archives Canada.

The hotel was designed in the Chateau Style typical of railway hotels across the country. The Empress’ design draws on Tudor, Gothic, and Edwardian influences, including a simple plant-covered façade, and ornate roof details including turrets, copper-covered dormers, and quatrefoils.[4] The design of the hotel emphasized its verticality—to create this illusion, Rattenbury stacked bay windows atop one another and used steeply pitched roofs, which recalled the design of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City (1892-93), unifying the use of the Chateau Style across the newly formed dominion.[5] Blending both French and British influences, the Chateau Style continued into the twentieth century and was adopted by the government for many official buildings.[6] For instance, Rattenbury had built a name for himself by designing the Legislative Buildings near the Empress just several years earlier.

The aesthetic theory of the picturesque—highlighting the appearance and placement of the building within its landscape—was used when designing these hotels, echoing the goal of contemporary tourism, and showing off the majestic Canadian landscape that companies like the CPR sought to exploit. For the Empress, a site on the harbour was chosen, despite the fact that the land was comprised of mud flats, not ideally suited to hold the immense hotel structure.[7] But this placement of the hotel signals its purpose of being geared towards luxury customers, including those who would take cruises from the Victoria harbour operated by the CPR.[8] The lush landscaping surrounding the hotel, as well as its ivy-covered walls, make a show-stopping appearance along the harbour. Tourism documents at the time described Victoria as a popular destination for its mild climate and wide variety of activities available year-round, including golfing, tennis, and coastal car rides to scenic vistas.[9]

Fairmont Empress Hotel exterior, ca. 2009. Photograph by Bobak Ha’Eri, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The interior of the hotel was decorated by Kate Reed, the interior decorator of many of Canada’s great railway hotels. Reed would often travel by train across the country designing the interiors of these hotels, sometimes living on the trains.[10] Each hotel interior executed by her was decorated in a different style (with some locally sourced materials), catering to the type of clientele that would stay at each hotel. At the Empress, Reed used British influences, featuring pine and mahogany elements throughout the design.[11] The Empress interior is lavish, with plantings, classically-inspired columns, and coffered ceilings.[12] Reed would also feature women artists and female subjects in paintings in her interiors. At the Empress, several portraits of various wives of the Governors General adorn the walls.[13]

In 1989, the hotel was refurbished to restore it to its original glory. During the restoration, it was discovered that the Tiffany-style stained glass roof of the Palm Court had been covered up with wood. Today, visitors can enjoy this beautiful architectural element once again.[14]

—Katrin Zavgorodny-Freedman


[1] “Empress Hotel,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, article published August 02, 2017; last edited December 06, 2017, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/empress-hotel.

[2] James Marsh, “Railway History in Canada,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, article published March 25, 2009; last edited June 18, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/railway-history.

[3] John Boyko, “Intercolonial Railway,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, article published February 07, 2006; last edited March 27, 2017, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/intercolonial-railway.

[4] “Empress Hotel,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/empress-hotel.

[5] Harold Kalman, A Concise History of Canadian Architecture, (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 335-8.

[6] Ibid, p. 478.

[7] “Empress Hotel,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/empress-hotel.

[8] Ibid.

[9]The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia, the Canadian Pacific Railway Hotel System, edited by Canadian Pacific Railway Company, Victoria, B.C.: s.n., 1908,  https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.98377/17?r=0&s=1, Canadiana Online, and The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia, the Canadian Pacific Railway Hotel System, edited by Canadian Pacific Railway Company, Victoria, B.C.: s.n., 1917, https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.98374/45?r=0&s=1, Canadiana Online.

[10] “Background,” Kate Reed Decorator of Canada’s Grand Hotels webpage, accessed January 15, 2021, https://www.katereed.ca/accomplishments/.

[11] “Accomplishments,” Kate Reed Decorator of Canada’s Grand Hotels webpage, accessed January 15, 2021, https://www.katereed.ca/accomplishments/.

[12] “Empress Hotel,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/empress-hotel.

[13] “Accomplishments,” Kate Reed Decorator of Canada’s Grand Hotels webpage, accessed January 15, 2021, https://www.katereed.ca/accomplishments/.

[14] “Empress Hotel,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/empress-hotel.

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