If it had survived, the second Hotel Vancouver would be a beloved local heritage icon like The Empress Hotel in Victoria or The Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
But it didn’t. In January 1949, wreckers started to tear down the 16-storey, 560-room hotel at the southwest corner of Granville and Georgia, which had only opened in 1916.
On Jan. 29, Cleveland Wrecking and Maxwell Construction took out ads in The Vancouver Sun and Daily Province, advertising parts of the hotel for sale.
Fir doors “complete with frames” were $9, while oak doors were $14.50. Hot-water radiators were 50 cents “per radiation fit.” The most popular items were the bathtubs, which sold for $35 to $65.
The ad doesn’t say how much the three giant crystal chandeliers from its Crystal Ballroom were selling for. But a stream of Vancouverites trooped down to the hotel to take one last look inside the building, or to pick up a memento.
“By all accounts it was the most lavish building ever built in the city,” said heritage expert Don Luxton. “The grandest and most beautiful and most ornate and all that kind of stuff. The architect involved did Selfridges in London.”
That would be Francis S. Swales, who designed it in the Italian Renaissance style. It featured tiers that stepped up to a central section, from seven to 10 and finally 16 storeys.
Features included arched windows, castle-like turrets and a 14th floor that was adorned with eight-foot-tall terra cotta moose and buffalo head sculptures/gargoyles.
Luxton said the unusual choice of gargoyles was due to the company that built it, the Canadian Pacific Railway.
“The CPR were romanticizing western Canada and all its ruggedness and wildlife, because it was a tourist draw,” said Luxton. “It worked, but when did we ever have buffalo in B.C.?”
You entered the hotel through a three-storey entrance portico on Georgia, and could literally get the best view of the city from its famous rooftop garden.
“The reason the original Hotel Vancouver was built (on the site in 1888) was because it was the tallest point in downtown,” said Luxton. “If you’ve got the tallest building on the tallest point, you’ve got the view. The rooftop was fully accessible, so people were up there taking pictures and looking around, seeing the view.”
The hotel was built at the end of Vancouver’s first great boom, but economic conditions changed during the First World War, the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, when people weren’t travelling as much.
“You couldn’t support these massive hotels on what they were taking in,” said Luxton.
In 1937, the CPR decided to abandon the hotel and help finish a new Canadian National hotel at Burrard and Georgia, which was started in 1928 but had never been completed because of the 1929 stock market crash. It opened in 1939 as the third (and current) Hotel Vancouver.
The old hotel was taken over by the military during the Second World War, and in 1946, became home for hundreds of former soldiers and their families who squatted there. But Eaton’s purchased the site to build a new department store, and everyone was evicted.
Province columnist John Graham took a “sad farewell journey” through the empty hotel before demolition began. He found parts “dark and grimy,” but the beauty of the hotel still shone through.
“The loveliest room is still lovely,” he wrote. “Eight white marble pillars rise to the mirrored ceiling of the Oval Room, and the marble fireplace is still crowned with the picture of Mount Sir Donald (named after the first head of the CPR).”
There was a shortage of construction material after the war, and a lot of the interior, such as the marble and oak panelling and flooring, was dispersed among local builders. But some of the hotel’s defining elements were lost.
“I did a little tracking on those huge buffalo and moose heads that were in terra cotta on the building,” said Luxton. “They were supposed to be given to the parks board, but I understand they ended up somewhere in the landfill.”
The demolition of the hotel was controversial and as it turned out, quite shortsighted. The proposed Eaton’s store wasn’t built until the late 1960s — the hotel site was a parking lot for nearly two decades.
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