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Discover the Fairmont Empress, which has been Victoria’s most iconic hotel since 1908.

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Fairmont Empress, a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide since 2017, dates back to 1908.


A Brief History of the Fairmont Empress

Victoria, BC’s iconic Fairmont Empress hotel opened its doors in 1908. Explore this Canadian landmark's royal history in just under 109 seconds.


A National Historic Site of Canada, the Fairmont Empress began its story as Victoria, British Columbia’s, most iconic hotel in 1904. Its construction started at the behest of Cornelius Van Horne, renowned general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Van Horne had developed a series of grand hotels at different points of the railway amid the height of the Gilded Age, in order to spur passenger travel along the length of the track. The Fairmont Empress—known simply as “The Empress”—was among the last buildings that Van Horne raised. Famed architect Francis Rattenbury was commissioned to design the hotel after his success in designing the new legislative buildings in the relatively new Canadian province of British Columbia. Like with many of Canada’s fellow grand railroad hotels, Rattenbury crafted the hotel’s exterior to resemble that of a spectacular historic manor from France’s Loire Valley. Fairmont Empress was meant to serve businesspeople and tourists, but after the Canadian Pacific Railway discontinued service to the area, it was successfully marketed as a resort.

A star from her beginning, Fairmont Empress did not have a sign over the front entrance. When a sign was finally raised, one irate Victorian uttered the phrase, “Anyone who doesn’t know this is the Empress shouldn’t be staying here.” However, it would appear many did know and appreciate the Empress. Edward, Prince of Wales, danced in the Crystal Ballroom in 1919 with many local ladies, whose obituaries mentioned that night over 50 years after it happened. When reigning royals King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother visited Victoria for the first time, they stayed at the Fairmont Empress. Over the years, other members of the British Royal Family, such as Queen Elizabeth II, and her husband, Prince Philip, have frequented the hotel, as well. Celebrities came to the hotel in droves, too. Stars like Rita Hayworth, Jack Benny, Roger Moore, and Katharine Hepburn have passed through the Fairmont Empress' lobby. Shirley Temple came to stay in the 1930s after rumored threats of kidnapping. Her bodyguards stayed in the room across from hers and always kept their doors open.

By 1965, the hotel had fallen on hard times, leaving officials to debate on whether the Fairmont Empress should be torn down to make room for something more modern. Thankfully, it was decided that the loss of the Empress was far too great. Instead, its owners began a $4 million renovation and refurbishment that sought to restore it back to its former glory. In 1989, $45 million was spent in what was dubbed the “Royal Restoration," which focused on the rehabilitation of the hotel’s brilliant historic accommodations. Amid the restoration, it was discovered that the beautiful, Tiffany-style stained glass that makes up the roof of the Palm Court had been covered by wood. To this day, guests can now enjoy sparkling light on the shining marble floors during weddings and other special events. And in the 1990s, the Willow Stream Spa was added and became Victoria’s most award-winning spa to date. The most recent renovation, the Return of the Queen, has seen every part of the hotel updated for modern times while restoring and paying homage to the classic elements it bore in the 1910s.

  • About the Location +

    The first permanent European settlement to reside on the Vancouver Island was a fur trading outpost established by the Hudson Bay Company in 1843. Originally called Fort Camosun, the community would serve as the nucleus for modern-day Victoria. Its importance as a trading outpost only continued to grow, attracting settlers from across North America in just a matter of years. The British government subsequently made Vancouver Island an official colony in 1849, with Fort Camosun—now known as “Fort Victoria”—as its capital. While fur trading remained an important part of the local economy over the next few decades, a new industry supplanted it in its local importance—gold mining. Several prospectors discovered gold directly across the Strait of Georgia along the banks of the Fraser River, igniting a rush of migration to the region seemingly overnight. Dozens of mining operations emerged throughout the area, as many workers began to settle in towns like Vancouver and Victoria.

    By 1860, some 30,000 people had moved to the region. The explosion in the local population led to Fort Victoria incorporation as the “City of Victoria” in 1862. Many of the new arrivals were either American or Chinese in origin, who used Victoria as an entry point to find employment with one of the mining companies on the mainland. The Chinese in particular made a home of Victoria, developing a vibrant downtown community that still exists today. This neighborhood is actually the second oldest of its kind in North America, succeeded only by San Francisco’s famed Chinatown. Around the same time, the Royal Navy also established its headquarters for its fleet operating in the Pacific Ocean at the nearby town of Esquimalt. Now a suburb of Victoria, Esquimalt offered access to a protected harbor that was perfect for mooring various naval vessels. This harbor also led to the creation of a lucrative shipping industry that transported all sorts of agricultural and forestry products throughout the western hemisphere. The Canadian Pacific Railway even managed to construct a terminus at the nearby Burrard Inlet, elevating the Victoria into the premier transportation center. Victoria’s economy had become incredibly diverse by the end of the 19th century, which made the city the commercial heart for western Canada.

    While Vancouver gradually overtook Victoria in its regional economic importance over the course of the following century, the city nonetheless retained its significance as one of the country’s leading communities. Victoria is still the capital of British Columbia, with the Legislative Assembly building located a mere block away from the Fairmont Empress. Its downtown is small, yet energetic, as it features a wealth of boutique storefronts, art galleries and restaurants. The local harbor—and the surrounding neighborhood of James Bay—continues to see hundreds of ships come and go every year. Countless cultural attractions manage to attract thousands of visitors, too, including Craigdarroch Castle, the Royal BC Museum, Beacon Hill Park, and the Hatley Park National Historic Site. Many more fascinating destinations reside outside of the city limits, as well, such as The Butchart Gardens, Thetis Lake, and the San Juan Islands in the nearby State of Washington.

  • About the Architecture +

    Fairmont Empress was first constructed per the direction of William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He intended for the hotel to service passengers arriving at the company’s terminus near Burrard Inlet. For the project, Van Horne hired an accomplished British architect named Francis Rattenbury. Rattenbury had made a name for himself all over British Columbia by designing such renowned landmarks as the British Columbia Parliament Building and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Construction on the building began in 1904 and took nearly four years to complete. Rattenbury’s initial plans called for the development of a seven-story structure similar to Québec City’s Château Frontenac. As such, the nascent hotel’s appearance drew largely upon Châteauesque-style architecture as a source of inspiration. Similar to the other grand railroad hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway, The Empress incorporated exterior walls built with stone and brick cladding, topped by a steep-pitched copper roof. Ornate dormers and gables defined the structure of the roof, which was lined with a series of polygonal turrets.

    Rattenbury did not exclusively rely upon Châteauesque architecture, either. On the contrary, he also used additional architectural forms whenever appropriate. For instance, the hotel’s spectacular porch used design principles based on Tudor Revival-style design aesthetics, while Second Empire architecture was present within the layout of several interior spaces. The Empress was unlike the hotels operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway in other ways, too. Rattenbury’s blueprinted followed an asymmetrical floor plan centered somewhat on an arcaded central loggia. Many projected pavilions accented by oriel windows defined the loggia, as well. Yet, the hotel’s most distinctive feature was a glass-roofed palm garden decorated with Chinese-inspired motifs. But Rattenbury did not see his grand vision come to fruition, as Van Horne removed him from the project after months of delays. The chief architect for the Canadian Pacific Railway—William Sutherland Maxwell—oversaw the rest of the construction following Rattenbury’s dismissal in 1907.

    The hotel has since undergone many additional renovations, with the first occurring just two years after it opened in 1908. William Sutherland Maxwell supervised that construction project, too, which saw the enlargement of The Empress by nearly double its original size. Several more renovations followed in the 1910s, 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s. The most significant of those projects occurred in 1989. Known as “The Royal Restoration,” it cost more than $45 million to finish. The work focused on restoring the historic guestrooms and suites inside The Empress, while also adding new facilities like a health club and spa. The Fairmont Empress experienced its most recent renovation in 2014, when its newest owners—the Bosa family—initiated a $60 million rehabilitation. Much of the building’s rich historical architecture was brilliantly preserved for future generations to appreciate. Among the ways in which that goal was achieved was the widespread removal of ivy that had grown across the hotel’s façade over the course of several decades. While the ivy was a beloved sight by many in the local community, the developers realized that it had to be removed in order to prevent damage to the bricks.

  • Famous Historic Events +

    Royal Tour of Canada (1939): King George VI of the United Kingdom and his wife, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, went on a grand journey of Canada prior to World War II. Their trip was part of a great strategy to reinforce the cultural ties that bound Canada and the United Kingdom together, as well as to emphasize the former’s increasing independence from the latter. While many other royal tours had occurred in Canada previously, this one was unprecedented in its size and scale. Thousands lined the streets of every major city that the royal entourage visited, with entire roads shutdown just to manage the crowds. King George IV and Queen Elizabeth arrived in Québec City on May 17 and started traveling west along the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Royal Family had managed to traverse the whole country by the end of the month, arriving in Victoria on May 31. Upon their arrival, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth subsequently attended a luncheon held in their honor inside The Empress. Afterward, the King and Queen headed east to visit additional cities and towns in Atlantic Canada, as well as Newfoundland. The two also briefly traveled through the United States en route to the maritime provinces, which marked the first time a British monarch had ever stepped foot inside the country. Their journey ended on June 15, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother boarded a ship back to the United Kingdom at the port of Halifax.

  • Famous Historic Guests +

    Rita Hayworth, actress known for her roles in Gilda and Cover Girl.

    Katherine Hepburn, actress known for her roles in The African Queen and Woman of the Year.

    Roger Moore, actor best known for his portrayal of secret British agent James Bond.

    Shirley Temple, actress known for her role in Bright Eyes and The Little Princess.

    Jack Benny, comedian known for The Jack Benny Program.

    Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1940 – 1945; 1951 – 1955)

    Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother

    Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh

    King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom (1936)

    King George VI of the United Kingdom (1936 – 1952)

    Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (1952 – present)

  • Film, TV and Media Connections +

    Harry in Your Pocket (1973)

    Enter the Dragon (1973)

    The Glitter Dome (1984)

    The Year of the Dragon (1985)

    Knight Moves (1993)

    Little Women (1994)

    Lucky 7 (2003)

    I Want to Marry Ryan Banks (2004)

    White Chicks (2004)

    General Hospital

    Trophy Wife (2006)

    Monkey Up (2015)