Downtown Victoria Tour
Government Street – 700 Block
The Empress Hotel at 721 Government Street is one of Victoria’s leading landmarks. It was originally designed by architect Francis Rattenbury and built between 1904 and 1908 by the Canadian Pacific Railway as part of the C.P.R.’s cross Canada hotel chain.
Additional Information About the Empress Hotel
- Assessed Value (July 2016): $66,000,000; Land $32,312,000 Buildings $33,688,000
- Assessed Value (July 2015): $57,000,000; Land $29,312,000 Buildings $27,688,000
- Assessed Value (July 2014): $52,000,000; Land $27,312,000 Buildings $24,688,000
- Canadian Register of Historic Places – formally recognized in 1981, listed in 2007
- National Historic Site of Canada – formally recognized in 1981, listed in 2007
A Brief History of the Empress Hotel
The Empress Hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1904-1908 as one of its chain of hotels across Canada, built to encourage travellers onto the C.P.R.’s passenger trains and steamships.
The C.P.R. also ran a steamship and ferry service to and from Victoria’s Inner Harbour. The present Steamship Terminal on Belleville Street was originally the Victoria terminal for the C.P.R.’s steamships. The C.P.R. intended the Empress Hotel to make Victoria a tourism destination for its steamship passengers.
Construction of the Empress involved some major site preparation before construction could begin. Until 1903 the site where the Empress now stands was a tidal inlet called James Bay, which extended eastward from the Inner Harbour. A bridge crossed James Bay where Government Street now stands.
In 1904 a coffer dam was built where the Causeway and Government Street run now. With the coffer dam in place James Bay was drained and filled in. The Empress Hotel was then built on the reclaimed land.
The Empress Hotel opened in 1908.
Between 1910-1912 the Empress was given major additions, designed by Ontario architect Walter Scott Painter (1887-1957) on the south and north wings. Walter Painter also designed a conservatory (now removed) and a ballroom for the Empress Hotel. Walter Painter had a long standing relationship with the C.P.R. Between 1906-1911 Walter Scott Painter had also designed additions to the C.P.R.’s Chateau Lake Louise, which, like the Empress, had originally been designed by Francis Rattenbury.
In 1928 the C.P.R. built an extensive addition on the north wing of the Empress bordering Humboldt Street. This addition was designed and supervised by the C.P.R.’s Engineer of Buildings, John Wilson Orrock, who had also designed and built additions for the C.P.R.’s Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and the Palliser Hotel in Calgary.
In 1989 a $45 million dollar renovation and addition involved the construction of the Victoria Conference Centre on the east side of the Empress and a new reception area on Government Street, near Humboldt Street.
In 1999, Canadian Pacific spun off its CP Hotels division, putting its hotels across Canada into a new company called Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
In 2006 Fairmont Hotels sold the Empress Hotel to Kingdom Hotels, owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, and Colony Capital, a California based private equity firm.
In 2007 the Empress was purchased by Ivanhoe Cambridge, the real estate division of the Quebec’s pension plan, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.
In 2014 Ivanhoe Cambridge sold the Empress to its current owners, Nat and Flora Bosa, of Vancouver based Bosa Development Corporation.
Here are links to some historic photos of the Causeway and the Empress Hotel, in chronological order:
Construction of the Causeway and the Empress Hotel, circa 1903-1908
- BC Archives photo F-02116 – construction of the Causeway circa 1903. The Customs House is visible in this photo.
- BC Archives photo D-07275 – the Empress Hotel under construction, circa 1907
The Empress Hotel, following its opening in 1908
- BC Archives photo B-04739 – circa 1908
- BC Archives photo A-09170 – circa 1908
- BC Archives photo B-03274 – Empress Hotel dining room, 1908
- BC Archives photo A-02825 – Empress Hotel lobby, 1908
- BC Archives photo B-07523 – following construction of the first north wing addition, circa 1912
- BC Archives photo F-07792 – following construction of the south wing addition, circa 1912
- BC Archives photo A-08800 – construction of the Humboldt Street wing, June 1928
- BC Archives photo G-05561 – construction of the Humboldt Street wing, 13 June 1928
- BC Archives photo G-05562 – construction of the Humboldt Street wing, 13 June 1928
- BC Archives photo G-05565 – construction of the Humboldt Street wing, 13 June 1928
- BC Archives photo F-02474 – construction of the Humboldt Street wing, 16 August 1928
- BC Archives photo A-08801 – construction of the Humboldt Street wing, 16 August 1928
- BC Archives photo F-02110 – circa 1930
- BC Archives photo I-01402 – New transit buses on the Causeway in front of the Empress Hotel, 1946. (photographer: Duncan MacPhail)
- BC Archives photo I-26613 – 1948
- BC Archives photo I-26605 – 1949. also showing the Causeway
- BC Archives photo I-26606 – 1950. also showing the Causeway
- BC Archives photo I-26607 – 1954. also showing the Causeway
- BC Archives photo I-26608 – 1954. Also showing the Belmont Building and the Union Club
- BC Archives photo I-26611 – 1967
- BC Archives photo I-26612 – 1967, also showing the Causeway as seen from the Steamship Terminal
- BC Archives photo I-04577 – 1984
For more information on the history of the Empress Hotel we recommend The Fairmont Empress: The First Hundred Years by Terry Reksten.
This book can be difficult to find but used hardcover copies are often available in Victoria’s antiquarian bookshops.
We also recommend Terry Reksten’s biography of Francis Rattenbury, the architect who originally designed the Empress Hotel. Although this book was published in the 1970’s we still consider it to be the best available biography of Francis Rattenbury.
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