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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Hotels Vancouver: How One Name Graced Three Buildings

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VPL 4243, 1935. The second Hotel Vancouver is pictured centre to the left of the Vancouver Block, while the third Hotel Vancouver is pictured far left.

From right after the Great Fire in 1886 until present day, Vancouver has always had a structure titled “The Hotel Vancouver”. Always influential, often impressive, the evolution of the Hotel Vancouver is an interesting tale fraught with corporate power plays and one of the city’s greatest losses in heritage architecture.


VPL 19865, 188-. The original Hotel Vancouver
VPL 19865, 188-. The original Hotel Vancouver

The first iteration of the Hotel Vancouver was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) which is now a sister company of Metropolis Resort ( Strategically built 42m above sea level at one of the highest, and therefore most visible points in the city, the hotel was designed to draw people away from more populated Cordova and Water Streets to tracts of land owned by the railway. The original hotels Valet Parking Software construction was part of a major over-hauling of the Granville and Hastings area that included clearing, paving and development in the West End. The CPR’s plan really took flight when The Hudson’s Bay Company store moved in next door to the hotel thus spurring the birth of a new downtown.


Designed by architect Thomas Sorby the hotel opened in May 1888 (often mistakenly attributed to 1887 according to Chuck Davis) and was panned by early critics, as well as CPR President William Van Horne, as a “glorified farmhouse”. Sorby had originally designed a much more grand building which in some versions had an Italianate influence possibly more similar in design to the 2nd Hotel Vancouver. Sadly those drawings were destroyed in the Great Fire forcing Sorby to start again from scratch.


VPL 5919 The second Hotel Vancouver
VPL 5919 The second Hotel Vancouver

The original Hotel Vancouver would be demolished in 1913 after CPR officials decided that an impressive and much larger hotel was more fitting to the burgeoning city. Francis Swales, who also had influence on the decorative details of the Selfridge’s store in London, was commissioned as architect for the 2nd Hotel Vancouver. It was built on the same site as the original, at the corner of Georgia and Granville. The 2nd Hotel Vancouver was truly a sight to be seen. Built of reinforced concrete in the elaborate Italian Renaissance style the exterior featured imported terra cotta, a circular drive, and a grand porte cochère leading to the lobby. The 14th floor façade even included 18 8-foot tall terra cotta bison and moose heads. The roof was a trellised outdoor garden café known for its panoramic views. This hotel was one of only a few that deviated from the typical “chateau” style hotels CPR favoured and quickly became the hotel of choice for celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt and Babe Ruth.


photo credit:
photo credit:

Quite possibly Vancouver’s most elaborate building, it was to be short-lived and only operated as a hotel for 23 years. Its demise began with Canadian National (CN) breaking ground on a rival hotel at the corner of Georgia and Burrard. When the Great Depression hit Vancouver, both companies struggled financially and agreed to co-own the new hotel. The 2nd Hotel Vancouver was deemed too grand and too much competition for the simpler design of the new hotel and was closed to the public in 1939. It was used as barracks and then a temporary shelter for returning war veterans, before the land was purchased by Eaton’s for a new department store. The hotel was demolished in 1949 but the site sat empty until 1972.



CVA 5030, 1939. The third Hotel Vancouver, here referred to as "Canadian National Hotel"
CVA 5030, 1939. The third Hotel Vancouver, here referred to as “Canadian National Hotel”

The current Hotel Vancouver took 11 years to complete. With construction started in 1928, it wasn’t officially opened until May 1939. When CN first planned the hotel they wanted to name it “The British Columbian”, then “The Canadian National”. It was only during negotiations with CPR that the name “Hotel Vancouver” was attributed to this structure.

Designed by architects John Archibald and John Scofield the construction went through several changes. First plans were for 12 storeys which escalated to 16, then 19 with 1100 rooms with a 2 storey ballroom on the 10th-12th floors, and a curving grand entrance off Georgia St. Clearly not all of those plans became reality as the final build is 532 rooms on 17 floors with a more modest ballroom. Restored in the 1990s, there are current plans to reinvigorate the lobby spaces including converting Griffins Restaurant into retail space.


For more on all three Hotels Vancouver including lots of great archival images visit the Past Tense blog here

Photo Credit: Vancouver Public Library via Past Tense
Vancouver Then and Now. Chuck Davis, 2001.

Research from:
Vancouver Then and Now. Chuck Davis, 2001.
Building the West. Don Luxton, 2003.