This is one of the CNR/CPR hotels built in the late 19th and early 20th century by the great Canadian railroad companies. Its construction started in 1929, stalled by the depression and then finished in 1939. It still sits in the middle of downtown Vancouver and is a beautiful (if you like the style) château-type brick and stone building with its bright green oxidized copper roof.
I remember it like I remember the White Spot: my parents would go to “The Roof” at the hotel to dance to the music of Dal Richards in the 1950s. I danced with pretty girls at a strange pseudo-debutante party there as a teenager, and also remember a 1965 grad event there almost 50 years ago. It was the pinnacle of serious high class in town in those days and long since.
The Hotel Vancouver has changed hands like a hot potato over the years, most recently in the last decade managed by American hotel company Fairmont, but bought in 2015 by Larco Enterprises, a company owned by the Vancouver Lalji family. These people led by “Amin” Lalji (no relation that I can discern to the restauranteur Sam) own a lot of hotels in Canada and elsewhere, and have struck an unwilling compromise with the people of Ottawa on a big renovation of the Château Laurier Hotel there. That renovation would have put an incongruous rectangular late-20th-century-style box onto the side of the castle-like old railroad hotel. You can check that out online.
This past week I discovered the Hotel Vancouver of my and my family’s past has been internally bastardized in the way the Château Laurier is being beaten up externally. It’s a strange and alienating aesthetic experience for someone with sentimental attachment to the way the city used to be.
Things are a bit closed down in town right now and when we come down from the Coast our favourite local hotel, the renovated old Georgia, isn’t taking guests. We were able to book a room at the Fairmont Vancouver for the mid-$200, which seemed an unexpected bargain, until we walked in the door.
I hadn’t been in the hotel since its $75 million full internal renovation which began in 2014 and was finished a couple of years ago. This, under the direction of Larco, has converted the old Empress-like interior, and at the same time in spite of the American management company destroyed anything resembling homelike service and warmth, into an extremely expensive bus station.
Larco generally excuses its strange taste in spaces by insisting that it uses the finest possible materials. But it’s a bit like a guy who buys a plaid blazer for several thousand dollars at some expensive London tailor and then wears it with an expensive pair of pants made of a completely different plaid. Does he think he’s playing a sophisticated joke? Or does he imagine because the clothes are extremely high-quality that he is dressing… what? Nicely? Tastefully? According to some Anglo-European historic style? I’m baffled.
The lobby is cold, angular, white, chilly: anything but welcoming. Our desk employee is a Chinese man whose demeanour communicates ironic bored meeting-of-standards as if we were in Russia. We finish up there, and head into “Notch8”, the only restaurant, for a drink. There’s an elderly Chinese man behind the bar who has to be coached by another employee to make a boulevardier, and a perfectly nice older middle-age South Asian lady who brings us our drinks with a cup full of dry popcorn, and eventually a bill for $43 for a couple of cocktails. Notch8 has that same expensive bus-station feel to it, intensified when you have to go all the way into the large lobby, along it for about 40 m, and down a full flight of stairs to get to the bathroom on a lower level.
We stopped by mistake on one of the other floors on the way out, and the carpet pattern was frightening in its three-dimensional brightly-coloured geometric confusion.
We were “upgraded” for our $280 room to the 14th floor, which we assume without Covid was and will again be the special-guest floor including the Governor-General Suite and the Royal Suite. The room was big with its small Vancouver Hotel window, but wierdly gauche in its interior design and furnishings. It’s the kind of thing I suppose would make a designer cringe because of the obvious cost of the materials and fixtures executed with zero aesthetic understanding of what is comforting and pleasant.
Home from dinner, Robin swung a metal door part way down the hall from the elevator to our room. This clanged shut and wouldn’t open when I went back in my Fairmont dressing gown to try to get some ice. Wondering after a few drinks if we were actually trapped in the end of a 14th floor hallway, I started pressing buttons on the phone. “O” rang and rang, “Royal Service” the same, and “Bell Desk” no answer after about 14 rings. I hit the red “Emergency” button, and after about five rings got a tired “hello”. I said I couldn’t reach any of the other services, and wondered where I could get some ice, and whether I was locked in a dead-end hallway in room 1400. The voice said, “No you go the other way”, told me they would send ice, and hung up.
The other way was down toward the end of the hall, where there was an unmarked door into a service area with some industrial elevators and an ice machine. I got the ice and explained embarrassed to the lady who brought a plastic bag full of ice chips that we didn’t need them.
I guess the joke is on us old Vancouver people, Mr. Lalji. It’s like: Here’s what we think of your idea of high class, silly locals. You like Elvis Presley? How about red velvet and gold foil inside your phony old building? You want to stay in a fancy hotel room? Try these very expensive hideously clashing Idi Amin furnishings. Expect comfort and meeting of your needs? Our minimum-wage English-as-a-third-language brother-in-law of the night manager might be in the mood to answer the phone.
And how long can it be before demolition technologists are evaluating the most efficient way to get rid of the old pile, and venal architects are organizing a international-style white rectangular monstrosity hotel cum rich condos tower at Georgia and Burrard?
For the same money or much less there are dozens of hotels in downtown Vancouver with clean adequate accommodation and usual North American service. Strongly recommend you avoid the disorienting weirdness dished up by Larco Enterprises in this previously revered Vancouver landmark.