Hotel Vancouver Turns 80

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If the walls of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver could talk, they would have enough stories to fill volumes.

Like the time in the 1940s when movie star Roy Rogers snuck his horse into the Panorama Roof restaurant for a quick photo-op—in the middle of an evening performance. Or the time in 1938 that a craftsman slipped a newspaper and an essay on civil rights inside one of the building’s rooftop gargoyles—while he was carving it. Or when housekeeper Ethel Ferguson, horrified by the renovations of the 1960s, secretly hid some 200 pieces of authentic Chippendale furniture, only to return them 15 years later.

And while the walls themselves can’t speak per se, a new 80th-anniversary photo exhibition, masterminded by Fairmont marketing manager Rebecca MacDonald and international portrait photographer Dennis Gocer, are giving voice to at least a few of these notable tales from the storied downtown Vancouver institution’s past.

“We wondered: ‘What if we took some of our stories, and told them in new ways?’” MacDonald explains. “The goal was to have people walk through the lobby and learn our history without even necessarily realizing that they were learning something. We wanted them to stop and say: ‘Wait. Why is there a horse in the ballroom? What is that guy doing on the roof?”

To bring these stories to life, Gocer (who is also founder and Creative Director of The Collective You) and MacDonald worked together to create a series of seven stunning portraits—each a modern reimagining of key moments and images from the hotel’s history—give new life to everyone from legendary Sun photographer Jack Lindsay to the Lady In Red (a deceased debutante said to still walk the halls). The images—mounted on panels explaining their significance—debuted at a lavish gala this month and are set to be displayed in the hotel’s iconic Pacific Ballroom throughout 2019.

“It was basically a dream project,” Gocer notes. “The images are incredible. I’m so proud of them. It’s so rare to finish something, and then look at it and say: ‘Yeah. This is exactly what we pictured.’”

Figuring out precisely which stories to tell was a challenge all its own. Constructed between 1929 and 1939 (the Depression forced a halt to construction for nearly eight years) for the Canadian Northern Railway, the Hotel Vancouver is the third building in the city to bear its name (the previous incarnations stood on Georgia Street and were property of the CPR). It has played host to hundreds of thousands of guests over the years. From politicians, to athletes, to entertainers such as Robin Williams (of whom many staff members still have fond memories). Its Panorama Roof restaurant hosted Vancouver music legend Dal Richards, and was once a broadcast centre for the CBC.

The original Hotel Vancouver, commissioned by CPR, was completed in 1888. At the time, Vancouver was barely two years old, and the squat, 60-room building looked incredibly out-of-place on rustic Granville Street. It wasn’t a hit with locals, nor with railway president W.C. Van Horne, who reportedly chided the architect over the size of the building’s windows. But by 1916, as the city’s population had more than doubled (to around 10,000), the railway commissioned a second, far larger hotel (built on the opposite side of the art gallery from the current hotel). Like its successor, the new building hosted many a famous guest, including Winston Churchill, but lasted less than 30 years, before the railway decided to replace it yet again. The second hotel had been closed to the public, was briefly occupied by returning servicemen after the Second World War, who were protesting a citywide housing shortage, and was eventually demolished.

When the third and current building was finally completed in 1939—on the eve of a visit by Queen Elizabeth—it was the tallest building in the city, which it remained until 1972. Its chateau style was popular at the time, mirroring hotels such as Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac and Toronto’s Royal York. And as one would expect from such a historic structure, the building also has a series of hidden treasures, including two unused elevator shafts, and a racist wall mural uncovered during a recent series of renovations and since donated to the Vancouver Museum.

“It was really hard to decide which stories we would be shooting,” MacDonald says. “There are so many great stories, how do you go about picking which ones to highlight?”

The shoot—completed in a single day back in January of 2019—showcases locations from the ballroom to the roof, and features brands such as De Beers Jewellers, Holt Renfrew, and Stella McCartney (DeBeers, the official brand partner of the shoot, flew out their Mosaic Necklace which holds a whopping 1314 diamonds). And while it featured a series of challenges (including strapping a model to a rooftop gargoyle), MacDonald and Gocer are quick to credit the entire Fairmont Hotel Vancouver team for going above and beyond to make their vision a reality.

“We were able to tell these iconic moments in a way that preserved the dignity of those stories, while simultaneously compelling people visually,” Gocer notes.

In fact, one of the shoot’s biggest challenges also produced one of its most compelling images—one which paid tribute to Roy Rogers’ Panorama Room visit by bringing a live horse into the building.

“I wanted a hobby horse,” MacDonald laughs. “And [Gocer] went: ‘No, let’s get a real horse’. It was one of those things that, when he asked, I said: ‘That’s a little crazy. We’ll see how much it is.’ I figured there was no way we could do it without blowing our budget—which was great, because then I wouldn’t have to figure out the logistics of how to get a horse into the ballroom.”

In the end, both the horse and the shoot worked out seamlessly, and as a testament to their shared vision, every one of the planned images made the final cut and have received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public and hotel staff alike.

Beyond the temporary residence in the Pacific Ballroom, there are hopes that the work may find a more permanent home elsewhere in the building, allowing the walls of the hotel to continue speaking their secrets for years to come.

“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed working as much as I have for this 80th anniversary,” MacDonald says. “And you look back at the photos that inspired these moments, and you go, ‘Wow. It was so normal to walk a horse into the ballroom, or an elephant through the lobby.’ Nowadays these things require all this planning and insurance. It was just so cool to be able to reimagine these iconic moments within our lifetime.”


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May 28, 2019