If you’re a fan of the sumptuous sets by production designer, Michael Howells in the fascinating British television series, Victoria you’ll marvel at how 21st Century designers mixed historical and modern elements to create the spectacular renovation at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria.
“We wanted a return to its previous grandeur when we undertook the re-design of the iconic Fairmont Empress,” says Rich Kinnard of Hirsch Bedner Associates in San Francisco. “The Empress isn’t just a hotel,” explains the designer, also an avid history buff. “It’s a landmark for the city and people across Canada. We wanted to honour that in our design but walked a very fine line because we wanted to appeal to all luxury travellers.” The challenge for Kinnard meant not alienating the traditionalists who loved the Edwardian bones of the hotel and at the same time, capture the contemporary tastes of a younger demographic.
Originally designed by Francis Rattenbury for Canadian Pacific Hotels, The Fairmont Empress Hotel opened in 1908 as a terminus hotel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. It underwent a floral chintz iteration twenty-five years ago and in 2014 was purchased by Vancouver developer, Nat Bosa who then initiated a two-year, $60-million stylish makeover.
Breathtaking – is my immediate impression standing behind the first level’s laser-cut gold balustrade overlooking the enlarged entrance lobby. Its contemporary jewel-tone carpet is embedded with an abstract of Queen Victoria’s crown. Walking down the majestic grand staircase formerly hidden before the renovation, (I wish I had packed my tiara!) the colour palette of gold, charcoal and lavender is a regal welcome for the streams of guests and tourists entering the hotel.
Then all eyes are riveted upwards and jaws drop: it’s the hotel’s pièce de résistance – a magnificent two-tonne mesh chandelier composed of 250,000 hand-cut crystals by Czech lighting company, Lasvit, in the shape of a deconstructed Reine Victoria Rose (a favourite flower of the Grande Dame and salute to nearby Butchart Gardens.) Now dominating a previously empty atrium, it took almost two weeks to install.
Pinkie Up or Pinkie Down?
A grand tradition for over a century, the ritual of ‘High Tea’ in the Tea Lobby of the world -renowned Fairmont Empress Hotel continues but in a glam update that contributes to the overall salon experience now known as the Lobby Lounge. “Tea, including tea used in cocktails is really having a Millennial moment,” says Rob Polacek, chief creative officer of San Francisco’s Puccini Group who oversaw the redesign of the Lobby Lounge, restaurant and bar. “We wanted a fresh look that would emphasize the whole experience.”
“Surprisingly, by stripping away things like an old carpet we discovered a stunning hardwood floor with original mahogany inlay that we were so excited about,” confides Polacek. Vibrant purple and blue jewel-toned pillows on grey upholstered sofas reflect the colours from the pattern of the hotel’s historical Empress Tea China service. Antique chandeliers received an instant refresh with contemporary twill corrugated shades. A pearlescent wash of white to cover pillars originally constructed from plaster and horsehair and painted to look like heavy mahogany wood, immediately transformed the space into an airy oasis overlooking the harbour.
The Q Restaurant and adjacent Q Bar designed by the Puccini Group, merge historic and contemporary design elements to create an exciting new vibe.
Formerly a dark, underused space, custom-made cumulous chandeliers, referencing the clouds rolling into Victoria’s harbour, are suspended from the original but surprisingly faux carved beams and ceiling in both the Q Restaurant and Q Bar. A huge faceted amethyst Reservation Desk (a play on the Crown Jewels?) separates the two areas.
In the Q Restaurant, massive silver Mylar blow-ups of Queen V as a young ruler reference the progression of her 63-year reign; in her later years, portraits of the Empress Dowager in the Q Bar, have been given a Pop-Art treatment, all by Julie Coyle Art Associates. “We wanted a visual storytelling of Victoria but also be current, tying in the purple used in the décor,” explains Coyle from her studio in Sausalito. “The portraits’ chunky gold frames reflect the light from wall sconces designed to look like torches.”
Make yourself comfortable on an olive- green distressed leather barstool at the white quartzite bar and order the Q 1908 Cocktail. It combines gin created especially by Victoria Distillers for the hotel that turns a royal violet when it interacts with anything acidic! The concoction is made with butterfly pea flowers, rose, grapefruit peel, ginger and the Fairmont Empress’ signature blended black tea.
Queen For A Day (or Week)
Five rooms were demolished just to create the 2,046-sq.-foot ‘hotel within a hotel’ Fairmont Gold Lounge for guests, currently the largest in all the Fairmont Hotel properties. A private concierge oversees breakfast, afternoon tea and evening canapes and makes a mean cappuccino too. WARNING: it’s so cozy and comfortable here you won’t want to leave to explore the city! A satin-gold finish is used throughout the Gold Lounge filled with antique nautical and aviation memorabilia, magazines and boardgames. Kinnard contrasts plush grey and blue sofas and banquettes with carpets bursting with colours inspired by the sunset and ocean seen through wall-to wall windows.
The Lounge opens onto a Terrace with windscreen, fire pits and seating with incredible views of the inner harbour. “Previously, the terrace was completely closed off to guests and used as storage for flagpoles,” says Kinnard incredulously. A call-out to the Victoria community to buy back any original antique pieces from the hotel that had been bought and sold over the years, turned up all kinds of treasures including two Art Deco globe lamp standards that have been re-installed on the terrace.
The Fairmont Empress Hotel Gold rooms have been completely reimagined: expanding 45 rooms to 65 spacious hide-aways, with jewel-toned soft furnishings, understated luxury of Art Deco bed frames and many walls boast original carved mouldings. Cheers to the Fairmont’s eco-friendly signature shower products, Le Labo’s Rose 31 too.
It’s All In The Details
While you’re exploring The Fairmont Empress Hotel, take a close look at the framed menus from 1908 on the wide guest corridor walls (Filet Mignon cost $1.40!); vintage brass Canada Post mail boxes are still in use and there are photos of past celebrities who have visited the hotel from Sir Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, HRH Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, to Harrison Ford, George Clooney and Ryan Reynolds.
Having watched two seasons of Victoria we learn how the young Queen was an independent thinker and not afraid to break with tradition – a woman ahead of her time.
“We didn’t want to completely change the Fairmont Empress Hotel, just lift her hem a little and bring out her personality,” laughs Rob Polacek. “And I think we’ve accomplished that.”