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 historic and modern elements to create the spectacular renovation at Fairmont Empress.
“We wanted a return to its previous grandeur when we undertook the redesign 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, while at the same time capturing the contemporary tastes of a younger demographic.
British architect, Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the nearby Parliament Buildings in Victoria, designed the Empress for Canadian Pacific Hotels. It officially opened its doors in 1908 as a destination hotel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. It underwent a floral chintz design iteration 25 years ago and in 2014 was purchased by Vancouver developer Nat Bosa who then initiated a two-year, $60-million stylish makeover.
The word “breathtaking” can easily define the first impression visitors get when standing behind the hotel’s first-level, 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 formerly hidden majestic grand staircase, guests can truly appreciate the colour palette of gold, charcoal and lavender that provides a regal welcome.
It’s the hotel’s pièce de résistance – a magnificent two-tonne mesh chandelier – that makes jaws drop. The exquisite piece is composed of 250,000 hand-cut crystals and was crafted 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, the work of art took almost two weeks to install.
Pinkie Up or Pinkie Down?
An iconic tradition, the century-old ritual of afternoon tea in the Lobby Lounge of the grand Fairmont Empress continues but with a glam update that contributes to heightening the overall experience. “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 an old carpet we discovered a stunning hardwood floor with original mahogany inlay that we were so excited about,” confides Polacek when discussing the details of the project. Antique chandeliers received an instant refresh with contemporary twill corrugated shades. A pearlescent wash of white was applied to pillars, originally constructed from plaster and horsehair, and then painted to look like heavy mahogany wood, immediately transforming the space into an airy oasis overlooking the harbour. Finishing touches include vibrant purple and blue jewel-toned pillows on grey upholstered sofas, impeccably reflecting the colours from the pattern of the hotel’s historic Empress Tea China service.
Q at the Empress 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, the area now houses custom-made abstract cumulous chandeliers, referencing the clouds rolling into Victoria’s harbour. The fixtures are suspended from the original, but surprisingly, faux carved beams and ceiling in both Q Restaurant and Q Bar. A huge, faceted amethyst reservation desk separates the two areas.
In Q at the Empress Restaurant, massive silver Mylar blow-ups of Queen Victoria as a young ruler reference the progression of her 63-year reign. In Q Bar, portraits of the Empress Dowager in her later years have been given a Pop-art treatment, a cutting-edge design brought about by Julie Coyle Art Associates. “We wanted a visual storytelling of Victoria but also to be current, tying in the purple used in the décor,” explains Coyle from her studio in Sausalito, CA. “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. Its signature element is a royal violet hued gin, created especially for the hotel by Victoria Distillers, that turns pink when it interacts with anything acidic. The 1908 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 to create the 2,046-square foot Fairmont Gold Lounge, currently the largest lounge among all Fairmont Hotels & Resorts properties. A private concierge oversees breakfast, afternoon tea and evening canapés and makes a mean cappuccino too. A warning though, it’s so cozy and comfortable here you might not want to leave to explore the city. A satin-gold finish is used throughout the Gold Lounge that’s filled with antique nautical and aviation memorabilia, magazines and board games. Designer Kinnard contrasted plush grey and blue sofas and banquettes with colourful carpets inspired by the ocean and sunsets visible from wall-to-wall windows.
The lounge opens onto a terrace with windscreen, fire pits and seating that affords 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 original antique pieces from the hotel turned up all kinds of treasures, including two Art Deco globe lamp standards that have been re-installed on the terrace.
The Fairmont Gold rooms have been completely reimagined: expanding 45 rooms to 65 spacious hide-aways, with jewel-toned soft furnishings, Art Deco bed frames and walls featuring original carved mouldings. This thoughtful depiction of luxury carries over into the hotel’s amenity selections, including the signature, eco-friendly shower products Le Labo’s Rose 31.
It’s About the Details
While you’re exploring Fairmont Empress, take a close look at the framed menus from 1908 on the wide guest corridor walls – Filet Mignon cost just $1.40. Vintage brass Canada Post mail boxes are still in use, and there are photos of celebrities who have visited the hotel, including Sir Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, HRH Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Harrison Ford, George Clooney and Ryan Reynolds.
“We didn’t want to completely change the Fairmont Empress, just lift her hem a little and bring out her personality,” reveals Rob Polacek laughingly. “And I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Laura Goldstein will travel almost anywhere to write about (and eat) a good meal and explore hotels and homes with great design. These travels include dining in an underwater restaurant in Eilat, Israel to truffle hunting at a cooking course in Provence, France. A highlight of her 25-year career was covering Kate Middleton & Prince William on their 2017 Royal Tour in Vancouver, Canada.