Design Crush: A First Look at the Revamped Empress Hotel
A multi-year renovation sends the Fairmont Empress Hotel back to its Edwardian past.
When a building is known and loved for its well-worn history, how do you change it? Such was the challenge presented to the designers hired to oversee the Fairmont Empress Hotel’s first renovation in over a quarter century. Rich Kinnard, a senior designer with Hirsch Bedner Associates of San Francisco and Rob Polacek, chief creative officer of Puccini Group, also of San Francisco, worked with new owners Nat and Flora Bosa to update the interiors of the 1908 structure while being careful to preserve its original Edwardian grandeur. Western Living took a tour of the newly completed spaces (phase two of the multi-year renovation, which focuses on the lobby and additional guest rooms, is now underway).
The once-prominent dining room was dark and weighed down by faux-traditional furnishings, says Polacek, who oversaw the redesign of the hotel’s dining room, bar, and lobby lounge. Tapestries and carpets were removed to showcase the Edwardian millwork and newly restored inlaid mahogany flooring. A hunk of facetted purple resin at the reception desk references the crown jewels. New wallpaper with a marbleized sheen was designed by Astek Inc.
The space now occupied by Q Bar was formerly used as a staging area and furniture repository. Now, an under-lit quartzite stone bar commands attention. The pop art-style portraits of Queen Victoria were sourced from Julie Coyle Art Associates in San Francisco. Custom brass and glass lights hover overhead and are designed to reference the clouds that roll into the city’s Inner Harbour.
Prior to the renovation, the lounge was used for afternoon tea service and generally fell silent before and after. Polacek sought to return it to a grand salon, where guests could come down from their rooms to read, have tea, and stay for champagne. The multi-coloured millwork was painted a pearlescent white. New furniture is a mix of marble-topped tables, leggy cane chairs, and jewel-toned upholstery, which pulls colours from the hotel’s original china pattern.
On level one, seven rooms were demolished to create a new lounge for Fairmont Gold guests. The 2,046 sq. ft. space opens onto a terrace that was original to the hotel but had been strangely underutilized. “It was just where the flag poles were,” says Kinnard, whose team oversaw the redesign of the new space, as well as the corridors, retail area, meeting rooms, and guest rooms. “The doors were kept locked. You couldn’t even access it from a guest room.” Now, seating is arranged around a trio of fire pits overlooking the inner harbour. The globe lamp standards that span the front railing were returned to the hotel by a local heritage conservationist who’d purchased them decades ago and stowed them away in his garage (only in Victoria).
A satin gold finish is used throughout the Fairmont Gold Lounge differentiating it from the brass found elsewhere in the hotel. Here, it’s used as a framework for case goods, including Ookpik soapstone sculptures and nautical and aviation memorabilia sourced from local antiques dealers Britannia and Co. Antiques and Estates and Vanity Fair Antique and Collectibles Mall, both of Fort Street’s Antique Row. Existing fireplaces were restored and new white tiles incorporated into the surround. Kinnard says the palette of blues, greys, and the occasional flash of orange, was inspired by the views of the western sky and harbour outside the windows.
Guest rooms retain architectural details but the hotel’s eclectic collection of bureaus and other furnishings (difficult to attribute to any one period), were moved out to the corridors to create a sense of place in common areas. Canadian Pacific Railway had long ago shipped archival materials to each of its former hotels. Kinnard poured over old menus and photographs and other ephemera selecting pieces to frame and hang throughout the premises.
The vagaries of the building create some 18 different room categories. “It’s not a modern hotel,” says Kinnard. “But it has modern luxuries.” Among them: murano-glass chandeliers and large-format tile. (“Mr. Bosa is not a fan of grout lines,” says Kinnard).