As far as icons go, the Empress Hotel is the most iconic image of Victoria, B.C. and one of the first sights visitors see when arriving in the city. It was planned that way from the start. The Empress Hotel is the last in a series of grand hotels purposely built to draw visitors across Canada using the new railroad as it extended further and further west. Other hotels along this golden route include the Banff Springs Hotel, the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, the Royal York in Toronto, Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, Place Rigur in Montreal, and Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, each conveniently located near a railway stop. These grand hotels were built to rival any hotel in Europe and draw high end guests. The Empress is designed in a chateauesque style with steeply pitched roofs and ivy covered stone that seems a perfect blend of French and English influences.
The plan worked, as the Empress Hotel in Victoria has welcomed many illustrious guests including Winston Churchill, Edward the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of England, as well as many celebrities and notable names.
The decor of the Empress is appropriately regal and has an impressive amount of stained glass windows. Yet one notable error in the design of a window may slip by most guests. Unless you know what you are looking for, you might not notice it either. One old stained glass window includes a politically incorrect image. It has the symbol of a sunset and a British flag. It was politically incorrect to place the British flag underneath the setting sun. Because, as the Brits liked to say, “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” At the time the Empress opened in 1908, the British Empire had colonies across the globe.
Photo credit: Flikr/AndrewMalone
Photo credit: Flikr/Robin Zebrowski
The entire building is filled with specialty themed windows, as well as just the decorative. The most impressive stained glass piece is found overhead in the Palm Court. There you will find a beautiful stained glass dome. Study the pattern in the glass, then head into the tea room for high tea and enjoy the grandeur of the table settings. Do you see something familiar? The china pattern used in the tea room is a replica of the pattern used in the stained glass dome. It is just another one of those special touches that creates an unmistakable feeling of cohesiveness that makes the Empress feel so perfect.
Tea at the Empress is a special tradition that has continued for 110 years and counting. With shining silver tiered trays, purposely designed china, honey from their own bee hives, lavender from their rooftop garden, and locally sourced ingredients, it is a truly special regal experience.
Yet the Empress is not stuck in a time warp. It strives to honor its heritage while keeping the interior fresh. It is not easy maintaining antique stained glass. The stained glass dome in the Palm Court tragically collapsed in 1968 during a New Year’s Eve snow storm. It was covered over and forgotten for two decades until the Royal Restoration in 1988 when it was re-installed. After being painstakingly recreated from old photographs it now enchants an entire new generation of visitors.
Visiting the Empress after another restoration project in 2018, you will find the ivy covered exterior changed – the ivy had to be removed to prevent damage to the building itself. Yet inside you will find a new blend of history with modern tastes and conveniences that brings the Edwardian era into the present in a happy marriage of design. And the sun will keep on shining through those spectacular stained glass windows.