Goodbye Westholme Hotel (or Why we need to care more about Old Town...)
In the early morning of Monday, May 6th 2019, the vacant Victoria Plaza Hotel started to burn and continued to until there was almost nothing left. As of a week later, there is still no sign of the caretaker for the building and the growing assumption is that he died in the fire. Over the next many weeks we will assuredly find out the cause of the fire but there is a greater question here and that is why was this building sitting vacant for so long?
The are likely a good number of Victorians that only know of this building as the Victoria Plaza Hotel, many new arrivals may only know it as the vacant building it had become, but this building, despite its somewhat tawdry decline had some pretty amazing previous lives. Some might not even know its original and proper name, The Westholme Hotel.
The main hotel portion of the building was completed in 1911. There is a great chapter in Glen Mofford’s book Aqua Vitae, on the origins of the Westholme Hotel. In what now seems like a sad twist of fate, the birth of the hotel was from a fire as well, when in 1910 the Driard hotel burned down, the liquor license was sold to the Westholme Lumber Company who used it for their planned new hotel.
When the Westholme Hotel opened in 1911 it was one of the best hotels in the city and was home to the popular Songhees Grill. This must have been one of the largest restaurants in the city with seating for six hundred. The next big event for the Westholme was it became one of the first few places in the City of Victoria where you could get beer in 1954 when the city began to relax its strict liquor laws.
The Westholme continued on until 1965. The now tired building was seeming out of place next to the just remodelled and modernised Centennial Square, so it was completely renovated and a new lobby added on to the northern side to create the Century Inn. In what would be considered highly inappropriate in today’s age, the entire hotel was done up in a Persian theme, including the hotel staff uniforms. The hotel was again the place to be on the city.
The Century Inn stayed in business until the mid 1980’s when it was bought and turned into the Victoria Plaza Hotel. This is the hotel that I knew it as and more importantly as the hotel that housed the Monty’s Showroom Pub, which was one of two strip clubs still in business downtown when I moved here in the mid-1990’s. And it was due to this more seedy side of the hotel that Victorians stopped caring about the building.
Despite where it sat in our imagination, the Westholme Hotel was still considered important, indeed it is listed on the Federal Historical Registry here (at least for now). As the strip club closed, there began a process to rebuild the hotel.
It was bad luck then that the property was bought by League Assets. At the time in 2011 this seemed like a great opportunity as this was the same folks that were building the Capital City Centre out in Colwood. In 2013 many people, including myself, were excited that the building had been saved when council passed a plan to keep the original building and add a new portion to the north and east. But the problems with the business plan that were the foundation of League, would spell disaster for the Westholme. With the collapse of League Assets so did the potential for the redevelopment of the Westholme. So it sat, now empty, waiting for another angel to take a chance on it. That potential angel came in 2016 from Pacific Gate Investments who bought the hotel and the proposal that had been developed four years before but there were problems with making the financials of that original plan work so they went back to the drawing board.
Finally, in 2018 we saw the updated designs for the Westholme, they would keep the Government Street facade of the hotel, but the rest would be new build. The design was underwhelming at least in my opinion, and it made its last pass through a city committee at March’s Advisory Design Panel, which it did not make it through. One can assume that the developer was attempting to make changes to the design when the fire broke out.
Looking back at the thread on Vibrant Victoria it makes you pretty sad when you see that there have been discussions about redeveloping the property since 2007. (A lot of the info I used for this post came from that thread). Now that it is gone, I am hoping that we will see a radically new design rather than a replication as that would be an insult to the old hotel and Old Town in general. We will see once the site has been fully investigated and the owners have decided on what to do with the property.
The last twelve years of dithering on the building does show you that things can go wrong. If you read my recent post on the Northern Junk Buildings you will remember that they have been moving through a similar process with the city. There have been voices of opposition against some of the designs that have even said that we shouldn’t worry, someone else will come along and build something that will be less (in their mind) imposing. If the city is serious about its preservation of Old Town then it is about more than just making sure that you stop new development outside of a set of guidelines, it is also about nurturing the existing urban fabric, making sure the it is healthy so that buildings are kept up and not allowed to sit vacant. I think that on that front we still have a lot we can do.
I want to acknowledge that a great deal of the info in this post came from a blog post on LiveVictoria written by Glen Mofford and can be read in its entirety here.