Arriving around the same time as the very first Calgary Stampede, it helped signal the birth of a new era in the city. As more and more people set Calgary as their destination, it was a witness to the city’s transformation from frontier town to bustling city following the discovery of oil in nearby Turner Valley in 1914. It has played host to some of the biggest names ever to visit our city, from Cary Grant to Pierre Trudeau, and even Queen Elizabeth herself. R.B. Bennett, who would go on to become Canada’s 11th Prime Minister, even called the place home for a time.
Calgary’s “Castle by the tracks”, the Palliser Hotel first opened its doors on June 1, 1914. Boasting moulded ceilings, marble columns and floors, fine oak woodwork, hand made rugs and tapestries, the elegant hotel was constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway to meet the needs of the increasing number of tourists flocking to the suddenly prosperous city.
With a design more reminiscent of the Chicago School than the French Chateau Style hotels built by the CPR in other Canadian cities during the same period, the eight-storey sandstone hotel (which was later expanded to 12-storeys) was constructed at a cost of $1,500,000. The hotel’s E shape, part of the design from architect Lawrence Gotch, made it possible for guests in all of the 350 rooms to have their suites flooded in natural light.
All of this came at a time when Calgary, still known as a rather rough-and-tumble link on the tourist trail to Banff, lacked the sort of grand lodgings seen in other more metropolitan centres like Montreal and Victoria, where the CPR had already constructed palatial hotels. In their search for a name for the new hotel, the CPR found inspiration in their clientele, choosing The Palliser in honour of Captain John Palliser — the famous explorer whose journey through the Western Provinces in the 1850s inspired countless others to head west.
Today, the hotel largely remains the same as it did back then. Regarded as the eminent address in the city to call home for a few nights, guests today can likely imagine what it must have felt for Mr. C.W. Rowley, the very first guest to check in at the hotel on that first night. For just a couple dollars, Rowley would have enjoyed a brass bed, hot and cold running water, and a rather spectacular view from the roof garden, as at the time, the hotel was tallest building in the city.
Also appearing much as they did back then are the hotel’s grand ballrooms and lobby, which have been the sight of many roaring evenings over the years. Able to operate beyond the curfew imposed on other dance halls in the city, guests at the Palliser were able to break a few other rules as well. During Prohibition, staff were known to turn a blind eye to guests helping themselves to a drink or two from a well-concealed flask, all the while keeping the ginger-ale or Coca-Cola going so that they’d have something to mix it with.
While the prices may have increased over the years (The Palliser’s most luxurious room will set guests back a princely $2,500/night), and most guests now arrive by car rather than by rail, David Woodward, Fairmont Palliser’s director of sales and marketing manager says that the hotel remains much the same as when it opened.
“What’s changed is the city around the hotel. Back at the time when the hotel was built, there were 40,000 full-time residents in Calgary, and now we’re [a city] of 1.2 million.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been improvements over the years. In addition to the four-storey addition in 1929, which brought the number of suites in the hotel up to 492, the Palliser has seen its fair share of makeovers. During the 60s, as was the fashion in many an historic building, the Palliser was “modernized” to suit the tastes of the time, a change that was thankfully later reversed, as the hotel’s lobby, and many of the guest rooms and ballrooms were restored to their original Renaissance Revival style.