When the Canadian Pacific Railway opened the Royal Alexandra Hotel on July 19, 1906, it was one of the finest in Canada. It cost a million dollars to build and was designed with the sophisticated business traveler and lavish Winnipeg party host in mind. With 450 rooms, including many luxury suites, it was a dramatic testament to Winnipeg’s self-procaimed reputation as the fastest growing city in the Dominion. In a story about the opening, The Winnipeg Tribune called the impressive hotel a: “guarantee in brick and stone that the future growth of Winnipeg is assured.”
Another article, this one by The Canada Hotels Journal, in August, 1906, told its readers: “The new CPR hotel, the Royal Alexandra, which was opened last month in Winnipeg, gives to that city one of the finest hostelries in Canada and one that is surpassed by few on the continent.”
Indeed it was. Named for a queen, the hotel was immediately dubbed the Royal Alex and declared its place as the social centre of Winnipeg.
It would be another six years before the hotel’s prime competitor, the Hotel Fort Garry, would be built, giving the Royal Alex plenty of time to assert her grandeur and attract her followers.
The hotel was built at Higgins and Main, on the North-east corner. To allow for it’s construction next to the Canadian Pacific Railway station, a number of “Hebrew” businesses were reportedly displaced from their established locations along Main Street.
The Royal Alexandra offered exquisite menus and the finest services available for travelers and local residents in need of pampering. If advertising is to be believed, it even provided one of Winnipeg’s early locations for top level beauty treatments.
This advertisement for a beauty parlor that perhaps needed no name, appeared in the Manitoba Free Press, shortly after the hotel opened.
“I have at considerable expense laid out a first class parlor, fully equipped in every branch of hairdressing, hair-dyeing, wig-making, scalp treatment, facial steaming and manicuring departments, all of which will have my personal supervision.”
The ad was placed by William Saalfeld who explained his extensive training in Paris, Montreal, London and other cities, and added that he had bee a court hairdresser.
While the salon may have been reason alone to visit the Royal Alex, the hotel was most certainly seen first as a highly desirable event location.
Weddings, galas, and Royal visits were hosted in the sumptuous halls that included the greatly loved Café, lined with oak and suffused in East European opulence. Champagne, caviar, and a seemingly endless flow of moneyed guests maintained the hotel’s aura of richness.
But, it was a dream that started to fade all too quickly. As hopes for continued growth in Winnipeg started to wane, so too, did the glamour of the Royal Alexandra start to dim.
By the time the hotel was sixty years old she was a tattered old lady no one wanted to visit. Wrong location, too costly to keep warm, and too old to care about. The hotel was closed at the end of December in 1967.
The last event in the grand hotel marked the beginning of a new life for someone else. It was a wedding on December 30th, 1967. Mr. and Mrs. R. J. Linton were caught by a Winnipeg Tribune photographer as they left the hotel.
For the next four years the Royal Alex stood empty, but for the security guards who patrolled her halls and listened for ghosts from parties past. There were many ambitious plans put forward to save the building, to find another purpose for her many rooms, and to preserve her historical value. But alas, the plans all fell under the weight of crushing costs that could not be supported.
The terrible announcement was made on March 1, 1971. The building had to come down. There was nothing that could happen to stop it. A local wrecking company, owned by Alexander Billinkoff, was hired to bring down the decayed and decrepit Royal Alex. Because it was Winnipeg, there was still a lot to argue about despite the decision. The history fans were appeased with the promise of an auction and many Manitobans were able to cart away special treasures to hold dear and perhaps even pass down to their grandchildren. But not everyone took things to keep in private collections.
One special couple, Allan and Donni Stern had a bigger idea and joined forces with Alec Billinkoff to make it happen. They decided they wanted to save the one dining room that had been left untouched by renovations in the hotel. The Cafe, which had seen many names over the years, would be lovingly preserved and rebuilt in a new location.
Piece by piece the décor of the famous Café, then known as the Selkirk Dining Room, was carefully removed, coded and stored. The initial plans for rebuilding the room in Winnipeg did not work out and the Café sat packed away for over 25 years before it was rescued from storage and recreated in all of its splendour in the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook, British Columbia in a millenium project almost one hundred years after the hotel had first been built.
So, if one more spin on the dance floor in that marvelous old room would make your heart sing, you might consider a trip to Cranbrook.
One more thing.
The best way to get there just might be by train.
To learn more about Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel, please click on the following to go to the Manitoba Historical Society page for her article:
A Fallen Splendour: The Challener Murals of Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel
by Susan Moffatt Rozniatowski
For more old photos, see the Montreal McCord Museum site. The photo at the top of my posting can be found here.
I would also encourage you to see Robert Galston’s blog about the Rise and Fall of the Royal Alexandra Hotel. http://pointdouglas.blogspot.com/2010/08/rise-and-fall-of-royal-alexandra-in.html
To learn more about the Canadian Museum of Rail click here.