Fire-ravaged Mount Royal to reopen next summer
Thursday, Oct 26, 2017 06:00 am
Banff’s landmark Mount Royal Hotel is set to reopen next summer following a devastating fire in December 2016.
The $45 million redevelopment plans for the 109-year-old hotel, which were unveiled by owners Brewster Travel Canada on Thursday (Oct. 19), include restoration of the façade to significantly revitalize the landmark centre of Banff Avenue.
The new concept also features historically inspired décor and new amenities, including a rooftop lounge with outdoor hot tubs and fire tables, a custom-designed museum and a hotel library.
Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said the Mount Royal Hotel has been a special place in the community for gatherings with friends and family, a place of employment and an important member of the business community.
“We’re family in Banff and the Mount Royal is like a favourite aunt, a magnificent old dame who presides over downtown with dignity and grandeur, and has a tendency to flare up every now and then,” she said.
“We could no more imagine Banff Avenue without the Mount Royal Hotel than Banff without a Brewster. It just always has been.”
Almost 300 people escaped unharmed as fire ripped through the upper levels of the historic Mount Royal in the early morning hours of Dec. 29, 2016 – one of the biggest structure fires in the town’s history.
With flames reaching 20 feet above the roof of the 135-room hotel, Banff firefighters were joined by other fire departments from throughout the Bow Valley for what turned out to be a gruelling 10-hour battle to get the blaze under control.
An investigation determined the fire an accident, finding a propane torch used by workers as part of construction work on the hotel’s roof ignited combustible material that smoldered for hours before growing into a raging fire.
With the roof collapsing, 10 rooms on the top floor of the hotel were completely destroyed as fire tore through them, with most of the remaining hotel rooms suffering smoke and water damage. Street level retail businesses were also forced to close.
It was the second fire in the hotel’s history. The hotel’s original wing burned to the ground in 1967.
Dave McKenna, president of Brewster Travel Canada, thanked the community for coming together in the wake of last December’s fire. With the hotel closed, staff were found jobs at other businesses and stranded guests were found alternate accommodation.
“We are so grateful to the brave men and women who safely got all of our guests evacuated from the hotel that night and worked tirelessly to stop the fire from spreading and eventually putting it out,” McKenna said.
“The Banff fire department and volunteer crews from Canmore, Exshaw and Lake Louise who served alongside the RCMP, EMS and traffic control – you’re all heroes and we’re forever in debt to the incredible emergency response you provided.”
Originally named the Banff Hotel, the Mount Royal Hotel has been a fixture on the Banff Avenue landscape since 1907. It was a red brick structure with a turreted lead roof to house 60 guests and included hotel dining room and billiard room.
Pioneers David and Annie McDougall of Morley built the landmark hotel in 1907. It opened to the public in 1908. David McDougall was the son of George McDougall, who founded the Morleyville Mission in the 1860s.
Elizabeth Kundert-Cameron, head of archives and library at Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, was at the unveiling, and applauded the rebuild plans to incorporate history into the design, noting the hotel is rich in history.
Interestingly, she said, the Whyte Museum received a surprise donation this past summer from a resident of Drumheller, who found a suitcase of archival material of David McDougall.
It was donated by Ed and Faye Hnetka, who found the material inside a suitcase in the attic of an abandoned house on 5th Avenue in Calgary in 1969. The homes were being demolished.
“In this suitcase is the correspondence from David McDougall and a little roll of paper, which we unwrapped. It is the original drawings of the Mount Royal Hotel from 1907,” said Kundert-Cameron.
“It’s very fragile and very exciting and we’re hoping to get it digitized soon.”
In 1912, guide and outfitter Jim Brewster bought the hotel for $75,000. Deemed by the press as one of the largest real estate deals in the area at the time, it included leases on the three existing lots along Banff Avenue as well as three vacant lots and a livery.
That year, there was a major expansion of the hotel with the addition of 50 new rooms and an elevator.
In 1940, construction began on the vacant space between the hotel and the Mount Royal garage, opening additional rooms as well as new retail space at the street level opening onto Banff Avenue.
There were more additions in 1944, including an annex, and in 1955 an expansion of what was previously the Mount Royal Garage.
The Brewster family sold the Mount Royal Hotel and Brewster Transportation in 1965 to Greyhound Canada, which retained the Brewster name. Three decades later, Brewster Transportation purchased the neighbouring Cascade Inn.
Kundert-Cameron said Banff Avenue and Caribou have always been the central hub of activity in the heart of downtown Banff.
“The Mount Royal was popular with average income tourists and, unlike the Banff Springs Hotel, it was open year round,” she said.
A devastating fire on March 31, 1967 destroyed the oldest wing of the hotel, taking down with it the dining room and more than 50 guests rooms. Like the fire last December, no lives were lost.
“It was the end of the grand old hotel. The fire demolished the original hotel, but luckily the 1944 and 1955 additions were still intact,” said Kundert-Cameron, noting a new building reopened on the site of the original hotel in June 1968.
“Then on Dec. 29, 2016 fire once again struck. The community spirit shone through as volunteer firefighters came together to help save this important landmark – and now we’re starting a new chapter.”
The Mount Royal Hotel is currently taking reservations for bookings for next summer, with an expected opening in July 2018.
McKenna said the company was inspired by the hotel’s rich history and knew it had to incorporate it into the design, while providing a unique experience for modern travellers.
“To do so, we engaged the local community, collaborated with world-renowned design and construction firms, and challenged ourselves to deliver something that’s never been done before,” he said.
Mayor Sorensen said the Brewster team has been working tirelessly with Town of Banff planners on this rebuild, noting the plans have so far gone through 29 revisions.
“Thanks Brewster for having vision and commitment to restore the Mount Royal Hotel to protect its heritage, treasure its history and invest in its and Banff’s future,” she said at the unveiling of the redevelopment plans.