By Glen A. Mofford
At one time the Malaspina Hotel stood tall on 38 Front Street, towering over Nanaimo Harbour like a beacon of hope with promise of a dynamic and stable future. The Malaspina Hotel opened in July, 1927 to an appreciative public eager to embrace what would soon become a familiar landmark in the Hub City for many years.
This article will highlight some noteworthy moments in the history of the Malaspina Hotel from its optimistic beginnings until it ceased operations as a hotel in 1984.
The Malaspina Hotel was conceived by local businessmen who had formed a syndicate called the Nanaimo Community Association in 1926. The Nanaimo Community Association Board of Directors consisted of people from a variety of occupations such as a merchant, a car dealer, a lumber baron, a druggist, a barrister, and a sanitary engineer, with the sole purpose of raising money to build a modern hotel that would help advance and promote Nanaimo.
The hotel was designed by Sharp & Thompson and constructed by Ryan Contracting Ltd. for $220,000. Both firms were from Vancouver, BC.
The hotel was originally named the Nanaimo Community Hotel, but shortly before its opening a contest was held to rename the new establishment. Various choices were submitted by the public including: the Bayview, Lucky Strike, Unity, Alhambra, Gibraltar, Hub City, King George, Majestic, Pleasant, Rio Grande, and the Malaspina Hotel. The clear favourite was “Malaspina” and on July 27-30, 1927 the Malaspina Hotel opened its doors.
The luxurious seven-story Malaspina Hotel opened with 86 rooms, many with an excellent view of Nanaimo Harbour. Each guest room was tastefully furnished, accented with richly carved woodwork and elaborate light fixtures.
Malaspina Hotel had a banquet room, a beauty parlour, a barber shop, a cigar store, and separate reading rooms for men and women.
In addition to providing first-class accommodation to the growing tourist trade, the new hotel served as a social hub for the community.
Business was good for the first two years but slowed dramatically after the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression.
The Malaspina Hotel was a temperance hotel which meant it didn’t serve any alcohol unlike many of its nearby competitors. Hard times brought hard choices and the board of directors quickly realized they would have to open a beer parlour in order to remain profitable.
In 1938, in hopes of improving the Malaspina Hotel and to attract customers, management decided to commission three artists to paint a series of murals inside the hotel.
The hotel used a federal government artist assistance program to hire Edward J. Hughes, Paul Goranson and Orville Fisherand to paint six large murals on the hotel’s plaster walls. In return, Malaspina Hotel provided free meals, room and board until the works were completed. The threesome formally called themselves the Western Canada Brotherhood but among their friends they were known as the Three Musketeers. I mention the fate of these beautiful murals later in this article.
At the end of World War II, an addition, designed by A. Les Barley, was added to the Malaspina Hotel allowing for 35 more rooms.
On May 24, 1949, local radio station CHUB (1570 on the AM dial with 250 watts) went on the air broadcasting out of the Malaspina Hotel banquet room.
“At one time CHUB had live shows from the Malaspina, complete with bands and singers. The hotel was, in its heyday, pretty swank – ballroom and all.”
By 1954 the Malaspina Hotel was twenty-seven years old and the new owner, Ray Knight, felt it was time for some upgrading. He began extensive renovations to bring the landmark hotel up to date. This was the first of many renovations that the hotel would go through over the next number of years.
The changes made in the 1960s were particularly damaging to the murals as walls were removed and doors were cut out of walls.
“The assault continued when the hotel banquet room was partitioned and renovated to accommodate a beauty salon and a broadcasting studio for a local radio station. During the renovation, Goranson’s magnificent mural of Malaspina and Maquinna was covered over with brown paint.”
CHUB continued to broadcast from the hotel until April 15, 1968 when it relocated to its new studio on Esplanade Street.
In 1970 the City of Nanaimo was excited about their first Bathtub Race, which started from Nanaimo Harbour and finished at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. The Malaspina Hotel was front and centre during the celebrations. The local radio station, CHUB, announced the race from the roof of the hotel and a fleet of out-of-town yachts were moored at docks at the foot of the hotel.
During the 1970s the Malaspina Hotel had a first class restaurant, a cocktail lounge and a beer parlour. Later on the beer parlour became known as the Jingle Pot Pub and the waterfront ramp was removed and replaced with a stairway which led to the renovated pub being relocated to the basement. (I’m sure those of you that are reading this article can shed some light on the pub that was once in the hotel as I never had the pleasure to imbibe there but certainly wish that I did).
Stanley “Stan-the-Man” Strazza was owner-operator of the pub in the twilight years of the hotel, 1979-1984. Stan mentioned that the pub was going through a transition from a sing-a-long style British Pub to a disco style pub – the going trend at the time.
By 1984, after 57 years, the Malaspina stopped operating as a commercial hotel. It was sold to a company which hoped to operate the hotel as a hospitality college. That ambitious plan was never realized and the Malaspina Hotel sat empty for many years.
The Malaspina Hotel was demolished in 1996. During the demolition of the building workers removed a wood-panelled wall and discovered a mural painted by E.J. Hughes. The mural has been restored and is on display at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre.
Note: Harry Fall was the first manager of the Malaspina Hotel followed by E.A. Leach (1929-1930), A. Brown, (1931-1933), Thomas Stevenson (1934-1945), Fred J. Fall (1946-1950), and finally succeeded by Mr. and Mrs. Russell M. Annett.
Glen Alan Mofford is a historian and musician from Victoria. He’s currently writing two books about old-time saloons and bars in BC. Read more articles on his blog Raincoast History.
Patrick A. Dunae, Malaspina: The Hotel, the Murals & the Madness of Modernity, Department of History, Malaspina University-College, December 29, 2005 Website: http://web.viu.ca/black/amrc/index.htm?Research/Papers/dunaepaper.
Rotary International, Nanaimo Chapter, Club Runner, page 13.
Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory, 1927 Diamond Jubilee Edition, page 223.
Jan Paterson, Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition 1920-1967, Heritage House Publishing Company, pp.52-54.
City of Nanaimo, “Les Barley. Born in England in 1911, Les Barley came to Nanaimo, via Toronto, in 1948 to work as an architectural assistant for Thomas McArravy. Barley eventually became partners with McArravy and later with Weismiller. During his career, Barley worked throughout the mid-island, designing institutional buildings including the Legion on Wallace Street, an addition to the Malaspina Hotel, Nanaimo District Secondary School, Bowen Park Complex, the Nanaimo Golf Club House and numerous schools. He retired in 1977.”
Posted by CHUBer on the Nanaimo Information Forum, see: http://www.nanaimoinformation.com/forum/showthread.php?2929-Malaspina-Hotel-Cursed/page4&highlight=Malaspina+Hotel