Part 2: Heyday of the hotel
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/06/2012 (4017 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As the social, cultural and physical heart of the city, Brandon’s Prince Edward Hotel was, quite literally, a place where people came together.
And Sandra Armstrong is living proof of one particularly romantic example.
Armstrong, now a librarian at the Brandon Armoury museum, says that her parents met while they were both working at the Prince Edward, in the early 1930s.
Her father Bill Armstrong would have been a young bellhop when he first spotted the woman who would become his bride. She was a couple years older than him, and working at the hotel’s newsstand.
It seems that Bill was almost destined to have something to do with the Prince Edward. Born in 1912, the same year the hotel was completed, he emigrated as an infant with his parents from England to Brandon — arriving in the city within weeks of the hotel’s gala grand opening.
He worked at the Prince Edward for several years, before the war, meeting and Muriel Mason in the mid-30s.
Their daughter remembers that they stayed close with co-workers from the hotel for years afterwards.
But although they became friends with other hotel employees, there wasn’t much mingling with the guests, Sandra says.
At that time, she says “people who could afford to live there thought of themselves as a different class. They were people with money…
“They would see the other side of the hotel,” Sandra says. “They would see people all dressed up, coming in for functions, but they would also see the kitchen.”
For staff and for guests, the Prince Edward Hotel was an island of class and tranquility in a sometimes-troubled city.
It had been built during a frenzied period in Brandon’s history.
The city’s population was booming, and so were its buildings. Construction permits spiked from $350,000 in 1909 to nearly a $1 million in 1910, rising again in 1911 and 1912 to a record high of $1.2 million the year of the Prince Edward’s opening.
During that time, some of the city’s biggest and best were constructed. Not only the Prince Edward Hotel, but a replacement Brandon Hospital for Mental Diseases (now the Assiniboine Community College’s North Hill campus), the McKenzie Seeds building on Ninth Street, Knox Church at the corner of Victoria Avenue and 15th Street and the now-gone St. Michael’s Academy at First Street and Victoria Avenue, and the downtown Clement Block.
It was a boom that wasn’t to last.
As the world convulsed itself into the Great War, building permits in Brandon collapsed to just $36,000 in 1915. They wouldn’t again hit a million dollars a year for decades.
After the war, the Roaring Twenties were no kinder to Brandon.
The city buckled under financial pressures, verging on bankruptcy and eventually hiring a city manager to cut the deficit.
Even the Prince Edward Hotel — the city’s premier establishment — was sometimes in the red.
Although it was a fine building, it wasn’t always a profitable one. In fact, in 1939, the CNR announced that the hotel had lost the company more than $8,000 — equivalent to a $130,000 deficit today.
But, as the Sun would later write, “The Prince Edward was born in an age when service and courtesy took precedence over speed and profits.”
Brandon historian Lawrence Stuckey — himself a bellboy at the hotel in the early 1940s — says that it was a lesson ingrained in employees from the start.
“When you were hired at the Prince Edward, two principles were explained,” he wrote later in his memoirs. “1. You were working for Canadian National Railways, as an integral part of its services, and 2. Personal service was not menial, but in fact a very honourable profession.”
Employees of the hotel, Stuckey says, would go out of their way to ensure the comfort of their guests.
“Some requests were interesting, but we were resourceful …. Some large tips were suspected of being hush money, which was not necessary as we rigidly followed the rule of the three monkeys.”
More than 50 years later, Stuckey continued to keep hotel guests’ secrets, although he wasn’t above dropping hints.
“I could tell interesting stories … like the professional safe-cracker,” he said. But of course, he stayed discreet.
With employees so dedicated, it was no wonder that, even when circumstances conspired against the hotel, it acquitted itself with grace.
A massive railway strike in 1950 — shutting down freight service on the eve of the Korean War — sent hotel employees out to the picket line. After all, they worked for the railway, too.
Guests and management took it in stride.
“They’re making their own beds, but they seem to like it,” hotel manager H.L. Morgan told the Sun. Managers were running the switchboard, and the union “made some provision for elevator service,” the paper wrote.
A week and a half later, when the strikers were ordered back to work by the federal government, the Sun noted that breakfast was served at the hotel for the first time in 10 days.
Breakfast seems an odd detail to note, until it’s realized that at the time, the Prince Edward Hotel was just about the only establishment in town to serve full restaurant meals.
It also had “that railroad silver and the railroad linen, adding to the feeling of grandeur that went with hotel eating,” remembered Sun associate editor Garth Stouffer, years later.
Elegance was an important draw for the hotel.
Blue-blooded guests included, in 1919, the very Prince Edward that the hotel had been named after.
Throngs had also filled the streets shortly after the hotel’s opening, for the Duke of Connaught, then Canada’s Governor General and father of Princess Patricia.
The Earl of Athlone and Princess Alice slept at the hotel, as did Viscount Alexander of Tunis. It was speculated that Lord Tweedsmuir may have written some of his John Buchan prose at the Prince Edward’s desks.
The Duke of Devonshire, Viscount Willingdon of Ratton, and the Earl of Bessborough rounded off the list of viceregal visitors.
A number of notable politicians also stayed at the Prince Edward. William Lyon MacKenzie-King may have been the first sitting Prime Minister to visit, but R.B. Bennet and Louis St. Laurent soon followed. Their private railway cars waited for them in the station.
Entertainers like dancer Sally Rand, pianist Jan Cherniavski, mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout and actress Gracie Fields were some of the other famous faces who stayed at the Prince Edward.
Stuckey says he remembered Swathout in particular.
“She charmed me out of my socks,” he wrote in his bellhop memoirs.
Staying late after his shift, Stuckey made sure the opera star had what she needed from the kitchen and told her he enjoyed her records, “which seemed to surprise her.”
He left with a $5 tip from her manager, and what he called his “finest memory of the Prince Edward.”
But it wasn’t all glamour. Stuckey says that in the early ’40s, there was open racism at the hotel.
“A famous American negro singer had to stay at the Brandon Hotel,” Stuckey wrote, “because the Prince Edward would not admit him.”
In several columns for the newspaper, Brandon Sun editor emeritus Fred McGuinness would recall an attempted expulsion of a different sort.
“In the early 1930s Brandon had a young woman of easy (perhaps limited) virtue,” McGuinness remembered. “She was a favourite of the travelling salesmen who worked and lived in the sample rooms. When he could stand the sight of her no more, Ernie (Langevin, the hotel’s chief clerk) one day told her never to darken the door again.
“However, this was an enterprising young miss. After her banishment from the front door she began using the back entrance. Once inside she could slip down the stairs to the basement, ring for the elevator, and wave at Ernie as she passed the main floor.”
In its day-to-day life, the hotel was filled with conventions, banquets and wedding receptions.
The Kinsmen, the Knights of Columbus, even the Stanley Park lawn bowling club, all held their meetings at the Prince Edward Hotel. Sometimes, they welcomed district or provincial conventions.
And the hotel was a natural choice to host even bigger events — such as a celebratory kickoff banquet the night before the 1932 inauguration of the International Peace Garden.
“It was probably the most notable gathering of its kind ever held in in the city,” the Sun said the next day. The Prince Edward had been so “cramped” with honourable men that the women’s banquet had had to be relegated to the Cecil Hotel.
For decades, the hotel traded on that air of exclusivity, occupying such a central place in Brandon that it seemed impossible it could ever be otherwise.
But the end would come more swiftly than anyone could imagine.
Without notice, in 1975 the Prince Edward would suddenly shut its doors.