Part 3: Decline of a giant

The Prince Edward Hotel at 100


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When the Prince Edward Hotel shut its doors for the last time, on Jan. 29, 1975, it came as a nasty surprise for Brandon senior Roxy Cosgrove. A permanent resident of the hotel, who had lived there for five winters, she had just learned that she would be homeless.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/06/2012 (4010 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When the Prince Edward Hotel shut its doors for the last time, on Jan. 29, 1975, it came as a nasty surprise for Brandon senior Roxy Cosgrove. A permanent resident of the hotel, who had lived there for five winters, she had just learned that she would be homeless.

The hotel, broke, had entered receivership. About 78 employees were laid off — with no severance pay. Reservations for three sports teams coming in from Lakehead University were cancelled.

And Cosgrove was spitting mad.

Dirk Aberson / Brandon Sun file
John Halliday, well-known maitre d’ of the Prince Edward Hotel, holds the sign that marks the closure of the hotel, Jan. 29, 1975.
Dirk Aberson / Brandon Sun file John Halliday, well-known maitre d’ of the Prince Edward Hotel, holds the sign that marks the closure of the hotel, Jan. 29, 1975.

“I don’t know which way to look. Just one day to get out,” Cosgrove told the Sun. “I’m a crippled old lady in a wheelchair. I didn’t think they could do this.”

The hotel manager himself had only had a couple days’ warning of the actual closure. But John McFarlane admitted he’d long known the hotel’s future was shaky.

“I was given orders just to keep things together until it could be sold,” said McFarlane, who had managed the hotel for four years. “It has been for sale for some time. I knew this when I moved to Brandon.”

The hotel was in dire financial straits.

It reportedly owed $445,000 on its non-fixed assets,  plus there was a $55,000 mortgage  on the depot portion behind the hotel, then being run as the Red Caboose nightclub — it was also to be closed.

The hotel also hadn’t been paying its taxes. Property taxes alone had been in arrears for three years, and the the bill was $180,000. Unpaid business taxes reportedly raised that amount closer to $300,000.

That brought the total owing to $800,000 — the equivalent of nearly $3.5 million today. The business simply wasn’t making enough money to pay its bills.

“As a hotel, it is obsolete,” said Don Penny, a Brandon accountant who was acting as a local agent for the court-appointed receiver.  “It’s too old. People don’t go to old hotels.”

Too old and obsolete, it was also, at that time, unwanted — repeatedly offered for sale, to no buyers, the city would eventually take reluctant ownership through tax arrears.

It was quite a comedown for the once-proud giant.

Perhaps the first sign of the Prince Edward Hotel’s eventual demise could have been spied as far back as 1955.

Certainly, in the mid-50s the railway hotel was still at the peak of its glamour and was the undeniable centre of Brandon society, but it was also no longer the asset it once had been. The Canadian National Railway, receiving an unsolicited bid for some of its properties, decided it was time to move on, and put it on the market.

The Prince Edward was sold as part of a package — two hotels and two resorts – to a syndicate headed by Walter F. Thorn, of Moose Jaw.

The syndicate, variously known as T and A Hotels or A-T Hotels, paid $915,000 for the four properties, which included Brandon’s Prince Edward, the Prince Arthur Hotel in Port Arthur, Ont., Minaki Lodge on Lake of the Woods and Pictou Lodge in Nova Scotia.

It was a steal of a deal — so much so that it caused a minor flap in Parliament. A Winnipeg MP claimed that Minaki Lodge alone could have been sold for $2 million.

On the whole, though, it seemed at the time like good news. The new owners pledged to maintain the hotel’s traditional high standard of service and efficiency.

And Walter Thorn turned out to be a former resident of the city.

“I’ve always liked Brandon,” Thorn said as he announced a series of modernizations to the Prince Edward.

Plans included getting rid of staff quarters on the top floor to make room for more guest rooms, and a complete update of the plumbing.

“A coffee shop is planned for the west side of the basement,” which would replace the former sample rooms, the Sun wrote of the plans. Also, “there will be a lounge or waiting room, an up-to-the-minute lunch counter.”

Just a few years later, as the Prince Edward celebrated its 50th anniversary, Brandon was preparing for 30,000 visitors to crowd the city for the 1963 Brier curling championships.  And the Prince Eddy’s new owners unveiled even more renovations.

“The austere formality of the high ceilings (in the foyer) has been replaced by a neutral color … lighting brought down to a 12-foot level,” the Sun wrote.  “Two new banquet rooms have been added on the first floor,” one replacing a former sitting room reserved “for elite guests.”

The hotel boasted that each of the rooms now had a full bath or shower. As well, room rates had been dropped and food charges “have remained within the moderate price range.”

And despite all the work they’d already put into it, T and A Hotels said they weren’t done yet.

To help mark the hotel’s 50th anniversary, new flooring, a front-door facelift, and a new parking lot were all proposed. Most stunningly, “sometime in the future, a swimming pool is planned on the lower level.”

Years later, not all of the changes were remembered kindly — she was “chopped up,” wrote Sun associate editor Garth Stouffer in 1975 . But at the very least, money was being invested in the upkeep of the hotel; the owners had a future planned for it.

That wouldn’t be the case for much longer.

In fact, the Prince Edward Hotel was about to begin a slow, inexorable slide that would eventually threaten to put Roxy Cosgrove out on the streets, embroil the city in bitter fights, and, finally, lead to the hotel’s demolition.

Reading between the lines, decades after the fact, it’s possible to discern a whiff of desperation in the hotel’s advertising.

In its early years, the Prince Edward hardly even deigned to advertise. That changed after T and A Hotels took over.

Soon, more ads began to appear. Then, they got larger and more prominent.

The implications were clear — the hotel was having trouble filling its dining room seats.Through the 1960s, the ads began to turn gimmicky.

A “Smile” campaign — the hotel’s slogan for several years, the word itself drawn with an upward curve to look like a mouth — offered free lunches to people caught grinning by a surreptitious photographer.

Full pages in the Brandon Sun were devoted to ads that snaked around the articles, forming a large “P” and “E.”

With trains no longer delivering distinguished guests right to its door, the Prince Edward needed advertising stunts and other attractions to draw people in.

One of the later (and better-attended) attractions was a beverage room — the Red Caboose.

Attached to the Prince Edward, in the old CNR depot to the south, the mayor was was on hand to cut the ribbon in 1971.

“The interior decor follows a railroad theme,” wrote the Sun in a review, “with a replica of a ‘colonist car’ and a club car on each side, with a platform in the centre.”

It would be open for just three years, attracting local bands,  fair-week events  and a series of hit-and-runs in its parking lot.

But the rollicking nightclub also attracted an unsavoury element — a major drug bust in 1974 fingered the Red Caboose as the centre of the marijuana trade in Brandon.

Meanwhile, business at the hotel was winding down. Rooms were sitting empty. Less-profitable permanent guests moved in. Some spaces were rented out for institutional use.

And the debts had begun to relentlessly stack up.

So, when the doors finally closed for the final time on Jan. 29, 1975, it was a surprise. And yet, it wasn’t.

“The news,” opined a Brandon Sun editorialist the next day, “is enough to make a strong man weep …. [But] the essence of every business story is found in its economics, and here the hotel found itself out-paced by others.”

“The fact that this is a sign of growth and progress doesn’t lessen the shock, the shock one always feels when an old friend passes away.”

One of those old friends, the put-out-on-the-street Roxy Cosgrove, eventually wound up at Fairview Home.

Service clubs and sports teams and banquet organizers — and coffee klatches — also found other locations to meet their needs.

Within days, the building was advertised for sale — $250,000 the asking price.

It was, of course, not the first time in recent years that the hotel had been on the block.
In a 1970 letter to city council, a Winnipeg real estate agent wrote, “We have for sale the Prince Edward Hotel and also the CNR property which is now on option to the present owners of the hotel.”

There were no takers then.

As late as December 1974, just a month before the hotel was shuttered, there were rumours that a Winnipeg firm had been nosing around with its eye on the hotel, and had plans to renovate it, but that deal fell through.

This time, though, the price was rock-bottom. Buyers would get a six-storey structure, rich in history and located on prime real estate in the city’s core — then still Brandon’s most desirable retail sector.

“For a quarter of a million bucks … the community could have quite a centre for many things,” associate editor Stouffer wrote in a column, musing on the possibilities of renovation.

Unfortunately, that money would only buy the building itself. To pay off the debts that had forced the hotel’s closure, everything inside was about to be auctioned.

Contents of the Prince Edward Hotel were auctioned off just weeks after it closed.

Billed as “Brandon’s Biggest Auction,” the three-day sale at the end of March disposed of “antique furniture, original hotel furniture, lamps, beds, tables, utensils, bedding, chairs, hundreds of articles too numerous to list.”  It was so popular that they charged $1 admission.

In short, the hotel had been closed for less than two months, and it had already been looted.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the city made arrangements to assume responsibility for heating and power at the hotel. Crews boarded up the doors and windows, and the owners provided a key for spot checks and fire safety.

Two years later, the clock finally ran out on the owed taxes and the city officially became hotel owners.

It was May 1977, and although no one knew it at the time, the vacated hotel had less than three years left. They were to be a tumultuous three years: The Prince Edward Hotel wouldn’t go down without a fight.

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