Part 4: Vacancy, debate and demolition
The Prince Edward Hotel at 100
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/06/2012 (3926 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Former city alderman Ron Cayer says he is haunted by the city’s decision to turn off the heat to the historic Prince Edward Hotel.
Once the heat was turned off, the clock began ticking. It was known, right from the hotel’s vacancy in 1975, that any future restoration would be easier if the structure was still in good shape. Turning off the heat — letting a freeze-thaw cycle wreak havoc on the hotel’s supporting concrete pillars — would make short work of even the sturdiest building.
City clerk Lloyd Thomson made that point in the months after the hotel’s closing, as the city assumed responsibility for heating and powering the hotel.
He told aldermen at the time that he had contacted the municipal building superintendent who reported that “considerable damage would result if freezing took place.”
But Cayer says that, just a couple of years later, it was Thomson himself who recommended that the city turn the heat off.
“On council at the time, we had an administration board — we called them ‘the troika,’” Cayer remembers. He says it was Lloyd Thomson, the city clerk, Charlie Hughes, the city engineer and Frank Woodmas, the city treasurer. “And it was very clear that Lloyd was the main man on there.”
The “troika” brought forward their motion shortly after he was elected, Cayer recalls.
“We were novices. There were several new councillors, and we weren’t smart enough,” he says now, to challenge their recommendation — or even to call for a recorded vote.
“It was a bad time for council … there were a lot of sheep on that council.”
That decision, more than any other, sealed the Prince Edward Hotel’s fate.
Just a few years later, wrecking balls and explosives would bring down the building in front of a crowd of curious Brandon residents.
But plenty in that crowd had had other ideas on how to save the building — if not as a hotel, then to re-use it in some other way.
The ideas started flowing shortly after the hotel closed, under receivership, in early 1975.
Although the hotel had been stripped of furniture, dishes — and anything not nailed down, really — to help pay off an estimated $800,000 debt, the building retained a certain aged charm. And it could have been bought for just a quarter-million dollars.
That was affordable enough, wrote Brandon Sun associate editor Garth Stouffer, to guarantee the city a handsome, historic building in which to possibly house a museum.
“I could well imagine the soaring main lobby of the Prince Edward … housing some large pieces of sculpture,” he wrote, comparing the building to some of the old museums in Europe.
It was an idea that, later, would gather some steam in the community. But there were plenty of other possibilities for the vacant hotel.
First out of the block was the YWCA, which was always on the lookout for housing for single women and one-parent families.
They wrote to then-Manitoba premier Ed Schreyer within weeks of the hotel’s closure, but the city withheld its support and nothing came of the proposal.
And, with city attention focused on at least two other controversies — an upcoming Canada Games being planned “with a total lack of public confidence” and ongoing efforts to amass land for a planned downtown shopping mall — the Prince Edward Hotel was shifted to the back burner.
So, little was done until the city eventually took ownership of the building through back taxes, a formality that passed almost without note in May 1977.
Shortly after, mayor Elwood Gorrie struck a committee to study possible future uses for the hotel, including using it as a possible arts centre, or as a new location for the Brandon Public Library (then located in cramped quarters at the former Merchant’s Bank building — at the corner of 11th Street and Rosser Avenue, now home to the Brandon Chamber of Commerce).
The three-person committee was tasked with making a full report on possible futures for the abandoned hotel. The regional library board, the Allied Arts Centre, the Assinboine Historical Society, the museum board, the Brandon School Division and Brandon University were all interested.
The mayor’s own pet idea, was renovating the building for an arts centre, to coincide with the city’s centennial celebrations in 1982.
“The goal of this city is to have a museum and an arts centre, Gorrie said about a month after the city took possession. “The alternative to [the Prince Edward Hotel] is a totally new building which would be horribly expensive to build.”
Two days of meetings in August heard presentations from all of those groups, as well as the Western Manitoba Square and Round Dancing Association and the Westman Media Co-op Ltd, then holding a brand-new license for cable television in Westman, and interested in the hotel’s basement for its offices.
At that time, in late August 1977, the damage from lack of heating was limited to peeling paint, and many seemed enthusiastic about the possibility of turning the hotel into a multi-arts complex.
The hotel itself had been valued at $1.4 million, which would be the city’s contribution to the proposal.
The federal and provincial government were expected to kick in matching grants of $1.4 million each, and that would be just about enough for the renovation, said Lewis Whitehead, then the president of the Allied Arts Centre as well as publisher of the Brandon Sun, basing his numbers on estimates from a local group of architects.
Along with the library, on the top three floors, would come enough museum space to make the city proud.
The idea to turn the hotel into an arts and cultural centre survived the 1977 municipal election — hardly even becoming an issue — and the new council accepted $15,000 from Ottawa for an extensive study of the idea. It took nearly a year.
In March 1979, Guelph consultant David Scott was finally ready to release the results of his study. He was a week away from coming to Brandon for a closed city council meeting about the report when it was leaked to the Brandon Sun.
The study’s contents were blockbuster news.
Renovating the Prince Edward Hotel would cost more than $5 million, Scott estimated. And the whole plan relied on the province providing 90 per cent of that.
For a city council that had had a hard time accepting earlier estimates in the $3 million range, the cost was staggering. An extra $2 million would be that much harder to sell to a cost-conscious group of aldermen, predicted Ald. Marie Kotyk.
The news wasn’t all bad. Scott’s report showed that the building was still largely in good shape.
“The Prince Edward Hotel and annex would appear to be excellent buildings, soundly constructed and in remarkably good external condition,” the report said.
However, upgrades needed to bring the hotel up to snuff were estimated to cost $750,000 — an expense blamed on continuing frost damage. And there were worries that the upper floors, designed for people, wouldn’t be able to support a library’s worth of books.
The city weighed its options, and decided for $5 million, a new library and arts building would be more cost efficient. Indeed, it could be part of the new downtown mall.
They offered the hotel for sale, one last time.
“Prince Edward plan scrapped” said the front-page headline in the Brandon Sun on Aug. 24, 1979. The story featured two aldermen — Rick Borotsik and Pat Egan — musing publicly that, at that point, the hotel was destined for the wrecking ball.
After no offers to purchase the building were received, the new mayor joined their chorus.
“We have to face the fact that the building is not useful … we can’t leave it any longer,” mayor Ken Burgess said.
City council first voted to explore demolition in late September 1979.
But a former colleague wasn’t about to let the building go down easily.
“I’ve lost faith in those who are responsible for letting it get in this condition,” former mayor Steve Magnacca said.
It was Magnacca who would become point man in a furious campaign over the next few months to ‘Save the Eddy.’
But first, an even more prominent person would lend his name to the fight.
“Get out pickets, lie down in front of city hall, scream and shout,” renowned historian Pierre Berton advised Brandon residents during a trip to the city. “Hold a funeral for it on the main street.”
His words galvanized supporters, but not everyone was on board. City councillors fought back.
“There’s probably not a stick of furniture in the building and not a solid piece of plumbing,” mayor Burgess said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of vandalism and damage.”
Ald. Borotsik, who called the condition of the hotel “dire,” arranged a media tour, so that the public would get a sense of the current state of the hotel.
For the first time, photos of the decaying and damaged structure were printed in the paper.
The front desk had been the main target of vandals in the front lobby. Furnishings, like brass accoutrements from the fireplace, had been stolen. Graffiti marred the walls and staircases.
But not everyone who illegally entered the hotel was a vandal. During those empty years in the 1970s, at least one teenaged girl was following her boyfriend up to the roof, where they would gaze out over the city’s skyline.
That was now-mayor Shari Decter Hirst, who recalls having many “profound discussions” on the roof of the vacant hotel.
Although she says they never ventured inside, the incredible view from the roof is a powerful memory.
“It was amazing,” she said. “Downtown was surrounded by church spires …. You felt like you could see to the edge of town, which would have been not even 26th Street. And it seemed like it would be like that forever.”
The roof was heavy with pigeons, however, and studies checking the soundness of the hotel deemed it one of the more expensive fixes that the building would require.
But some said that the worst was damage from the engineering studies themselves.
Holes had been drilled into support pillars — one was sheared straight through, although opponents argued whether frost or over-zealous engineers had been responsible.
The Assiniboine Historical Society charged mistreatment by the city.
“They were supposedly testing (support pillars) but they did more damage than the vandals did,” said Robert Coates, a society charter member. He said most of the vandalism was superficial, since the hotel had been strongly constructed, with concrete and rebar floors underneath the hardwood.
“It’s the way the Germans built bunkers,” he said. “It’s impossible for it to fall. It would last another 100 to 200 years if it was looked after.”
But the engineers said that a small amount of damage was necessary. And they added they were surprised at the low quality of the hotel’s construction.
“For a building of its age, one thing that’s surprising is the (poor) quality of the concrete in there,” said Bob Petri, director of the company that performed the study.
Despite the sour engineering study, many still believed the building was structurally sound.
Tony Griffin, a former manager of the Prince Edward who worked in the hotel from 1961-71, thought that “a silent majority” of city residents opposed tearing it down.
“But I may be a voice crying in the wilderness.”
A few other voices began to step forward, including another former employee of the hotel.
Terry Hudson, who worked in the lounge in the 1960s, made a serious offer to the city to buy the hotel for $1, on the condition that they cancel the back taxes while he worked on salvaging it.
Hudson’s plan envisioned a building full of shops, but in the meantime, it turned out that he hoped to move into the hotel, and renovate it piece-by-piece as time and money allowed.
But the thought that someone might still be able to buy — and save — the building sparked several other proposals.
One, from G.L. Medland, attracted brief excitement. He laid out a 10-stage renovation plan, beginning with protecting the building from the elements, and climaxing with the opening of a covered walkway from the hotel’s upper floors to the new downtown mall.
To finance his plans, Medland said he would use some parts of the Prince Edward as a hotel, and rent out other spaces to cultural and arts groups.
His words were backed with the offer of a $25,000 deposit. But just a day later, when it came time to actually present in front of city council, the offer was withdrawn — another, better project had apparently caught his eye.
At the same meeting, lacking options, aldermen decided to send out tenders for the hotel’s demolition.
Magnacca stepped to the forefront.
The former mayor raced to collect signatures on a petition and financial pledges to save the hotel. He quickly amassed about 900 names and more than $10,000. He didn’t think there would be any trouble raising hundreds of thousands more.
He also said he hoped that the costs of demolition would cause city council to think twice. A restored hotel, he said, could be the best possible gift to the city for its 1982 centennial.
Alas, demolition tenders were not high enough to change council’s mind — they eventually went with Rakowski Cartage, of Winnipeg, who said they could do the job for just under $200,000.
A final tour — six city employees, six local business people — took a look at the hotel, and voted unanimously to demolish it.
“Don’t waste my tax dollars trying to restore that building,” they wrote in a statement to council. “Tear it down and quickly, before it falls down and kills someone.”
The Prince Edward’s fate was sealed at a city council meeting on Nov. 16, 1979, with an unceremonious vote for demolition.
The speedy decision took some wind out of the sails of Magnacca’s “Save the Eddy” committee, but they continued to make a series of last-ditch efforts.
They teamed up with Hudson, the man who had offered to buy the hotel for $1. More funds were raised, and more signatures gathered. There was talk of a legal injunction, and pleas to let the committee take ownership of the hotel.
But mayor Burgess said it was too late.
“Council has made a decision and an agreement has been signed, so we’re legally bound,” Burgess said. “If it’s going to be demolished, now is the time we should start working on it.”
Magnacca, after one final tour inside the building, gave up. He said he still thought it was structurally sound, but figured that city council had long since made up its mind.
“You can’t fight a losing battle,” Magnacca said. “It’s ready for demolition, the way they had it planned.”
On Monday, Jan. 21, 1980, crews started taking down the hotel, piece by piece.
They began with the Red Caboose and by early February, the night spot was just a memory. Then, a wrecking ball was moved over to the hotel.
“The first cut is the steepest” was the headline on Feb. 18, 1980, as the Sun published a picture of the building being smashed in from the front.
Plans called for the Prince Edward to be cut in half, and then each side would be brought down separately.
It was expected to take weeks, perhaps months.
But for many Brandon residents, shivering outside on a February afternoon, the death of the Prince Edward Hotel could be pinpointed to a single blast — as half the hotel would be brought down by explosives.
The date of the demolition (Sunday, Feb. 24, 1980) was supposed to have been a secret. But hundreds knew, either through word of mouth, or because they spotted the growing crowd that day, and joined it themselves. Police hastily erected barriers to keep curious onlookers at bay, a block back at Ninth and Lorne.
It was about -14 C and completely still when, shortly after four o’clock, carefully laid explosive charges vaporized the support columns of the east wing of the hotel.
To bring down the building required less than 45 kilograms of special high-velocity dynamite.
With most of the hotel’s weight resting on its support columns, holes were drilled into each one and the explosives inserted, engineer Harold Sultzbaugh explained. The work was made easier thanks to badly decayed concrete.
The hotel had “shoddy construction,” he said, adding that each column had just four reinforcing rods when there should have been 10.
When the dynamite was lit, the building collapsed in seconds, sending a cloud of dust and snow rushing towards curious bystanders who had gathered in a crowd.
Shutters clicked, recording the implosion for posterity. It’s probably one of the most photographed moments in Brandon history.
It was a brief moment of excitement to punctuate the long slog of demolition.
There weren’t enough columns in the west half of the hotel building to use dynamite on it, and it was too close to a neighbouring building anyway, so crews again brought in the wrecking ball.
After about two weeks of chipping away at the west side, workers figured they were about half complete. Instead, on their lunch break, they were astonished to see it unexpectedly shiver and collapse in a heap.
The last of the hotel “more or less sunk into the ground” on its own just before 1 p.m. on March 14, 1980.
The demolition company said it was lucky that no one was hurt, and blamed the collapse on holes they had drilled in the basement to test equipment.
But their prosaic explanation, reasonable as it may be, can’t take away from the poetry of the moment — the Prince Edward Hotel, for years given up on by the city, finally gave up on itself.
Later that spring, an unremarkable parking lot would be opened on the hotel site. But the battle over the property was far from over.