Designed by the preeminent architectural firm of Ross and Macdonald, the Newfoundland Hotel is an unattributed project that bears the dubious distinction of being the only railway hotel designed by the firm to have been entirely demolished (Fig. 1). Opened to considerable fanfare in 1926, the Newfoundland Hotel is a remarkable building with a complicated past, spanning the pre- and post-Confederation periods. It also reveals how Canada’s celebrated railway hotels were rooted in notions of class and commerce that rendered differences within the federation highly visible.
Efforts to construct a modern hotel in Newfoundland date to the beginning of the twentieth century. Wealthy businessmen and politicians believed that first-class accommodations would lure first-class visitors to Newfoundland, increasing investment in the colony and lessening rural families’ dependence on the fishery. In 1924, Newfoundland’s government struck a deal with a Montreal firm to erect a hotel in St. John’s at a cost of not less than $700,000. In their report, the architects argued that Newfoundland’s tourist trade was just one-tenth what it should be owing to a lack of modern hotels. In contrast, the new hotel would be modern in every sense of the word: a fireproof, eight-story building made of reinforced concrete and serviced by elevators. The finished building contained 168 bedrooms, and the lower stories were lined with shops and restaurants. The centrepiece of the building was an elegantly furnished, two-storey lobby with an overlooking mezzanine and formal stair (Fig. 2).
Enthusiasm towards the new hotel was short-lived. In 1928, the government received notice that the hotel owners had missed several debt payments. Having guaranteed the principal and the interest on the mortgage bonds issued to finance the project, the government was obliged to pay this outstanding amount. To make matters worse, an auditor’s report found that the hotel had cost more than twice the initial estimate and had generated only meagre profits owing to a lack of guests. Foreclosure proceedings commenced soon afterwards, and in 1931 courts ordered the sale of the Newfoundland Hotel to cover outstanding debts.
Caught in the throes of the Great Depression, the government was forced to purchase and manage the hotel themselves. To reduce operating costs, they cut staff and deferred all maintenance. Guest telephones were removed, the service elevator was pilfered for parts, and light bulbs were salvaged from unoccupied rooms. The country’s financial situation wasn’t much better. In 1933, Newfoundland forfeited self-government in exchange for British loans needed to avoid bankruptcy. And in 1934, a British-led, colonial-style government was inaugurated in a speech delivered from atop the bandstand in the ballroom of the Newfoundland Hotel.
Under the terms of Confederation reached in 1947, Newfoundland was to become a full-fledged province of Canada. Section 31(b) of the Terms of Union specified that, if requested, the Canadian government was required within six months of the date of union to take possession of the Newfoundland Hotel. The clause was soon invoked by Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood. The reason for this definite decision was revealed when Canadian authorities discovered that hotel losses during the 1945-6 season alone totaled nearly $50,000.
The burden of ownership fell to Canadian National Railway (later CN). Despite vocal opposition from within the company, the Canadian government placed the Newfoundland Hotel under CN’s control and tasked them with rehabilitating the structure. An initial survey found that the building was poorly constructed, ill equipped, and full of rats. Nevertheless, CN was optimistic that, under their management, occupancy rates would improve. To CN’s dismay, the cost of rehabilitating the hotel exceeded $1.5 million. For Newfoundlanders, however, the project was evidence of how an influx of Canadian money was ushering in a new era of progress. The company was less convinced of this futurity. They jumped at an opportunity to sell the hotel in 1955, but the deal fell through.
1960s marketing literature reinforced the idea that the hotel was a bastion of modern conveniences set amidst a tourist-friendly, heritage landscape (Fig. 3). CN renamed the hotel restaurant “The Captain’s Table,” served local delicacies (including Cod tongues and seal flipper pie), and hired storytellers to regale visitors with island folklore. The hotel’s finances also appeared to be on the up and up. Occupancy rates at the Newfoundland Hotel were higher than any other CN hotel, and profits climbed steadily. However, CN rejected local calls to expand the hotel.
With passenger rates at all-time lows on account of soaring automobile ownership, CN believed that hotels no longer complemented their railway business. They also worried that the Newfoundland Hotel was damaging their reputation as a provider of first-class accommodations. Unlike CN’s landmark Chateau Laurier or Jasper Park Lodge, the Newfoundland Hotel had small rooms, unattractive bathrooms, and poorly planned service spaces. Visitors also complained about deteriorating conditions at the hotel, leading the Canadian government to accuse CN of reneging on the terms of Confederation by deliberately downgrading services in the province.
The fate of the Newfoundland Hotel was sealed in 1977 when CN’s passenger service was spun off into a new crown corporation known as VIA Rail. The company reopened discussions with the Canadian government about dismantling their hotel division. And in 1981, they held an invited architectural competition to construct a new hotel in St. John’s (Fig. 4). Designed by Burman, Bouchard Architects of Montreal, the new Newfoundland Hotel was modernity reincarnate. The 360-room hotel featured an indoor swimming pool, squash courts, and a health spa, and was designed around a glazed atrium supported by a tetrahedron space frame. The old hotel was demolished in 1983 to create parking for the new facility, and in 1988 CN exited the hotel business. Yet, as one service sector training video attests, the new hotel was no less caught up between the commercial thrust of Newfoundland’s confederate vision, and mainland perceptions about the province’s class and culture (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5. Clip from the film Managing Operations in the Service Sector, produced by The Division of Educational Technology, Memorial University, 1996.
This research was first presented at the 43rd Annual Conference of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, held in 2017 in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario.