Celebrate a century of the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald with magnificent (and strange) bits of the building's history
By Cory Haller | July 1, 2015
At 100 years of age, the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald has been many things to Edmontonians: a venue for graduation and wedding ceremonies, a tried and true dining destination and brunch spot, an abandoned eyesore, a renewed source of civic pride and – most importantly – a hulking piece of history overlooking the city from its river valley perch.
Upon its grand opening, the hotel was hailed as a modern marvel, boasting amenities never before seen within city limits. Catering to affluent travellers heading west by rail (namely the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which built the hotel), the Mac featured running water and a restroom on every floor, a barbershop, a billiard room and a telephone in every room. It was state of the art – for 1915.
Today, the hotel stands proudly as one of Edmonton’s destination hotels. Celebrities and dignitaries have graced its halls.
And it’s a survivor, too, having been abandoned to rot for eight years before being rescued by Canadian Pacific Hotels and Resorts in 1991. Restored to its original grandeur, the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald stands as the best representation of its former glory. “I can see the fireplace and I can hear the bar behind me. And when I look at old historical photos, I see someone was sitting in this exact spot 100 years ago and nothing has changed. It looks almost exactly the same,” says Steven Walton, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. “It takes you back in time, and that is pretty exciting.”
A Historic Save
The Hotel Macdonald closed its doors in 1983, likely to face demolition, but, thanks mainly to the efforts of former mayor Terry Cavanagh, the building was the first to receive the City of Edmonton’s Municipal Heritage Resource status in January 1985. Five heritage areas are included in the designation: the building exterior; the lobby; the Wedgwood Room; the Empire Ballroom; and the Confederation Lounge.
In May, the hotel rededicated its boardroom as The Cavanagh Room in the former mayor’s honour.
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Media and the Mac
Because the Hotel Macdonald was once the tallest structure in Edmonton, CBC Radio’s first local office and studio was located in the Hotel Macdonald’s eighth-floor attic (now the hotel’s current signature suites) from 1948 to 1963.
The Hotel Macdonald’s interior and exterior served as the main set piece in SCTV’s “Neil Simon’s Nutcracker Suite” sketch — a send-up parodying filmmaker Neil Simon’s California Suite — which first aired on Dec. 18, 1981.
From serving as a recruitment office in the 1930s to housing soldiers in a makeshift attic barrack, the Hotel Macdonald has long-lasting relationship with the military — particularly with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), Canada’s lead tank division. The relationship is solidified by a number of “Strathcona” rooms on the sixth floor, which feature bits of the regiment’s history in their decor.
The Icicle Incident
In January 2011, an icicle more than six feet long and about as wide as a tree trunk, fell seven storeys from the roof of the Hotel Mac and crashed through the ceiling of the Harvest Room. The incident cost the hotel millions, and the room was closed for three months for repairs.
Room Rates in 1915
$2: Room with hot-and-cold running water and detached bath
$3: Room with private bath for one person
$8 and up: Room with parlour, bedroom and bath
Dispelling the Myth
“There are no secret passages,” says Walton. “The Hotel Macdonald was built on an old mine, so there’s a rumour that there are secret passages where people bootlegged alcohol in the ’20s and ’30s. But there is no way for the hotel to connect into any old mine tunnels.
“I know,” he adds. “I was disappointed too.”
Any century-old building is bound to have a few ghost stories, and the Mac is no exception.
The Sixth-Floor Spectre
Late-night phone calls from sixth-floor vacant rooms to the front desk are common and unnerving. Add to that the coincidence of a certain sixth-floor room frequently locking its deadbolt from the inside, and it’s no wonder the staff have since learned to sometimes ignore the phone beckoning from an empty room.
The Restless Steed
The story goes that, when the foundation of the hotel was built in 1914, horses were used to haul large stones for its construction. One injured horse was put down and buried, entombing it under the Mac for eternity. Ever since, reports of the “clip-clop” of hooves have emerged from both the eighth floor and the basement.
The Free Rider
“We have one elevator that goes to the eighth floor. But its resting point is in the middle, either the fourth or fifth [floor],” Walton says. “There is no reason to go up to eight by itself. But, from time to time in the evenings, it will go up to the eighth floor and then back down to the first, and the story is that there was a bellman who hid his tips on the eighth floor is returning for them.”
The Uninvited Guest
According to hotel reports, a guest woke one evening to find the spectre of a man smoking a pipe or cigar in the suite’s living room chair. The guest was so sure she saw the man that she called for assistance in packing her bags immediately after.
What’s in a name?
The Hotel Macdonald was named for Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Because Macdonald was of Scottish descent, the hotel has adopted some Scottish culture, occasionally outfitting staff in kilted uniforms and adopting the Macdonald clan’s blue, green and red tartan as its own.
The Mac is pet-friendly. In fact, like some other Fairmont hotels, it has a canine ambassador. Smudge is actually owned by the general manager, but the seven-year-old Labrador’s gentle demeanour is a calming influence at the hotel, and she has become a local celebrity.
The Mac By The Numbers
The Hotel Macdonald cost $2 MILLION TO BUILD IN 1915 (approximately $35 million by today’s standards)
In 1991 the complete renovation of the Hotel cost $22 MILLION
It costs $6,000/year to keep the grounds clean of pigeon droppings
$3,000/NIGHT to stay in the hotel’s 2,400-square-foot, two-storey Queen Elizabeth II Suite. But it does come complete with its own kitchen and servants’ quarters.
90: The approximate number of separate stays for which the Queen Elizabeth II Suite is rented per year.
210: Current staff members
199: Guest rooms
175: Height of hotel in feet
130: Weddings hosted each year, beating out every other Fairmont Hotel.
You Dirty, Dirty Dogs
Those with a keen eye will notice an oddity in the mural of the Empire Ballroom. Rumour has it that a labour dispute erupted during the mural’s restoration, and the dissatisfied labourers took to adding detailed penises to the dogs in the latter half of the scene.