Former Empire Hotel

Site 23:
Former Empire Hotel
Location:
425 Fraser Street
Date Originally Built:
1927
Present Use:
Retirement Community
Evaluation Score:
Priority One

The former Empire Hotel stands at the southeast corner of the intersection of McIntyre Street West and Fraser Street. The site chosen for the hotel is a prominent intersection within the downtown core of the city, and its location is most likely due to a strategic and deliberate decision on the part of the hotel’s developers. Located within walking distance of the CPR station and the shared Canadian National, Timiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway hubs, the hotel was well placed for attracting visitors travelling by rail. Rail was the most popular mode of transportation during the early days of the Empire Hotel, although personal vehicles were quickly becoming available and affordable to the masses.

The Empire Hotel opened to the public on August 1, 1928 after only ten months of construction. Ground was broken October 3, 1927. The construction of the hotel brought welcomed labour jobs to North Bay. The hotel was constructed during a building boom in the city. For example, the Masonic Lodge, the Capitol Theatre, and the Bank of Nova Scotia were also all built during this time period. The head contractor for the Empire Hotel was Leo Mascioli of Timmins, Ontario, and Jules J. Joanisse, also from Timmins, was the architect.

The original structure was a five-story brick building that displayed an overall sentiment of symmetry due to the uniform rows of windows facing both Fraser and McIntyre Streets. Quoined brick corners, window lintels, and a large wood cornice at the top of the building provide modest surface detail to the otherwise fairly plain brick façade. Classically influenced columns and pilaster details, crown moldings, and beam and ceiling treatments in the dining room, ballroom, and main lobby exist today as they did over eighty years ago.

Several poignant North Bay events involved the Empire Hotel, many of which have been passed on as anecdotes and local stories. One such historically significant event is the production of the Warner Bros. film Captain of the Clouds. In 1942, parts of the film were shot in North Bay and members of the cast, most notably James Cagney, stayed at the Empire Hotel. On October 29, 1951, the hotel hosted Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on their first Royal visit to Canada. This visit solidified the hotel’s reputation as being the most prestigious one in town.

Throughout the mid to the late part of the 20th century, the Empire Hotel retained its status as a social and commercial hub in the community. Travelling salespeople were welcomed to display their wares in sample rooms located in the basement. Local service clubs often chose the hotel as a prime site for their meetings and gatherings. The hotel was also a popular choice for weddings. It was a place to see and be seen.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, the Empire Hotel was purchased by the Howard Johnson Hotel chain. It operated as a part of the Howard Johnson group until just prior to the new millennium, when it was refurbished with some original features and retrofitted as a retirement home by the Retirement Living Centres Company. A large addition to the Empire Living Centre was built in 2004. The addition spans the southeast side of the lot and borders McIntyre Street West. This addition was built in a related architectural form to the original building. It also successfully complements the downtown streetscape. Attention to detail on both the exterior and interior of the recent addition relates to the original intent of the hotel, while maintaining a separate identity from the original building. Various design features on the main floor of the addition, such as high ceilings, wood trim and crown moldings, and lighting coves, attempt to maintain some of the existing character of the original Empire Hotel.