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July 10, 2019

From Olympia to Marlborough: A Heartwarming Historic Hotel

The Marlborough Hotel sits less than a block off Portage Avenue, a medieval looking building tucked behind the modern glass of the Kensington Building. Originally known as the Olympia Hotel, it is quiet and unassuming, with Gothic architecture that would seem more at home on a college campus rather than the urban core of Winnipeg. The hotel has stood the test of time, adapting and succeeding no matter what the circumstances. Imperative to that success is the people that work there, who truly believe in what the hotel stands for – an historic gem that is capable of celebrating its history while thriving in the 21st century.

The Marlborough Hotel.
Source: Archiseek.

History of the Olympia Hotel

In the early 20th century when Winnipeg was a flourishing city at the heart of the prairies, four Italian immigrants were hard at work building successful businesses. Giuseppe Panaro and Leonardi Emma ran a fruit and confectionery shop on Main Street while brothers Augustine and Joseph Badali had a similar shop at the corner of Portage Avenue and Smith Street. The Badali Brothers eventually decided to expand their business to include a restaurant, something Panaro and Emma had already undertaken. Perhaps to draw on experience, the Badali Brothers partnered with Panaro and Emma in their new venture, opening the Olympia Cafe on the main floor of the Kensington Building at 275 Portage Avenue.

The Badali Brothers’ fruit and confectionery shop at the corner of Portage Avenue and Smith Street, prior to the construction of the first Kensington Building in 1905, where they reopened on the main floor.
Source: City of Winnipeg.

The Olympia Cafe was located in the main floor of the Kensington Building, seen here in the 1920s.
Source: PastForward.

Description of the Olympia Cafe in 1909.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune, August 7, 1909, page 16.

By 1912 the blacksmith shop located behind the Kensington Building on Smith Street was lost to a fire, opening up the property for redevelopment. The four owners of the Olympia Cafe seized this opportunity, purchasing it and other properties on the block until they had amassed enough land to embark on building a grand hotel. James Chisholm and Son were hired as the architects, with experience designing schools, hotel, churches warehouse and more. Plans were drawn for a luxurious nine storey hotel with mezzanine, and spirits were high as they broke ground in 1913.

The Sterling Bank Building, seen here in the early 20th century, was designed by James Chisholm in 1911 and still stands in 2019 at 283 Portage Avenue.
Source: Peel’s Prairie Provinces Postcard 1812.

Despite Winnipeg’s prosperity at the time, the owners of the new hotel made the shrewd decision to only build the first three storeys of the hotel, which included the mezzanine. Built in the Gothic Revival style, the steel frame building featured a terracotta facade with ornate tracery on the towering ground floor windows. Quatrefoil and flower motifs abound, found in the large stained glass windows and their trim, and in the large green cast iron canopy suspended over the front entrance. Small buttresses between the windows and a decorative terracotta parapet completed the look, hearkening back to the medieval period in Europe.

The three storey Olympia Hotel in 1915, with First World War recruits lined up out front.
Source: Archives of Manitoba.

The interior of the building was no less splendid than the exterior, with dark wood, fine stone from all corners of the globe, stained glass from England, Tiffany light fixtures and silk from France, all designed to accentuate the Gothic theme. A huge kitchen, 12 barbers, convention hall, ballroom, restaurant, tea room, grill room and lounge ensured that all of the guests needs were well cared for. According to legend, marble was imported from the Italian hometown of each of the hotel’s owners. The hotel also featured the most up to date fire proofing technology with Canada’s first fully automatic sprinkler system.

The front facade of the Olympia Hotel.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.

Named the Olympia Hotel after the cafe, the building at 331 Smith Street opened to great fanfare on November 18, 1914. The former manager of the Chateau Lauirer in Ottawa, A.T. Folger, was hired to run the hotel. Winnipeg Mayor Thomas R. Deacon was the first guest to check in and the future looked bright. But the opening of the luxury hotel could not have come at a worse time. In 1914 the First World War started, drawing young men and resources into the war effort. That same year also marked the opening of the Panama Canal, which made it more cost effective to ship goods by boat instead of by train through Winnipeg. With the economy faltering, the new Olympia Hotel was doomed. It closed its doors only six months after opening.

An original sign for the bar inside the Olympia Hotel was discovered in 2019 when the “Marlborough Hotel” sign covering was removed.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Having only ever received one payment towards the $350,000 mortgage, creditors sold what they could of the hotel’s furnishings to try and recoup their losses. But the Olympia did not stay vacant for long. The Canadian government leased the hotel and moved the 184th Battalion in 1916, with soldiers staying in usually lavish quarters. The military left in 1918 and the building returned to being a hotel with new ownership and management. Things were looking up once again for the Olympia.

In 1921 the hotel was closed so that six additional storeys could be added to the building. Architect John H.G. Russell was hired to over see the design of the red brick addition, which included moving the original parapet up to the new roof line. World War I hero and later Winnipeg Mayor Colonel Ralph Webb was hired as the manager, opening the newly renamed Marlborough Hotel on July 23rd, 1923. With 230 ensuite rooms, it was the hotel of choice for visitors, conferences, special events and more. The Royal Canadian Legion was founded during a conference at the hotel on November 25th, 1925. In 1961 the Winnipeg Press Club took up a 47 year residence at the hotel, while a smattering of celebrities including Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Margaret Trudeau, David Suzuki, and Donny and Marie Osmond visited the hotel.

The Olympia Hotel with the completed six storey addition.
Source: PastForward.

The sign from the Winnipeg Press Club still remains on the wall in the basement of the Olympia in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

By the 1950s historic hotels were falling out a favour while personal vehicles were becoming all the rage. The hotel was quick to adapt, constructing a parkade across the street and adding a new addition on the north side of the hotel. Designed in a modern style by Libling Michener Diamond and Associates, the addition took four years to construct, finally opening in 1960. New ownership in 1975 saw the hotel suites in the original section of the hotel converted into commercial office space. The German-Canadian Congress then purchased the building in 1991 with the intention of converting it into a seniors center, but a lack of funding saw the building closed instead. The building soon opened again as a hotel, with ownership and management changing hands from time to time. In 2000 the hotel’s owners purchased the Garrick Theatre at 330 Garry Street, converting part of the space into a pool and water slide, connected to the hotel by way of a skywalk.

The 1960 addition to the north side of the Olympia Hotel, seen here in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Despite many changes in owners and management, much of the original Olympia has remained unchanged, retaining its historic grandeur over the century. The City of Winnipeg acknowledged the building’s historic significance in 1998 when it added the Olympia Hotel to the List of Historical Resources, protecting its character defining elements and the building from destruction. In 2005, Heritage Winnipeg recognized the historically sensitive work done to conserve the building’s facade and parapet with a commercial conservation award at the Annual Preservation Awards.

The Marlborough Hotel Today

Visiting the hotel today is to take an enchanted journey through meandering hallways and splendid spaces, with historical and otherworldly surprises awaiting. The large canopy over the front door makes for a grand entrance, still painted the original shade of green but now brightly lit with new LED lighting. Once inside one cannot help but notice the warmth of the staff, from the front desk staff to the owner, Manfred Boehm, everyone seems truly passionate about the hotel. Although the foyer has been rearranged and redecorated over time, some historical features remain, including a Royal Mail Canada (the precursor to Canada Post) mailbox, which was only decommissioned in 2019.

The mailbox in the lobby of the Olympia Hotel in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

The heavy wooden doors leading into the Churchill Dining Room are another historical element in the lobby. Walking through them you might think you have stepped into a cathedral from medieval Europe! Soaring pale blue ceilings are reminiscent of looking up to the heavens, with decorative plaster, gilded accents, rib vaults and huge chandeliers. Supporting them are towering stained glass windows and walnut wainscotting, which once framed French silk tapestries instead of the mirrors found today. Even the minstrels’ gallery above the main entrance is akin to a choir loft from a grand church. It is not until you approach the windows and find scenes from classic fairy tails depicted in the colourful glass instead of those from the Bible that you are brought back down to earth.

The Churchill Dining Room in the Olympia Hotel, circa 2019.
Source: The Marlborough Hotel.

The minstrels’ gallery above the entrance to the Churchill Dining Room in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Walk across the hall from the dining room and into Joanna’s Cafe, originally the Olympia Bar, and you will once again find yourself transported. This time you have arrived in a medieval great hall, complete with heavy wooden beams, wrought iron light fixtures by Tiffany, a huge dark wooden Dingwall clock that you half expect a cuckoo bird to pop out with grotesque faces peering down. A long narrow room running along the front of the building, its southern exposure makes for an exceptionally bright and cheery space, with sunlight pouring in the two storey stained glass windows. Once home to a 55 foot long bar open only to men, a recently discovered staircase leads directly from the bar down to the men’s barber shop in the basement.

The elaborately decorated Olympia Bar inside the Olympia Hotel in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Exiting the cafe and heading upstairs, the hotel quickly turns into a “choose your own adventure” story. Different stairways and elevators service varying floors, with ghosts being blamed for elevators that are unwilling to take you to your requested floor or continuing to work once they have been turned off. There are even more elevators in the building than those that the public can access, including a very antiquated elevator in the kitchen that staff are weary of operating, a decommissioned private elevator recently discovered in the basement and a freight elevator that goes all the way up to the roof.

The layout of the building is different on every floor with most of the older half of the building still being commercial space called “The Mall”. Winding hallways provide over 400 doors to choose from, although the ghosts may not let you open them, even when you have the key! No guest room is the same, with staff still being surprised to find layouts they have never seen before, even though they have worked in the hotel for years. There are also spaces in the hotel that appear to have no access point, deepening the mystery as to what hides behind the historic walls.

If you do manage to find your way up to the Skyview Ballroom on the eighth floor, your efforts will be handsomely rewarded. Built as part of the 1960 addition, nothing can prepare you for the enormous sweeping views of the city skyline. Two walls of 24-foot high windows make you feel as though you are up among the clouds, with a birds eye view of the city. Pictures do the 10,000 square foot room no justice, with its true enormity only being felt when you enter the room. The hotel is actively trying to replace the aging windows, but as they are partially load bearing and eight storeys up, it is proving to be quite the challenge. On one particularly windy day one of the windows actually popped out of its frame, dangling precariously on the side of the building. Firefighters eventually came to the rescue, securing the window to the building by way of an old bed frame.

The Skyview Ballroom decorated for a wedding.
Source: The Marlborough Hotel.

Although the Skyview ballroom is part of the “new” section of the hotel, it tends to be a hotbed for paranormal activity. Many have experienced unexplained noises and movement in the curtains, which are hard to forget as the building does not shift or creak and there are no drafts. Late night staff working in the room alone often get unpleasant, spooky feelings. When Heritage Winnipeg visited on a sunny afternoon in June 2019, a quiet conversation was interrupted by the sound of footsteps running across the the other end of the room. But no one was there, not in the ballroom or any adjoining spaces.

The paranormal activity continues in other parts of the hotel. Originally the Blue Room, Marlborough Hall is an aptly named historic event space. Beautifully persevered in a nearly original state, the room has witnessed mysteriously falling tables and opening doors, and an unexplained plague of thousands of flies. Up on the ninth floor the haunting seems to be focused around the Devenshire, a room that was once Claire Leckie’s penthouse. Leckie, a business leader and longtime operator of the hotel’s Churchill Dining Room, became reclusive in her old age as her fortune declined. When her financial situation forced her to leave the hotel, she left behind her beloved white baby grand piano as a payment. Today, piano music can still be heard in the hotel although the piano itself is long gone. Her ghost is thought to be lonely, bringing the elevator up to the ninth floor so you can visit even though you requested a different floor. A heavy smoker during her life, it would seem that Leckie’s ghost has kept up the habit with staff not only smelling but seeing the curls of cigarette smoke outside the penthouse, when there was not a cigarette in sight. Down in the basement the former home of the Winnipeg Press Club has been a popular spot to hold seances with staff even witnessing a table levitating – giving the phase “creepy basement” new meaning.

The Blue Room, now the Marlborough Room, at the Olympia Hotel in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

A beautiful set of stone stairs leads from the lobby down to the basement of the Olympia Hotel, seen here in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

A sixteen year old woman named Grace (Edith) Cook is also said to haunt the hotel, as she was murdered in there on December 2nd, 1943 by the notorious Albert Victor Westgate, an older man who gave her gifts and promised her a job. The room where it took place, 503, no longer exists but her ghost is said to roam the hotel warning young women to be mindful of who they trust. Perhaps she is the young girl that is said to sometimes crawl into bed with guests? Cook’s ghost has become so infamous that a book, Buckle My Shoe, by Maureen Flynn, was based on her story.

For those less interested in the paranormal, the hotel still has plenty of interesting things to discover. Although the roof top garden cafe that was originally planned for the hotel never came to fruition, staff do partake in some rooftop gardening and with some imagination the huge waterfall on the roof could be considered a garden feature. It is in actually a part of the air conditioning system which runs cold water through the hotel radiators to cool the rooms. Being that switching from running hot water through the radiators to cold water is quite an undertaking, spring and fall can be trying seasons for the hotel staff as they try to decide when it is the exact right time to make the switch.

The original terracotta parapet with quatrefoil motifs, seen here in 2019, was moved up to the new roof line after the six storey addition in the 1920s.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Tucked just below the eaves of the older half of the building are still more beautiful rooms that allow you to see the historic elements up close. Ornate gilded beams crisscross the ceiling. Stained glass windows that sit high above the sidewalk are suddenly within reach. Sunlight pours in the south facing windows of what feels like a secret hide away, although you could always open the window and wave to the people below.

A room on the ninth floor of the older half of the Olympia Hotel in 2019.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Yet for all its historic charm and less charming ghosts, the hotel has faced some serious challenges as the economy has faltered and tastes have changed. But the hotel has been resilient, adapting and reinventing itself to remain relevant. From hotel to military barracks to commercial space and back to a hotel again, the building has waited patiently through the hard times and grown with its success. These changes continue to take place, with “The Mall” slowly being converted to small apartments while about 15 business still remain as of 2019. The room that was once home to the Winnipeg Press Club was later used by a martial arts group, until they moved upstairs to make way for the forthcoming Crickets Comedy Club. The forth and fifth floors of guest rooms have been completely renovated and are now secure floors, with other floors soon to follow. Water coming into the basement from Smith Street continues to be a problem and there is a never ending maintenance list that needs to be tackled. And doing this all while maintaining the historic integrity of the building is no small feat!

Even Eton Hall underwent a transformation for Christmas 2018, when it became a winter wonderland courtesy of general manager Brett Marynuk.
Source: The Marlborough Hotel Facebook.

But the staff remain optimistic and passionate about their hotel, determined for it to once again be the elegant and desirable destination four Italian immigrants once dreamed of. Visit the hotel during Doors Open Winnipeg and you can see that they put their hearts and souls into their work. Guests gave rave reviews about the tour guides and voted the hotel as “Best Architecture” in the 9th annual Peoples’ Choice Awards. It is a testament to the staying power of historic buildings and the conviction of the people who love them. The site of countless stays and special events, many Winnipegger’s have fond memories of the historic hotel. It is a true landmark and gathering place that will gladly stand for another hundred years, serving its community and warming the hearts of all who pass through its doors.

Grace Rents (Accommodations, Catering Sales & Conference Services Manager of the Marlborough Hotel) accepted the 2019 award for best architecture in Doors Open Winnipeg from Heritage Winnipeg President Lisa Gardenwine.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Special thanks to Brett Marynuk (Hotel General Manager), Chris Martin (Accommodations, Catering Sales & Conference Services Manager) and Grace Rents (Accommodations, Catering Sales & Conference Services Manager) for taking the time to give Heritage Winnipeg a wonderful tour of the hotel while sharing their knowledge and experiences.

Written by Cheryl Mann on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.

Archiseek – Ramada Marlborough Hotel, Winnipeg, Manitoba
City of Winnipeg – 321-31 Smith Street Marlborough (Olympia) Hotel
City of Winnipeg – List of Historical Resources
Manitoba Historical Society – James Chisholm
Manitoba Historical Society – Sterling Bank Building 
Manitoba Historical Society – Winnipeg Press Club 
Marlborough Hotel
Marlborough Hotel – Doors Open Winnipeg Tour
Marlborough Hotel – Facebook
PastForward – Corner of Smith Street and Portage Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
PastForward – The Marlborough Winnipeg, Canada.
Peel’s Prairie Provinces – Postcard 1812 
The Uniter – Haunted History
Winnipeg Architecture Foundation – Ramada Marlborough Hotel
Winnipeg Downtown Places – The Kensington Building
Winnipeg Downtown Places – The Marlborough Hotel
Winnipeg Free Press – A Century of History

One response to “From Olympia to Marlborough: A Heartwarming Historic Hotel”

  1. kjel says:

    I accompanied my parents to a wedding in the ballroom when I was a young child. Years later, staying in the hotel as a guest, I assumed the ballroom would seem far less impressive to my adult eyes. I was very wrong; It brought a lovely feeling of euphoria to see it again.

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