Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Strathcona Room 1954

The Strathcona Room: The First Cocktail Lounge in British Columbia

By Glen A. Mofford

With over 1200 licensed seats, offering ten distinctive venues located on five levels, the Strathcona Hotel is the most comprehensive entertainment centre on Vancouver Island. The huge success enjoyed by the hotel today is the result of innovation, reinvestment and an obdurate work ethic practised by generations of the Olson family.

H.B. ‘Barney’ Olson purchased the eastside of the 900 block Douglas Street between Broughton and Courtney Streets, which included the 100-room Strathcona Hotel, for $120,000 from Warren Martin in April 1946. Warren’s father, E.J. Martin, had built the hotel in 1912 intending to open as the Empress Block office building but plans changed midway through construction and it opened as the Strathcona Hotel in 1913. The words Empress Block can still be seen carved in stone on the front façade of the hotel.

The hotel had been completely rundown and was in dire need of renovations. Barney immediately went to work spending $50,000 improving and modernizing the rooms with new furnishings, renovating the lobby and front entrance, adding a first-class dining room and replacing the aging elevators. In 1948, construction began on a new south wing for the Hotel. Forty-four additional rooms were built and a number of street-level shops now faced onto Douglas Street, all at a cost of over $300,000. As if that wasn’t enough, a bowling alley and a pool hall with seven snooker tables were added in the basement. Barney had transformed the Strathcona Hotel into one of the most modern in the city.

Barney’s two sons, Keith and John, started working full time in the hotel in 1952. John had worked on a part time basis after school and in the summer at his fathers’ hotel since the age of 16, as an elevator operator and as a bellhop.
It was also in 1952 that events began to take place that would eventually bring enormous success to the Olson’s and greatly increase the popularity of the hotel.

Victoria had been ‘dry’ since Prohibition became law in October 1917, unlike the surrounding municipalities that voted for liquor by the glass. A majority of Victorians rejected a return to the sale of liquor by the glass in the 1921 plebiscite. This meant that within city limits one could not purchase liquor in a restaurant or hotel but only did have the option of buying alcohol in strictly controlled Government liquor stores. All that changed as the results of the Province-wide Liquor Plebiscite, held in conjunction with the 1952 Provincial Election, proved to be a victory for the right to buy and sell of liquor by the glass. It was a hard fought victory in which the Olson Family worked tirelessly for the ‘Yes’ side. A majority of 60% was required in order for the referendum to pass and the results reflected the narrowest of victory, 61.5%, for the sale of liquor by the glass. As soon as the vote became known Barney proceeded to plan and build the very first cocktail lounge in the province.

The Strathcona Room cocktail lounge took twenty-eight days to build and occupied the space of the former beauty salon, where Big Bad John’s Hillbilly bar is located today. The room was tiny with only 9 stools at the bar and 23 seats at well-spaced tables. Local newspaper and radio advertisements, and word of mouth, made for a much-anticipated début. A line of customers formed early as people were very curious about this new and novel idea called a cocktail lounge. As the hour of opening got closer the line of customers had grown until it stretched around the block. Beverage Manager John Olson and an-all male staff of three prepared themselves for a busy evening.
At 4:00 p.m. Thursday July 1, 1954, the 32-seat Strathcona Room opened its doors for business. It was the first licensed cocktail lounge in British Columbia. The first customer, Russell Horton of Victoria, ordered the first drink - a martini. The Victoria Daily Times reported the following day, “For every customer that sat down, two were turned away…the place was jammed until closing at 11:30 p.m. In all 200 persons were served.” The first day proved to be a resounding success.
For the next few months’ business continued to be brisk. The Strathcona Room had a monopoly on serving cocktail drinks in the city as it took time for other establishments to catch-up. Initially rum proved to be the drink of choice as many of the early customers were from the Esquimalt military base. Men usually occupied the seats at the bar while women and couples gravitated to the tables
The owners and their customers had to follow strict regulations. A sign posted by the bar read, ‘It is unlawful to drink while standing.’ The Strathcona Room, being the only lounge in existence in the province and the fact that there was no-where else for liquor licensing personnel to inspect, provided for some interesting results. John Olson, recalls one particular visit from an over zealous inspector that he describes as a “pompous Englishman.” The lounge had only been in operation for three weeks when, on a Friday afternoon, the inspector approached John at the bar and asked why he had exposed liquor bottles on the shelves behind the bar. John explained that they were used to pour the drinks for the customers. The inspector retorted, “If they aren’t out of sight in 30 seconds I’m going to take your license.” With the help of his bartender, Joe Sparks, John removed all the liquor bottles off the shelves and put them on the floor behind the bar. The inspector “stuck around for awhile” as John and Joe worked the night tripping over liquor bottles. According to the inspector, liquor labels were illegal advertising. John spent the next day covering the labels with paper and writing their contents in pen placing them back on the shelves.
Another time John had to remove a table that was out of sight from the bar. The table reappeared the next day once he installed a concave mirror in the corner. John proudly notes that they always kept their license.
From the tiny Strathcona Room in 1954, to the mega-entertainment giant it is today, the Strathcona Hotel has survived, prospered and adapted to the changing times.


The Ingraham Beer Parlour, 1960-2003

The Ingraham Beer Parlour, 1960-2003

By Glen A. Mofford

At one time it housed the biggest beer parlour in British Columbia and flowing from its taps through the years poured hundreds of thousands of draught beers attaining the unique distinction as the largest selling Labatt’s House in the world. But after forty-three years in business the Ingraham Hotel closed its’ doors and reopened as a Hotel 8.

In 1957 Victor Ingraham, a colourful and dynamic entrepreneur, hired Farmer Construction to build his new hotel at 2915 Douglas Street near Topaz. Victor had previously owned the Yellowknife Hotel and the Arbutus Hotel in Courtenay before moving to Victoria. The 50-room Ingraham Hotel opened June 28, 1960 at the cost of one million dollars, “aimed mainly to provide top-class accommodation for commercial travelers.”[1] The hotel featured two banquet rooms, a dining room, coffee shop, lounge and a huge 500-seat beer parlour.
The three-story building front facing Douglas Street was painted in a checkerboard of lemon yellow and robin-egg blue, and boasted a most distinctive hotel sign best described as something out of a Jetson’s cartoon. The base, painted bright yellow, was in the shape of a rocket ship, which rose several feet off the ground into an oval shape with the word Ingraham written in black on a white background and topped with two intersecting circles.
The beer parlour and parking lot were located in the rear of the hotel where, in 1935, the Victoria Cycle Racing Club built the first “cycledrome.” The wooden structure lasted five years before vandalism and the elements forced its demolition in 1940.

From 1927 to 1964 beer parlours in British Columbia were required by law to provide a separate entrance for men and another for ladies with escorts. Inside the Ingraham an artificial wall divided the beverage room in half, separating the sexes and thereby avoiding the potential volatile mix of men, women and beer. The owners of the Ingraham beer parlour used an ingenious retractable wall that was set on wheels. Its purpose became clear when one side of the beer parlour filled with thirsty customers, two waiters would wheel the wall to the emptier side allowing for more space for patrons while complying with liquor regulations.

When customers walked through the swinging doors, they would first notice neatly uniformed rows of tables covered in fire-red terry-cloth used to soak up spilled beer. Lavish red leather chairs from the T. Eaton Company provided patrons with comfort while they sat and enjoyed their ten-cent glass of draft or a twenty-five cent bottle of domestic beer. The chairs proved to be so popular that they began to mysteriously disappear and eventually had to be replaced with less expensive seating.

The early beer parlours of Victoria and Vancouver were, by law, very basic and simple beverage rooms. The new Ingraham beer parlour was no exception as there were no television sets, no games, no food and no drink selection other than draught or bottled domestic beer. Liquor regulations prohibited customers to stand or walk with a beer.
If a customer wished to move to another table a waiter was summoned to move the beer on his tray.

In spite of these restrictions, the beer parlour became an instant success. The majority of customers were mostly male, blue-collar workers who filled up the men’s side after work and on weekends. Most patrons ignored the spartan-like atmosphere of the early beverage rooms and treated it as their own social club. It was a place where they could relax, swap stories and enjoy the companionship of their friends and co-workers while consuming cheap beer.

Service in the Ingraham, like many beer parlours in the 1960’s was excellent. Albert, a waiter in the Ingraham from 1962 to 1965, recalled that management demanded first-class service from the staff. Any waiter who kept a thirsty customer waiting for more than five minutes would be pulled aside after his shift and given a stern warning.
Waiters, (there were no waitresses until the late1970’s) were well dressed in a white collar shirt with black bowtie, black slacks and shining black shoes. Waiters did not carry moneychangers in those days but carried one and two dollar bills in their fingers, larger denominations in their top shirt pocket and coins in their trouser pockets. A good waiter could make a comfortable living off his tips so naturally the tables that tipped the most received special attention.
Waiters were kept very busy in the Ingraham, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when the place would often fill to capacity. The standard full beer tray held twenty, eight-ounce glasses of draft beer which weighed approximately 22 pounds. In an hour a waiter might carry as much as 300 pounds of beer.[2]

Victor Ingraham died from heart failure at Saint Paul’s hospital in Vancouver, BC on November 14, 1961. Ownership of the hotel went to his 31 year old son, Len.
Like Victor, Len loved and promoted sports and it was during his tenure that the beer parlour became a favourite watering hole for all kinds of sports teams. “Len has an affinity for sponsoring sports teams and organizations. The list is lengthy and includes: stock cars, super stocks, baseball, lacrosse, bowling, curling, basketball, and hockey teams.”[3]
Len Ingraham was heavily involved in the community. He was a member of 28 organizations which included the Shriners and his many associations and sponsorship of sports teams earned him the nickname of Mr. Hospitality.

By the late 1960’s and into the1970’s liquor regulations became less restrictive. In 1970 the legal drinking age was lowered from 21 to 19 years of age. As laws concerning drinking relaxed the beer parlour went through a metamorphosis from a paltry drinking room to a much more congenial and therefore enjoyable place for customers to gather. The new changes in the liquor law allowed for the selling of BC cider, wine; spirits and imported beer giving patrons a choice of products other than draught beer. The décor at the Ingy, as it was affectionately called by the regular customers, changed for the better with the addition of four pool tables, two shuffleboard tables, a cigarette machine, a few television sets, a jukebox and food service.
The food service was located near the centre of the pub. A copy of the Ingraham Hotel “grub menu” from 1971 contained its own bucolic charm as customers were encouraged to “try our horrible golden bilingual French Fries,” or to order “hot corned beef on rye samwich, not in the bottle.”
The retractable wall and the separate entrances were no longer required but the entry signs remained above the outside doorways, now regarded as curious relics of an antiquated past.

Len managed the Ingraham Hotel until April 2, 1972, when he sold the hotel to Ian Duncanson and Neal Patterson. Neal had owned the Empress Hotel in Chilliwack. During the 1970’s and 1980’s the pub continued to do a good business. Shuffleboard, pool, trap shoot and other games were popular with customers as was the addition of more television sets. Sports teams would meet at the Ingy after the game and a steady stream of regulars loyally drank at their favourite tables in the pub.

But by the mid to late 1990’s the age of the “beer barn” was in decline and business at the Ingy began to wane. Prices for beer increased while attitudes towards drinking were changing. The economics of the city was shifting from resource-based to ‘high-tech’ and tourism. The British Columbia Forest Products sawmill on Gorge Road closed and small industry continued to shrink as the new global economy began encroaching on traditional types of employment. In addition people were staying home more and went to the pub less. An attempt to lure customers back and generate revenue by providing live music on Friday and Saturday nights was not enough to attract customers on a regular basis or to fill the large 500 seat pub.

The Large Family, owners of a Vancouver Island grocery chain, purchased the hotel in May 2002. By August, the Liquor Board amended its regulations to allow private liquor stores to compete with Government owned stores and the Ingraham received one of the first licenses under the new Act. It was a shrewd move as the new owners of the Ingraham hotel purchased their license before the City of Victoria zoning by-law restricting the size of a private liquor store became law. This move effectively sealed the fate of the Ingy Pub as the new owners intended to replace it with a privately owned liquor store.
At closing time Saturday August 8, 2003, after forty-three years, the taps went dry for good and the Ingraham Pub closed.

A Hotel 8 has replaced the once familiar Ingraham Hotel and a Liquor Plus private liquor store now operates where the beer parlour once stood. The diminutive Sports Time Pub now operates where the Big I cabaret used to be deep inside the basement of the hotel. To remind the public of the changes the owners coined the slogan, “It’s not the Ingraham anymore.” To past customers and staff who have fond memories of their time spent in the Ingraham beer parlour and lament its passing, there is little reason to celebrate.
Similar to the fate of the cycledrome that preceded it, the Ingraham beer parlour succumbed to an ever-changing world.

[1] “New Hotel to Cater to Business Public,” Victoria Daily Times, June 28, 1960.
[2] Robert A Campbell, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer, University of Toronto Press, 2001, p. 31.
[3] John McKeachie, “Passing of an Era – The Ingy Has Been Sold,” The Victorian, March 29, 1972, p. 4.