Friday, January 25, 2013

History of the Malaspina Hotel, 1927-1984

History of the Malaspina Hotel, 1927-1984

By Glen A. Mofford

   At one time it stood tall on 38 Front Street, towering over Nanaimo harbour like a beacon of hope with promises of a dynamic and stable future, the Malaspina Hotel opened in July, 1927 to an appreciative public eager to embrace what would soon become a familiar landmark in the Hub City for many years.
Those of you that lived in Nanaimo and are familiar with the hotel, probably have your own stories and memories of the place. This article will highlight some noteworthy moments in the history of the old hotel, from its optimistic beginnings, until it ceased operations as a hotel in 1984.
So come along for a trip down memory lane and enjoy some poignant moments in the history of the Malaspina Hotel.


 The Malaspina Hotel was conceived by local business men who formed a syndicate called the Nanaimo Community Association in 1926. The Board of Directors consisted of people from a variety of occupations such as a merchant, a car dealer, a lumberman, a druggist, a barrister, and a sanitary engineer, with the sole purpose of raising money to build a modern hotel that would help advance and promote Nanaimo.[1]  Frank Cunliffe was President of the Association for twenty years and President of the Nanaimo Rotary Club in 1926-1927.[2] In addition to providing a first-class hotel to the growing tourist trade, the new hotel had a convention centre for club and organization meetings and served as a social hub in the community.

 The hotel was originally named the Nanaimo Community Hotel,[3] but shortly before its opening a contest was held to rename the new establishment. Various choices were submitted by the public including: the Bayview, Lucky Strike, Unity, Alhambra, Gibraltar, Hub City, King George, Majestic, Pleasant, Rio Grande, and the Malaspina Hotel. The clear favourite was the Malaspina Hotel and on July 27-30, 1927 the new hotel opened its doors.
The hotel was designed by Sharp & Thompson and constructed by Ryan Contracting Ltd. at the cost of $$220,000. Both firms were from Vancouver.

The luxurious seven-story Malaspina hotel opened with 86-rooms, many with an excellent view of Nanaimo Harbour. It offered its guests a banquet room, a beauty parlour and barber shop managed by W. Herbert Bate, a cigar store managed by Albert E. Miles, a Ladies and Men’s reading room, the Palm Room, and a business lobby. The Guest Rooms were adorned with elaborate light fixtures with richly carved wood-work and tastefully furnished with all the modern conveyances available at the time.[4] Harry Fall was the first manager of the hotel followed by E.A. Leach in 1929-1930, A. Brown, 1931 to 1933, Thomas Stevenson, who held the job for ten years between 1934 and 1945 and Fred J. Fall who managed the hotel from 1946 to 1950, succeeded by Mr. & Mrs. Russell M. Annett.

Business was good in those first few years but slowed dramatically after the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression.
It didn’t help matters that the Malaspina was a temperance hotel and therefore didn’t collect monies from the sale of intoxicating liquor like many of its nearby competitors. Hard times brought hard choices and the Board of Directors quickly realized they would have to open a beer parlour to attract more business and to remain competitive.


 In 1938, in hopes to further improve the hotel and attract customers, management decided to commission three artists to paint a series of murals inside the hotel.
The hotel used the federal government artist assistance program to hire Edward J. Hughes, Paul Goranson and Orville Fisherand to paint six large murals on the hotel's plaster walls in exchange for free meals, room and board until the works were completed.[5] The threesome formally called themselves the Western Canada Brotherhood but among their friends they were known as the Three Musketeers. I mention the fate of these beautiful murals later in this article.
At the end of World War II, an addition, designed by A. Les Barley, was added to the hotel allowing for 35 more rooms.[6]
On May 24, 1949, local radio station CHUB, 1570 on the AM dial with 250 watts went on the air broadcasting out of the Malaspina Hotel banquet room.[7]
“At one time CHUB had live shows from the Malaspina, complete with bands and singers. The hotel was, in its heyday, pretty swank - ballroom and all.”[8]
CHUB continued to broadcasts from the hotel until April 15, 1968 when it relocated to its new studio on Esplanade Street in town.

By 1954 the Malaspina Hotel was twenty-seven years old and the new owner, Ray Knight, felt it was time for some upgrading. He began extensive renovations to bring the landmark hotel up to date.[9] This was the first of many renovations that the hotel would go through over the next number of years. The changes made in the 1960’s were particularly damaging to the murals as walls were removed and doors were cut out of walls. "The assault continued when the hotel banquet room was partitioned and renovated to accommodate a beauty salon and a broadcasting studio for a local radio station. During the renovation, Goranson’s magnificent mural of Malaspina and Maquinna was covered over with brown paint."[10]

By 1970 the City of Nanaimo was all a buzz about their unique event, the Bathtub Race, which left from Nanaimo Harbour and ended at Kits Beach in Vancouver. The Malaspina Hotel was front and centre during the celebrations. The local radio station, CHUB announced the race from the roof of the hotel and a fleet of out-of-town yachts were moored at docks at the foot of the hotel.

In the 1970’s the Malaspina Hotel had a first class restaurant, a cocktail lounge and a beer parlour. Later on the beer parlour became known as the Jingle Pot Pub and the waterfront ramp was removed and replaced with a stairway which led to the renovated pub located in the basement. I’m sure those of you that are reading this article can shed some light on the pub that was once in the hotel as I never had the pleasure to imbibe there but certainly wish that I did.
Stanley “Stan-the-Man” Strazza was owner-operator of the pub in the twilight years of the hotel, 1979-1984. Stan mentioned that the pub was going through a transition from a sing-a-long style British Pub to a disco style pub – the going trend at the time.

By 1984, after 57 years, the Malaspina stopped operating as a commercial hotel and the hotel was sold to a company which hoped on opening a hospitality college with guests in the rooms, restaurants, pub and lounge being served by students but that ambitious idea was never realized and the old hotel sat empty for many years.

The Malaspina Hotel held out a new beginning and a source of pride for the town of Nanaimo when it opened in 1927. It continued to provide first-class accommodation and a great room with a view for many years until time and neglect took its toll on the grand old hotel. For those who remember the hotel fondly it was a place of joy and local pride and that is something the wrecking ball will never erase.

Copyright by Glen A. Mofford

[1] Patrick A. Dunae, Malaspina: The Hotel, the Murals & the Madness of Modernity, Department of History, Malaspina University-College, December 29, 2005 Website:
[2] Rotary International, Nanaimo Chapter, Club Runner, page 13.
[3] Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory, 1927 Diamond Jubilee Edition, page 223.
[4] Jan Paterson, Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1920-1967, Heritage House Publishing Company, pp.52-54.
Also see, Patrick A. Dunae, Ibid.
[5] There are numerous accounts and information on these now famous murals some of which can be found here:
 Bellaart, D., Hughes mural was lost, found, condemned and saved, Nanaimo Daily News, April 17, 2009
Patrick A. Dunae, Malaspina: The Hotel, the Murals & the Madness of Modernity, Department of History, Malaspina University-College, December 29, 2005 Website:
[6] City of Nanaimo, “Les Barley. Born in England in 1911, Les Barley came to Nanaimo, via Toronto, in 1948 to work as an architectural assistant for Thomas McArravy. Barley eventually became partners with McArravy and later with Weismiller. During his career, Barley worked throughout the mid-island, designing institutional buildings including the Legion on Wallace Street, an addition to the Malaspina Hotel, Nanaimo District Secondary School, Bowen Park Complex, the Nanaimo Golf Club House and numerous schools. He retired in 1977.”
[9] Jan Paterson, ibid, page 54.
[10] Patrick A. Dunae, Malaspina: The Hotel, the Murals & the Madness of Modernity, Department of History, Malaspina University-College, December 29, 2005 Website: