Built for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the Empress Hotel is one of a series of Chateau-style hotels built by Canadian railway companies in the early 20th century to encourage tourists to travel their transcontinental routes. Popular with the travelling public for their elaborate decor and comfortable elegance, these hotels quickly became national symbols of quality accommodation. The Chateau-style vocabulary used by the railway hotels evolved as a distinctly Canadian architectural type. The Empress signals the beginning of this evolution from a strictly Chateau-style design towards one that incorporated contemporary forms. Built in 1904-08 to designs by Francis M. Rattenbury, the Empress was enlarged in 1910-12 to designs by W.S. Painter and in 1928 to designs by J.W. Orrock.
Construction on the building began in 1904 and took nearly four years to complete. Rattenbury’s initial plans called for the development of a seven-story structure similar to Québec City’s Château Frontenac. As such, the nascent hotel’s appearance drew largely upon Châteauesque-style architecture as a source of inspiration. Similar to the other grand railroad hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway, The Empress incorporated exterior walls built with stone and brick cladding, topped by a steep-pitched copper roof. Ornate dormers and gables defined the structure of the roof, which was lined with a series of polygonal turrets. Rattenbury did not exclusively rely upon Châteauesque architecture, either. On the contrary, he also used additional architectural forms whenever appropriate. For instance, the hotel’s spectacular porch used design principles based on Tudor Revival-style design aesthetics, while Second Empire architecture was present within the layout of several interior spaces. The Empress was unlike the hotels operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway in other ways, too. Rattenbury’s blueprinted followed an asymmetrical floor plan centered somewhat on an arcaded central loggia. Many projected pavilions accented by oriel windows defined the loggia, as well. Yet, the hotel’s most distinctive feature was a glass-roofed palm garden decorated with Chinese-inspired motifs.