Derelict 110-year-old Downtown Eastside hotel, soon to be demolished, leaves behind a complicated legacy

The 110-year-old Balmoral Hotel, soon to be demolished by the City of Vancouver, is pictured in Vancouver in February 2022.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The 110-year-old Balmoral Hotel, soon to be demolished by the City of Vancouver, is pictured in Vancouver in February 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Despite its 110-year-old history, the Balmoral Hotel in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is slated to be demolished as early as next week, according to the City of Vancouver, prompting community members to reflect on the legacy it leaves behind.

The city issued an evacuation notice to residents in 2017 after expropriating the hotel from the Sahota family, a family of landlords in Vancouver known for mismanaging a number of single room occupancy (SRO) buildings in the Downtown Eastside, including the Balmoral.

In February, the city's chief building official issued an order requiring its immediate demolition, citing numerous life-threatening and fire safety concerns.

But before it became an emblem of housing insecurity, poverty and drug use, the Balmoral Hotel on 159 East Hastings St. was once a symbol of economic prosperity.

Depending on who you ask, the building is either a storied architectural gem — or a site of displacement and trauma.

"Heritage tends to be talked about in terms of saving buildings or not saving buildings," said Bill Yuen, executive director of Heritage Vancouver.

"But there's a higher question I think, which is what does it mean to who? Who gets to decide what it means?"

A heritage building — but for whom?

The Balmoral is listed on the heritage register, which includes buildings, structures and other sites that have architectural or historical heritage value in the City of Vancouver.

Designed by Vancouver architects Parr and Fee — who were also behind the Europe Hotel on Powell Street, also known as Gastown's Flatiron building — the Balmoral was built in 1911 to 1912 as an upscale hotel catering to wealthy visitors and businessmen.

City of Vancouver Archives
City of Vancouver Archives

Towering over adjacent buildings, the Balmoral featured what's been described as Chicago-style commercial elements, including the buff brick construction and the grid-like fenestration — or placement of windows — on the facade, where a neon sign also hung on display.

City of Vancouver Archives
City of Vancouver Archives

An ensuing economic downturn, followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, would begin the Balmoral's decline.

By the 1940s, the building served as a rooming house for resource industry workers including longshoremen, sailors, seasonal loggers and fishermen, before it eventually became an SRO.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

It is unclear when the Sahota family purchased the Balmoral, although the city identified it in 1981 as one of the SROs that needed rehabilitation.

In an open letter following the city's demolition announcement, Yuen suggested there is more than one way to think of the Balmoral as a piece of heritage, citing the building's historic value while acknowledging its relationship with residents of the Downtown Eastside.

City of Vancouver Archives
City of Vancouver Archives

"Sometimes in heritage that works well when there's a single story," Yuen told Stephen Quinn, host of the CBC's The Early Edition.

"But I think in this context, it's very clear that there isn't one single story, one single perspective. That one frame of architecture might not be the best way to look at it."

'The Balmoral ... just symbolizes trauma'

Inadvertently, it was a housing advocate that contributed to the city's decision to demolish the Balmoral.

In 2016, Wendy Pedersen — director of the advocacy group, the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative Society — led former Balmoral tenants in launching a class action lawsuit against the Sahotas and the city for failing to make significant repairs on the building.

That forced the city to inspect the hotel — and eventually order its immediate demolition.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"We did the right thing at the end of the day, but we caused a displacement crisis," Pedersen said on The Early Edition. 

Balmoral residents were transferred to the Winters Hotel in Gastown, which burned down in April 2022.

They were then relocated blocks away to the Columbia Hotel, where Pedersen says five people have since died from trauma-related issues.

"The Balmoral to me and to many people in the community just symbolizes trauma," Pedersen said.

She notes that relatives of women who died or have gone missing believe their loved ones are connected to the hotel.

"People talk about how the bones of their family members were in the walls."

Using Culture to Heal

Thelma Stogan, an elder with the Musqueam Nation and a spiritual worker, recommends performing a burning ceremony to clear the site of lingering negative energy once the building is dismantled.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"We're taking care of spirits. Not asking them to move on, but putting them in a better place," said Stogan, who is also a residential school survivor.

Stogan says she understands how trauma can lead to the cycles of addiction and abuse that are pervasive on the Downtown Eastside.

"A lot of people are down there because they are survivors."

Now, as the city removes waste and other hazardous materials in preparation, Yuen says the demolition is about more than the building.

"[The process is] about people, it's about people's connections to a place; it's about people's relationship," he said.

"It's very emotional."