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How the Hotel Macdonald became one of Edmonton’s most cherished landmarks — after teetering on the edge of death

On the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald's 100th anniversary, Steve Walton talks about how the hotel was saved from the wrecking ball and became one of Edmonton's most cherished landmarks

May 11, 2016

by Elizabeth Hames

Photograph by Pederson

This story originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of Alberta Venture

As of this past summer, the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald has towered over Edmonton’s river valley for a century. And even as the city grows up around it, “the Mac” remains king of the hill. But it hasn’t always been this way. For its 100th anniversary, Alberta Venture spoke with the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, Steven Walton, about how the Mac became one of Edmonton’s most cherished landmarks — after teetering on the edge of death.

Alberta Venture: What does it feel like to be marking this milestone?
Steven Walton:
This one has been an honour for me. I was born in Edmonton, and remember looking at this hotel as kind of the pinnacle of where you could end up. So to be a born and raised Edmontonian and know how much this property has come to mean – and especially in the past year as we go through the history – it’s been an unbelievable experience.

AV: What do you think the Macdonald means to Edmontonians?
Everyone knows somebody that’s had a memorable event at this hotel, or they’ve had one themselves. We do more weddings than any Fairmont hotel in the chain. I have other colleagues in the brand ask me, “So what’s the big secret?” And I wish I could tell them that it’s this marketing genius that I’m doing that is making that happen, but it’s not. It’s just so entrenched in the culture of this city, that every little girl – and now little boy, hopefully – that grows up in Edmonton is going to get married in the castle on the hill. And that to me is the best analogy for just how ingrained it is.

“It would basically be impossible to build a hotel like this now.”

AV: But the hotel hasn’t always been a jewel. It was abandoned for eight years. What happened?
Just after the hotel hosted the Universiade Games in 1983, it had fallen into disrepair and neglect. In the late ’70s and 1980s, old buildings were looked at as these burdens and they were torn down in record numbers. So the hotel closed in 1983. In 1985 the city saved it from the wrecking ball by giving it municipal heritage status. It was the first building in Edmonton to get that, but throughout that time it was boarded up.

AV: What happened?
Canadian Pacific Hotels bought the hotel from the owners, and a commitment was made to restore it. So from 1988 to 1991 the hotel was going through a refurbishment. And then it had a grand reopening in ’91.

AV: Was it money well spent?
I can’t remember the exact math, but basically what it works out to is that it would basically be impossible to build a hotel like this now. There’s no investor on the planet that would build this hotel the way it is now. The return on the investment would take absolutely forever. And I think that had a lot to do with it, too, with Canadian Pacific saying, “No, you have to keep these alive.”

AV: I bet you hear a lot of stories from people about their memories of the hotel.
All the time – and they’re great. We did an amnesty event April 25, where we invited people to bring back old items, and it was neat just hearing stories. And you hear them all the time. People come through, we get them on TripAdvisor, we get letters. We get people that just absolutely have so many cool stories to talk about. And this year especially, people seem to be coming out of the woodwork, which is absolutely wonderful.


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