Strathcona Hotel 60's-80's
The picture features "The Strathcona Room" in 1954
Owners: John & Keith Olson
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.
Listing last confirmed: Oct. 5, 2005