The Story of the Cecil Hotel
Calgary’s most notorious hotel has a 100 year history and stories to tell.
Photo courtesy of the Calgary Public Library, Community Heritage and Family History Digital Library
Certain buildings accrue a mystique about them; they become reminders of simpler times and landmarks of a past often seen through rose-coloured glasses. This, it seems, is not one of them.
Situated on the corner of 4 Ave. S.E. and 3 Street S.E and built in 1912 by C.J. Cote and H.P. Bell, the Cecil Hotel’s 57 rooms and dining area predate the more glamorous Palliser hotel, which opened in 1914. Originally meant to accommodate travelers and blue collar workers in the east end, the brick and sandstone hotel would go on to house a stable, a blacksmith shop and grocery store, as well as a cafe and tavern. This last amenity would take up nearly the entirety of the ground floor once the prohibition era ended in 1924.
A.E. Cross, a prominent Calgarian and owner of the Calgary Brewing & Malting company, owned the site from 1938 to 1967, eventually selling it to Leo Silberman and partner Saul Rosenbaum, in 1968. (Incidentally, the Cecil became somewhat of a gathering place for Calgary’s lesbian community in the 60s, when local softball teams chose the Cecil’s backroom as their watering hole). Silberman’s family continued to operate the hotel until its closure in 2008 when its bad reputation caused it to be declared a threat to public safety, and it’s not hard to see why.
Prior to this, the hotel gained infamy for a series to unfortunate events, including the 1979 murder of two of its employees for the $100 in the till, and the 1982 fire caused by a careless smoker that took over the top floor of the Cecil, sending six to the hospital and leaving smoke damage in the rooms and hallways. During this time, it gained a reputation as a hotspot for drug dealing, prostitution and all manner of criminal activity.
In its last year in operation, police were called in 1,700 times to the area, the most for any area in the city and not to long after the stabbing of a 23 year old man in October, the hotel’s tavern had its business license revoked, effectively shutting the place down for good. Not long after this, police calls regarding the area plummeted by 91 per cent.
After the 2008 closure, the city bought the building from owner Sam Silberman for $10.9 million, and are still unsure what to do with the place. Talks of parkades retail spaces and affordable housing have all been heard, but, much to the chagrin of heritage advocates in the city, councilors like Druh Farrell have suggested the notorious hotel won’t get a new lease on life.
The city is on track to finalize the sale of the building to the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation by the end of March for anywhere between $11 and 12 million. According to a CMLC spokesperson, it is still too early to say what the best use for the site will be, as they’ve yet to see the state of the building’s interiors. One thing they have said is that efforts will be made to find the Cecil hotel sign a new home with anyone willing to take care of the old emblem. Any takers?