YOU SHOULD KNOW: How Its Tiki Tacky History Makes “The Waldorf” Worth Saving

by Stevie Wilson | January 24th will mark The Waldorf Hotel’s 64th birthday. In light of the recent sale of the property to condo developers, it’s uncertain as to whether this particular milestone will be celebrated by Vancouverites. But thanks to an outpouring of public support over the last week, the future of the East Van landmark as a multi-purpose venue and historic site is gaining a lot of attention.

At the time of writing, nearly 17,000 people have signed a petition to the Mayor, asking that he deny any rezoning of the property. Dozens of publications have covered the story, and social media has seen the topic trend up like a rocket. When Scout broke the bad news, the response was so overwhelming that it shut down the website (The Waldorf’s site was shut down as well). People desperately want to save The Waldorf, and there’s hope that all of the attention may – finger’s crossed – just turn the tide against its demise.

Mayor Gregor Roberson’s recent press release stated that “to lose such a historic building would be a big blow, which is why we need to do what we can to protect it”. It remains to be seen what that will be (we should find out this week), but if you didn’t get the chance to experience The Waldorf prior to its 2010 renovation, it’s important to know that not much, aside from the clientele and the ability to smoke inside, was changed. The Waldorf has always been a unique spot, and despite a relative lull in its popularity during the 1970s through the 1990s (the “Grove Pub Years”, we’ll call them), it was always known for its legendary Tiki Bar, which was tucked away like a secret inside.

If anything can save The Waldorf, it’s this bar.

Oddly enough, the Tiki Bar wasn’t part of the original plan. Mercer & Mercer architects, a duo formed in 1940 by Andrew Lamb Mercer and his son John, designed the original Waldorf Hotel in 1948 on a budget of around $300,000. The founding owner, Bob Mills, was a local businessman from Fernie who also owned The Haddon at 606 Powell St., which later became known as the Drake Hotel (sold to the City for $3.2 million in 2007). Mill’s new spot was named after The Waldorf Hotel in Fernie, which was owned by his father (it, ironically, was recently turned into condominiums). Vancouver’s Waldorf featured a “Luxuriously Furnished Ladies’ Parlor”, 25 “Handsomely Designed Rooms”, and even a “modern” coffee shop to attract luxury-seekers across the city. When it opened in 1949, it could boast the latest luxuries of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting. Mills and his wife were the original management team. Their menu, featuring ‘Turkey & Cranberry Sauce’ and “Jello with Whipped Cream”, was typical of the time; a far cry from the more modern and worldly culinary offerings enjoyed today at the hotel’s Café Nuba.

The original hotel operated primarily for motorists in the first few years, but upon Mills return from (his drunken escapades in) Hawaii, the hotel was redesigned. In 1955, Mills had the Mercer architects add a large lounge, restaurant, and additional rooms. He also put a Polynesian-inspired spin on the décor, and it is this that makes today’s Waldorf worthy of salvation. In addition to attracting working-class drinkers with one of the largest beer halls in the city, the Waldorf’s new Polynesian Room and “Menehune” Banquet Room (later “The Hideaway”) offered new guests a “unique South Sea atmosphere” which played to the popular post-war tropical aesthetic, complete with bamboo seats, Mai Tais, and a number of sensually-themed black velvet paintings, including original Edgar Leeteg works (much to the dismay of Mills’ wife). What’s more, the stunning murals were painted by noted artist Peter Hopkinson (who is best known for his White Spot advertisements). They were wild times for The Waldorf. Contemporary photographs suggest that a one particular staff party included a live cheetah. Because of course…

Over the years, The Waldorf has been managed in different ways. Most operators kept the Tiki Bar only for special events, and for a long time it languished as a satellite addendum to the infamous (and lacklustre) Grove Pub. But it was always – more or less – kept intact. When Thomas Anselmi et al from Waldorf Productions took over the lease in 2010, they brought it back to the fore, with great results. If the City really wants to save The Waldorf, making its redevelopment difficult would be essential. Designating the heritage status of its Tiki Bar would be the logical place to start.

Scenes From The Most Recent Renovation…

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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One Response to “YOU SHOULD KNOW: How Its Tiki Tacky History Makes “The Waldorf” Worth Saving”

  1. Jen on January 18th, 2013 1:19 pm

    I love the tiki bar, and I’ve been to Nuba for dinner and brunch. What I don’t understand, is if everyone in Vancouver loves the Waldorf so much, why weren’t they patronising the place? The last brunch a couple of weeks ago, we were one of only three tables dining at Nuba. A week later at the Red Wagon a few blocks up Hastings, and there was a 45 min wait outside in the cold at the same time of the morning.