The spectacular fire in downtown Victoria last week destroyed more than the former Plaza Hotel and Monty’s strip club. It destroyed nearly a century of history, memory and exciting times.
“When that place burned down, it was literally aching with history,” said historian Glen Mofford, author of Along the E&N, A Journey Back to the Historic Hotels of Vancouver Island, released by publisher Touchwood Editions.
Mofford said he often feels a little pang to hear the now-burned building characterized merely as “Monty’s strip club” because that ignores the many different ways the tastes, fashions and fads of times past manifested themselves there.
“Sure, Monty’s was there, and sure, it had exotic dancers,” he said. “But that was only for the briefest of times.”
Mofford said in its time, the hotel had been an Arabian Nights-themed hotel, restaurant and cocktail bar, a folk club and much, much more.
It was also one of the classiest bars ever to open in Victoria, with metres of gleaming wood, brass and a scaled-down First World War biplane hanging from the ceiling. It was even then called “Monty’s,” an attempt to evoke a dashing English fighter pilot.
And going back to 1911, when it opened as the Westholme Hotel, the building featured a 6,000-square-foot swanky dining room called the Songhees Grill.
“Orchestras would play there and they had dining for 600 people,” said Mofford. “It was great.”
He has long been fascinated with historic hotels and bars. Mofford also wrote the 2016 book, Aqua Vitae: A History of the Saloons and Hotel Bars of Victoria, 1851-1917, also published by Touchwood Editions. For Mofford, hotels and bars are places that speak of their times, beyond their eating and drinking functions. They also speak to the imaginations and popular emotions of their time.
So when the Westholme reopened in 1965 as the Century Inn with an Arabian Nights theme, the opening turned into a three-day gala event. Women on the hotel staff wore 1960s harem outfits and the men wore turbans.
Today, we look at such staging and can be appalled by the kitsch. But at the time, it spoke to a sense of fun and the exotic.
Back then, building owners even worked collegially with City of Victoria planners, to redevelop what would become Centennial Square in honour of Canada’s 100th anniversary in 1967.
The hotel tied itself in with other attractions around the square such as the McPherson Playhouse, which was also renovated and reopened in the mid-1960s.
So close was the relationship among the city, the hotel and planners working out the design for Centennial Square that the hotel displayed a scale model of the Centennial Square fountain in its lobby.
The Century also featured the Centurion Beer Parlour, which took in the previous customers from the Westholme’s beer parlour, which in 1954 had been only the second beer parlour to open in Victoria.
During the 1960s, the hotel even featured a small coffee-shop-style club called The Secret.
In 1982, new owners, picking up on the country-and-western craze launched by the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, installed a country theme, with a big barrel of peanuts, hay on the floor and a mechanical bucking bull, and renamed the bar The Buckin’ Bronco.
Live country bands played and patrons were invited to try their rodeo luck on the bull, but only after signing a legal waiver.
By 1984, the country fad was losing its public appeal and the ownership renovated again.
In 1984 it reopened as Monty’s, a multi-level pub featuring exotic wood panelling and dowelling and lots of brass. The First World War biplane was slung from the ceiling and special light fixtures were adopted to give the 200-seat bar an old-style feel.
“Everyone is now concentrating and remembering it as a strip bar,” said Mofford. “But before it was a strip bar it was one of the nicest bars in town.”
In 1985, a 300-seat disco nightclub opened next door as Decca Dance.
Monty’s the pub and Decca Dance disco together did a roaring business, but it was short-lived. Financial problems seemed to plague the establishment and in the 1986, the Century Inn closed.
The name later changed to Century Plaza Hotel and finally to the Victoria Plaza Hotel.
By the 1990s, it reopened as Monty’s Showroom Pub and featured strippers on stage until 2013, when the hotel shut down entirely.
“But now that that place has burned, people should know it’s so much more than Monty’s strip bar,” said Mofford.
“It’s what everyone calls it, but it’s sad because there are still people who remember it back in the 1960s, the 1950s and even the ’40s.”