Last week’s 100th Anniversary Gala of the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald with 136 invited guests was an elegant, but subdued affair.

Which was appropriate. The 198-room heritage hotel, the most prominent and enduring historic building in Edmonton has been a mirror of the turbulent economic history of this region since it opened for business on July 5, 1915.

The original owner and builder was the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which pushed the second trans-Canada railroad across the railway bridge now north of the Beverly Bridge into downtown Edmonton in 1909.

The optimism! The excitement! The land boom! Most of Edmonton’s still-standing heritage buildings were built between 1911 and 1914. The city’s population near tripled, from 25,000 in 1911 to a peak of 72,500 in early 1914.

No sooner had Grand Trunk run the rails into the city, when it announced the finest hotel in the west would be built in the heart of the booming city, with a magnificent view of the North Saskatchewan.

The railway’s timing couldn’t have been worse.

As the Mac neared completion, the boom collapsed. World War I was declared in July of 2014. Half the city’s men went off to fight, wives and children went to join relatives in Ontario. By July 5, 1915 the population had plummeted from 72,500 to 59,300.

No one was riding the Grand Trunk rails to the promised land. The Macdonald stayed open but by 1919 the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and its chain of hotels were in bankruptcy, taken over by its biggest creditor, the Government of Canada.

The Mac, absorbed into the Canadian National Railway's hotel division, endured through the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s as the population slowly grew to 137,000 by 1949. It was still the only game in town for the wealthy – where else would royalty stay? Competition was non-existent. No hotels were in the suburbs … there were no suburbs!

With oil – the Leduc #1 in 1947 – came the ‘50s boom. The city’s population doubled from 1949 to 1959. The Mac was the centre of the then-thriving oil biz. “The Box”, the ugliest 292-room addition you ever saw, was opened in 1953 to accommodate demand. It was glued on to the north side of the building. Lord, was it ugly.

By the ‘70s, still owned by CN, the Mac had turned seedy. The boom had bought much competition, new modern hotels downtown, in the deep south, in the west end. The 'burbs were eating away at the downtown as a whole. West Edmonton Mall had opened in 1981.

CN didn’t respond to the competition. Hard to imagine, but there was actually serious talk about demolishing the run-down Mac.

The building barely survived the late ‘70s boom. But then came the horrible ‘80s.

In 1983, just before another global oil collapse, CN announced plans for a total renovation of the Hotel Mac, tearing down the Box, building an aesthetically compatible addition and two office towers.

The Mac closed its doors for the renovation. Too little too late. Things went from good to bad to unbelievably bad in Edmonton for the rest of the ‘80s. The Box was torn down, then nothing happened.

Plans for the hotel and surrounding land were stalled, re-announced, delayed. City council, led by alderman/interim mayor Terry Cavanagh, made the Mac the city’s first designated historical building, at least to ensure it couldn’t be demolished.

In this limbo, CN sold all its hotels to CP Hotels. To Edmonton’s great and good luck (plus government incentives) CP launched a three-year top-to-bottom renovation, restoring the Mac to its former 1915 grandeur and more.

Like the city, the grande dame of Edmonton hotels has had a pretty good run since, especially since the late ‘90s.

The Mac has benefited from Edmonton’s newly wealthy blue/white collar residents. The hotel is everybody’s idea of the best of the best in town. We’re willing to pay a premium for dinner in the Harvest Room, a drink in the Confederation Lounge or on the drop-dead glorious patio, to stay overnight for a special occasion, or to really celebrate by renting an eighth-floor suite where American presidents, rock stars and Queen Elizabeth herself have stayed.

The hotel still isn’t the greatest economic proposition – by today’s standards, it’s considered too small at 198 rooms to create an optimal rate of return. But the current real estate owner Invest REIT and the Fairmont management group seem content with the property’s numbers, with plans to upgrade several floors to meet Fairmont’s highest global standards.

Who knows what the future holds, but let’s hope by 2115, when the population has again doubled, that the Fairmont Macdonald still commands the river valley as the city’s historically richest and most beloved gathering spot

Graham Hicks