The Savoy Hotel in the 1930s

Savoy redevelopment in time for 100th birthday

Shambhala’s purchase of the old Savoy Inn means a new lease on life for a building that has twice suffered fires and prolonged closures.

Shambhala Music Festival’s purchase of the old Savoy Inn with plans to redevelop it as a performance venue means a new lease on life for a building that has twice suffered major fires and prolonged closures.

The project will also coincide with the building’s centennial, for it was on February 12, 1914 that John Philbert opened what was originally called the Athabasca hotel, a three-storey brick and stone structure at the corner of Baker and Falls streets.

“The new hotel is modern throughout and Mr. Philbert has spared no pains to make the hotel as up-to-date as possible,” the Daily News reported. The building had 40 rooms, each “steam heated and supplied with hot and cold water, as well as being light and airy with plenty of ventilation.”

Philbert also installed a drinking fountain, “an innovation used for the first time in connection with hotel construction in Nelson.”

Next to the office was a reading room, in turn connected to the dining room. The kitchen was at the rear end of the lower floor, with pantries and cook’s quarters attached. The bar was on the west side of the lower floor at the building’s front.

For the opening, Philbert hired an orchestra, hosted a gala dinner, and threw a dance.

Becomes the Savoy

Philbert, a pioneer miner and hotelier, came to BC in the 1890s from Trois-Rivières, Que. With proceeds from a mine sale, he bought the McLeod hotel at Ymir and ran it for several years. Later he had a store and butcher shop there before coming to Nelson, where he operated the Athabasca hotel and saloon at 302 Baker Street.

In 1913, he began building a new Athabasca hotel on the site of an old roller skating rink and operated it until 1920, when it closed for several years, due in part to prohibition. According to his daughters, Eva Vanden Hurk and Veronica Crowther, who visited in 1991, Philbert walked away from the struggling business. He bought a ranch at Port Haney and moved his family there, but soon went to Vancouver where he had a career in real estate and opened a butcher shop and tobacco store. Philbert died in 1935 at 69 following a long illness.

John A. Kerr bought the hotel in 1924 and reopened it a year or two later as the Savoy, with an added hairdressing parlour operated by his daughter Hazel. (Kerr’s brother Louis, meanwhile, ran the Kerr Apartments, built 13 years earlier by their father Edward.)

On January 1, 1932, the Savoy’s new beer parlour opened, known as the Lothian Arms after the Earl of Lothian, from whom the Kerr family was descended. The parlour’s main entrance was off Baker Street and it boasted a counter of “highly-polished walnut with light maple trimming in a futuristic design.” The tables were oblong and round and the cushioned seats made of rattan.

The beer parlour was the site of an argument and brawl on March 31, 1934 between Doukhobor leader Peter P. Verigin and city police constable (and future chief) Robert Harshaw, recounted by J.F.C. Wright in his book Slava Bohu.

Management called police after Verigin, who had been drinking beer, began shouting, banging his fists, and breaking glasses. According to Wright, Verigin shoved Harshaw, who responded by putting Verigin in a headlock, throwing him to the floor and handcuffing him. Outside, two men came to Verigin’s aid: one tried to strike Harshaw and the other jumped on his back.

With the help of firefighter Reg Bush and Daily News linotype operator Jack Reid, Verigin and the two others were taken to jail and later fined $25 each for being drunk in public.

Ownership changes

Between 1936 and 1973, the Savoy saw a dizzying number of ownership and management changes. For a while John Kerr, who also operated the Crown Point Hotel in Trail, leased the Savoy to W.K. Clark of New Westminster and then Thomas McGovern.

In 1944, he sold the building to Mr. and Mrs. H.J. Hauck of Kenora, Ont. but less than a year later it sold again, to Glenroy G. Huxtable, who ran the hotel until his death in 1949. Huxtable’s widow Constance moved to Vernon, remarried, and returned to Nelson two years later with new husband Rod McIndoe to resume the Savoy’s management from Yorkshire and Canadian Trust Ltd., executors of Huxtable’s estate. Constance’s father Con Whelan also helped out.

In the 1960s, the hotel was operated variously by Rudolph and William Young and Firmin Bousquet. Longtime Nelsonite and retired educator Ernie Moisey, who knew Bousquet’s son, recalls CPR crews were a steady source of income: “The Savoy was close to the yard, so that was where they stayed when they came over from Cranbrook and Penticton. In the morning, call boys would go up and roust them out of bed.”

In those days, Moisey says the Savoy “was considered kind of grubby” and was a less popular watering hole than the Queens, Nelson, and Civic hotels. He never entered the building until his mid-20s, although he was to become part-owner.

The disco era

On November 24, 1973, fire broke out in the hotel just before noon and raged through the northern half of the building until brought under control four hours later. There were no injuries but the beer parlor’s floor collapsed into the basement.

Investigators said it was deliberately set with crumpled paper placed against walls or pillars, although no one was caught. Brothers Alan and Gary Kilpatrick had purchased the building only four months earlier — Gary was seeking a business opportunity after retiring from professional hockey.

The Kilpatricks immediately rebuilt. Ernie Moisey, Gary’s brother-in-law, laboured on the construction crew the following summer, and remembers a backhoe removing burned debris from the basement.

The project created a building-within-a-building: the area gutted by fire was new construction tied to the outside walls to strengthen both the old and new load-bearing beams, addressing concerns the building might fall. The facade was redone on two sides in an alpine theme with shingled dormers.

“We ramset those dormers into the brick,” Moisey says. “On the inside where there was a hanging ceiling, we ramset anchors into the walls all the way around the perimeter of the bar.”

The Savoy Inn, as it was now known, reopened in October 1974 with 20 rooms and an enlarged pub. To attract guests, the hotel offered heli-skiing packages.

The basement, once cluttered with coal bins, became a discotheque called Kips, after the brothers’ nickname. Moisey, who did some relief bartending, recalls it was “packed almost all the time. If you didn’t get there by 7:30 when they opened, it was almost impossible to get a seat. It was very popular and done first class. They brought in an interior decorator to do the motifs and had a nice dance floor, lots of lights, really good sound system, and a fog machine.”

Alan operated a second Kips in Kelowna, but Moisey says faced with stiffer competition, it wasn’t as successful.

In 1979, the Kilpatricks unveiled plans for a $1 million addition including 37 more rooms, a banquet hall, swimming pool, and racquetball courts. None of it happened, but a restaurant — known as McDammit’s and later Bogart’s — opened over the disco, taking the place of several rooms.

By 1987, the brothers and several other shareholders turned their attention to the property just south of the hotel, acquired a decade earlier for expansion. Three homes were demolished to make way for a complex that included the Savoy Lanes bowling alley and a bingo hall and banquet facility to accommodate large functions.

The Kilpatricks continued to be associated with the Savoy Inn until 1996. At one point, Moisey says they traded it for an island off Tofino, which they logged. However, the island’s former owner couldn’t make a go of the hotel, and ownership reverted back to them.

Both brothers have since died — Gary only last month.

Fire strikes again

Nelson lawyer Blair Suffredine’s family acquired the Savoy next. His son Kevin Dewar ran it for a while with Gary Kilpatrick’s son Greg, but afterward the restaurant, nightclub, pub and upstairs rooms were leased separately with Dewar overseeing the building.

From the 1980s to the 2000s, several nightclubs came and went: The Twilight Zone, Club Utopia, the Avalon, Fluid Lounge, RezAvoir, and Club 198. Two local institutions trace their origins to the Avalon: Kootenay Co-op Radio’s earliest broadcasts came from there and it was also the site of some of Shambhala’s first meetings. (The festival’s Village Stage was originally called The Avalon Forest.)

Things ended abruptly on November 10, 2007 when fire struck again. Crews arrived at about 5:30 a.m. to find heavy smoke billowing out of the Mazatlan restaurant and 15 guests evacuating the Backcountry Hostel upstairs. Nobody was hurt, but three businesses, including Club 198 downstairs, were finished.

Although the building soon found a new owner, it has been empty ever since due to insurance problems and ongoing litigation (see related story below).

In 2011, Kootenay Christian Fellowship launched a $1 million fundraising campaign to buy the building, where it planned to move its Our Daily Bread meal program and transform the upper floor into low-cost housing. However, renovation costs proved prohibitive and the plan fell through. (The church instead bought the Savoy Lanes next door and recently moved in.)

Today, from the front and side, the Savoy hardly resembles the building John Philbert erected a century ago, although the backside reveals its heritage.

Kevin Dewar says he looked a few times at removing the stucco and taking the facade back to the original brick hiding underneath, but it would be a major job with no guarantee of success. “The brick would get trashed because you’d have to sandblast the stucco, which is adhered to the brick,” he says.

He is hopeful, however, that Shambahala will be able to resurrect the long dormant building. “We’re happy we could come to an agreement and wish them the best,” he says. “It’s been a long time since anything’s gone on there. I look forward to seeing some life back in the building.”

Savoy subject of legal saga

In the more than five years since the Savoy Inn burned, reams of paperwork have been generated in still-unresolved litigation between its former owners.

According to court documents, in 2008 Saskatchewan hotelier Phil Poiron agreed to pay $1.4 million to acquire Borrachos Enterprises — whose sole asset was the Savoy — from shareholders Blair Suffredine, his wife Judith Lee, and their son Kevin Dewar.

An adjuster estimated it would cost $600,000 to repair the fire damage, well within the $1.3 million insurance coverage. However, once the bill topped $800,000, the insurers declared another $1.4 million was required and the repairs stopped.

With Dewar’s help, Poiron sued the insurer, adjuster, and broker and reached an out-of-court settlement. Part of the money defrayed Poiron’s mortgage, some went to the former owners, and another chunk paid legal fees.

In late 2011, with about $843,000 still owing on the Borrachos sale, foreclosure proceedings began on grounds Poiron failed to pay property taxes on time and seek insurance for the hotel, which he denied. However, the foreclosure order was granted, and the company’s shares reverted to the family along with the hotel.

Poiron is in turn suing Dewar, Suffredine, and Lee for misrepresentation and breach of contract. They deny the allegations, which have not been proven in court, and are trying to have the long-running case dismissed. Whatever the outcome, it has no bearing on the hotel’s sale to Shambhala.