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A heritage gem,a model SRO: Before fire destroyed the Winters Hotel

Built in 1907 as a tourist hotel, the interior was still pretty much original until it burned down in 2022

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The fire that killed two people and destroyed the Winters Hotel in Gastown has made the building synonymous with the troubles of SROs in Vancouver.

It’s been described as rundown, but it wasn’t always like that. The City of Vancouver’s former advocate for the homeless, Judy Graves, said not that long ago the Winters was a model SRO, and a heritage showpiece.

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“It was one of the very best SROs,” said Graves, who has been retired for a decade. “It was privately run, (and) beautiful, beautiful, architecturally.”

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The interior of the 1907 hotel was so striking, and in such good shape, it was often used for film shoots.

Photographer Alexandra Bidwell did a location shoot for Creative B.C. on Oct. 1, 2018 that captures the heritage beauty of the four-storey structure, which was built as a high-end hotel in 1907. Creative B.C. recently sent the images to Postmedia.

The first floor was made up of retail stores, the top three were residential rooms. The interior of the hotel looked pretty much like it would have in 1907, from the original five-panel wooden doors and wainscotting in the hallways to the large skylights.

The interior colours were deep and rich, from the dark brown doors to the red wainscotting below soft-blue walls. The hallway wooden floors were painted orange, and had a brown linoleum runner down the middle.

The most interesting architectural feature was the light wells that brought sunlight into the interior of the structure from skylights, which illuminated the three floors below.

Heritage expert Don Luxton said light wells like this were sometimes used in old buildings.

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“You’d drive holes down through the building to allow light and ventilation,” explains Luxton. “The light wells were functional, but they made them into features.”

You probably couldn’t build them today. But then, many rooms in the interior of the hotel wouldn’t have had access to an outside window. It looks wild, like something out of New Orleans.

The old-timey feel was enhanced by interior balconies that looked like small bridges at the ends of the hallway, three storeys of open space in between them.

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The light wells in the Winters Hotel in Gastown. Photo by Alexandra Bidwell /sun

Keeping the building original and in good shape was the owner, Peter Plett.

“I know that for the Pletts, it was their pride and joy, that building,” said Graves. “They owned many buildings, but that was the most beautiful of them. They furnished it beautifully, they kept it beautifully. It was exquisitely clean.”

This included the rooms, which were often furnished with antiques.

“The original furnishings from the hotel were still there when the Pletts took it over,” said Graves. “They left some of them in the rooms, and some were being stored in the basement.”

Peter Plett still owns the building through Winters Residence Ltd., but leased it to a non-profit, Atira, in 2017. Atira was running it on April 11, 2022, when candles left unattended set off a fire.

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The sprinkler system had been activated for another fire three days earlier, and hadn’t been turned on again. Two people wound up dying in the blaze — Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay.

An inquest into the Winters fire recommended phasing out private ownership of SROs. But Graves said the building was fine when Plett ran it.

“Just remember, this guy is NOT the Sahotas,” she said in an email message, referring to the controversial SRO owners who owned the condemned Balmoral and Regent Hotels. “Was NOT a slumlord. Was a class act in SRO management.”

The Winters was a high-profile heritage building in Gastown, with a handsome brick facade that stretched all the way from Abbott and Water streets to the lane.

The City of Vancouver has retained the heritage facades of historic buildings like this in the past, but in this case, the whole building was torn down. So it is currently an empty lot, waiting to be redeveloped.

Luxton said the heritage zoning allows for a 23-metre-tall building to be constructed there, although it could be higher if the city approves. What it will look like and when it will be built is anyone’s guess.

“It leaves a great gaping tooth punched out of the Gastown historic fabric and the street wall,” said Luxton. “It was a huge building and a big loss to the area, in terms of its heritage. And now whatever we build back is probably going to be something contemporary, because you can’t rebuild the building exactly.

“We’re going to end up with who knows what. It’s going to be a challenge to put anything that fits the area, because we don’t build buildings like that anymore.”

Plett was not available for comment.

[email protected]

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A hallway at the Winters Hotel in Gastown, which burnt down in 2022. Photo by Alexandra Bidwell /sun
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The light wells in the Winters Hotel in Gastown from below. Photo by Alexandra Bidwell /sun
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A staircase at the Winters Hotel in Gastown. The building burnt down in 2022. Photo by Alexandra Bidwell /sun
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The light wells in the Winters Hotel in Gastown brought light from above to the three storeys below. Balconies at the ends of the hallways looked like bridges. Photo by Alexandra Bidwell /sun
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A postcard of the Winters Hotel at Abbott and Water Streets in Vancouver circa 1910. sun
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Demolition crews about to move in front of the Winters Hotel building in Vancouver, BC., April 19, 2022. Note that the facade was still intact after the fire. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG
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Demolition of the Winters Hotel was halted on April 23, 2022 after two bodies were found in the rubble. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG
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Demolition work resumed at the Winter Hotel on April 25, 2022 after two bodies were found during the demolition of the hotel. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG
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The Winters Hotel site is now vacant. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

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