The Hotel, the Murals & the Madness of Modernity


Patrick A. Dunae

Department of History, Malaspina University-College

For many years, the man at the centre of this symposium was most commonly associated in Nanaimo with a hotel on Front Street. The Malaspina Hotel was built in the late 1920s by businessmen who wanted to attract tourists and commercial travellers to the city. Once an elegant place and the object of local pride, the Malaspina Hotel boasted a sumptuous banquet hall and dining room overlooking the harbour. The rooms were adorned with elaborate light fixtures, richly carved wood-work and, most remarkably, a series of murals featuring Alexandro Malaspina and his contemporaries.

The murals were painted by three of Canada’s foremost artists, E. J. Hughes, Paul Goranson, and Orville Fisher.[1]My intention in this paper is to explain why the murals were commissioned and how they were created, and to describe how Alexandro Malaspina and his contemporaries were represented in the paintings.

First, a few words on the setting. The Malaspina Hotel was built by a firm called Nanaimo Community Hotel Ltd., incorporated in 1926.The company directors included a merchant, a car dealer, a lumberman, a druggist, a barrister, and a sanitary engineer. Their object was to raise money for the construction and operation of a first class hotel.

With a new hotel, the company’s prospectus declared, Nanaimo would become “a favourite stopping place for the better class of travelling people” and “a favourite location for conventions and business conferences.” Not only would the hotel attract “thousands of tourists” each year to the city. It would also be a distinctive landmark and a focus of civic pride.[2]

The proposed hostelry required a distinguished name, something that would reflect and resonate with the community. Early in February 1927, the directors organized a competition, with a prize of $25, for a suitable name for their new hotel. Hundreds of contestants responded, offering names such as the Alhambra, Bayview, Gibraltar, Hub City, King George, Lucky Strike, Majestic, Pleasant, Rio Grande, and Unity. But among a long list of names, Malaspina was the clear favourite: indeed, so many contestants submitted the winning name that the directors were “in a quandary as to how to divide the prize money.”

According to the Nanaimo Daily Free Press, the name was selected primarily because it connected the new hotel with “one of the greatest natural wonders on the coast” and to an attraction “not only to local residents but to hundreds of visitors and tourists” -- namely, to a distinctive sandstone cliff, known locally as the “Malaspina galleries,” on nearby Gabriola Island. The newspaper also noted that the name would commemorate the exploits of a “brilliant sailor” who was significant in the early history of the region.[3]

The Malaspina Hotel opened on July 20th 1927.As the directors anticipated, it was admired and acclaimed as a the jewel of Nanaimo. Unfortunately, though, the hotel was not as profitable as investors had hoped. Its success was compromised in part by the onset of the Depression, but also by the fact that it opened as a temperance hotel. Eventually it was decided to abandon the policy of “prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors in the hotel,” a decision that was difficult for some of the directors to accept.[4]Less contentious was a plan to promote conventions and special events in the hotel’s banquet and dining rooms. As part of the plan, the directors decided in 1938 to commission a series of colourful murals depicting the exploits of the hotel’s namesake.

A twenty-five year old artist, E. J. Hughes, was invited to carry out the work. Hughes had grown up in Nanaimo and had recently completed his studies at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. In 1938 he and two of his classmates, Paul Goranson and Orville Fisher, were working as freelance commercial artists in Vancouver. They called themselves the “Western Canada Brotherhood.” The trio apparently chose the name because it evoked the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of Victorian England, a group of painters whose work was distinguished by its detailed realism.[5]But as Hughes remarked later, they also called themselves the “Three Musketeers.” Hughes, Goranson, and Fisher pooled their talents for the Malaspina Hotel project. They did so, not for financial gain or artistic prestige, but simply for the fun and novelty of the assignment.[6]

They were already accomplished muralists. In 1935 they painted a mural on a church in East Vancouver and two years later created a series of large panels for a cabaret restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Their work was inspired and to some degree influenced by the celebrated Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera (1886 - 1957).The three young artists were also influenced by the American painter, Thomas Hart Benton (1883 - 1949).During the 1930s, Benton and other American artists completed major murals under the auspices of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an American government agency. Murals representing historical events were especially popular and the WPA commissioned several works depicting the exploits of pioneers and explorers such as Daniel Boone. The bold colours that distinguished Rivera’s work and the heroic style that characterized some of the American murals is evident in the panels created by the Western Canada Brotherhood for the Malaspina Hotel.[7]

The Malaspina murals were designed to enhance the hotel’s dining room and to accent different features in the banquet room. The murals were also carefully researched. Before they started work in August, the artists travelled by bus from Nanaimo to Victoria where they spent several days with the Provincial Archivist and Librarian, Dr. W. Kaye Lamb. The Provincial Archives held an impressive collection of books and maps relating to Spanish expeditions around Vancouver Island in the 1790s and Dr. Lamb was one of the foremost authorities on European activities on the Northwest coast.[8]Lamb provided the artists with photographic prints from various reference books in his collection. The prints included illustrations of Spanish and British naval uniforms, drawings of European naval vessels, and images of native people at Nootka Sound, c. 1790.Hughes and his partners used the reference prints for creating a series of pencil sketches which, in turn, were used to create their large murals.[9]

After some discussion, the trio decided to paint a series of six panels illustrating key historical events relating to Vancouver Island in the late eighteenth century. Each artist was responsible for two panels. Their work was completed in about six weeks.

Orville Fisher painted a mural featuring one of Malaspina’s officers, Cayetano Valdés, who was master of the exploring vessel Mexicana. In the summer of 1792, Valdés and his colleague, Dionisio Galiano, were the first Europeans to circumnavigate Vancouver Island. In Fisher’s mural, which adorned the south wall of the banquet room, Valdés is drawing an outline map of Vancouver Island. Fisher also painted a mural of Captain James Cook repairing his ship Discovery at Nootka Sound in March 1778.

Paul Goranson contributed a mural entitled “Lieutenant Galiano landing at Departure Bay, Nanaimo, 1792.”The mural was painted above a fireplace on the north wall of the dining room. Galiano’s ship, Sutil, was shown at anchor in the background; an arbutus tree -- now the corporate symbol of Malaspina University-College -- was prominent in the foreground.

Goranson also created the most magnificent mural in the series, “Captain Malaspina trading with Chief Maquinna.” This boldly executed and beautifully designed mural was located on the north wall of the banquet room and stretched over a doorway leading to the hotel’s dining room. The painting depicted a standing figure of Malaspina conversing with a seated figure of Maquinna at Friendly Cove on Nootka Sound in the summer of 1791.Both men are splendidly attired -- Malaspina in full dress naval uniform, Maquinna with an elaborate eagle head-dress and beaded shawl. Malaspina’s officers and some of Maquinna’s warriors are inspecting trade goods, such as ornamental beads and sea otter pelts. One of Maquinna’s warriors clings to the rigging, while a group of sailors look down on the scene from the ship’s quarter-deck.

On the west wall of the dining room, E. J. Hughes painted a mural of the British navigator, George Vancouver, meeting Bodega y Quadra, commander of the Spanish post at San Miguel on Nootka Sound. On the west wall of the banquet room, Hughes painted a scene entitled “Captain Malaspina sketching the sandstone ‘Galleries’ on Gabriola Island.” It depicted Malaspina and members of his crew admiring the sandstone rock formations near Descanso Bay on Gabriola Island at the entrance to Nanaimo harbour. Hughes placed several sailors inside the “galleries,” looking up in awe at the unique rock formations. A couple of other figures, a marine and a seaman, are peering into the gallery. Malaspina stands upright outside the gallery, studying the rock and recording the scene on an artist’s sketch book.

Murals like these were characterized by certain conventions and clichés. “In such paintings,” one commentator has noted, “the figures struck heroic poses, always made their discoveries in clear weather, and never seem to have encountered hostile natives.”[10]Sunshine and conviviality are certainly prominent in these murals. Moreover, historical artistry often took precedence over historical accuracy and in the hotel murals some of the scenes were rather fanciful. For example, Alexandro Malaspina did not personally explore the east coast of Vancouver Island and so could not have visited the “Galleries” on Gabriola Island. But Hughes probably knew that, from the notes he acquired from Dr. Lamb, the Provincial Archivist.[11]And besides, the murals were not intended as history lessons. hey were creative renditions of historical events, renditions made for artistic but also for commercial purposes.

Unhappily, we can’t inspect and deconstruct the murals in situ. In the 1960s, the hotel dining room was modernized and in the process the murals were badly damaged. One of them, Paul Goranson’s painting of Galiano landing at Departure Bay, was destroyed when the wall it adorned was demolished to make way for a cocktail bar. The assault continued when the hotel banquet room was partitioned and renovated to accommodate a beauty salon and a broadcasting studio for a local radio station. During the renovation, Goranson’s magnificent mural of Malaspina and Maquinna was covered over with brown paint.

In the interests of modernity, other murals in the once elegant banquet room were vandalized. Orville Fisher’s mural featuring Valdes drawing a map of Vancouver Island was covered over with wallboard panels. That mural had been designed around a large window on the south wall of the room. Above the window, Fisher had cleverly incorporated a colourful grouping of totem poles. When the ceiling in the banquet room was lowered, to give the place a more modern look, the totem poles were obliterated.

E. J. Hughes’ work was vandalized, too. A portion of his mural showing Captain Malaspina at the sandstone rock galleries was destroyed when a doorway was cut into the west wall of the banquet room. As a result of these renovations, undertaken to provide easier access to new toilette facilities, two Spanish sailors who originally appeared standing inside the rock galleries disappeared. The main portion of the mural survived but was covered over with wallboard panels.The panels were attached to 2” x 4” studs. In a manner reminiscent of the crucifixion, the studs were nailed with six-inch spikes directly onto the figures in the mural. When the wallboard was prised from the studs, the original plaster crumbled and fell a way and much of the artwork was damaged.

The Malaspina Hotel stopped operating as a commercial hotel in 1984 and during the next few years was used as emergency housing for social assistance recipients. The building was decayed and decrepit when it was purchased by a Vancouver-based development corporation in the mid-1990s.The developers hoped to “reincarnate” Nanaimo’s “grand old lady” by converting the hotel into commercial office space.[12]Their plans entailed radical structural changes. The interior of the building was gutted and exterior walls were demolished. Of the original building, only the facade on Front Street remained. However, the hotel has yet to be reincarnated. The developers ran into financial difficulties and stopped all work on the site a couple of years ago.

But not everything was lost. When the interior of the building was being gutted, demolition crews discovered the murals which had virtually been forgotten by the community. With the cooperation of the developer, the Nanaimo Community Archives organized a rescue campaign. he campaign was supported by local service clubs and businesses, and by individual benefactors, including E. J. Hughes who travelled to Nanaimo to inspect the murals soon after they were uncovered. Nanaimo City Council and the federal and provincial government also contributed to the campaign. As a result, several interior walls which had been decorated with murals were salvaged and transferred to a storage facility.[13]

The decision to obliterate the murals -- in the name of modernity -- seems unconscionable today. The murals not only enhanced the Malaspina Hotel; they were superb examples of a distinctive artistic genre and important early works by some of Canada’s most distinguished painters. No less important, the murals contributed to the cultural capital of this community. The heroic images and historical scenes created by Hughes, Fisher, and Goranson enriched Nanaimo and were a significant part of the community’s heritage resources.

Fortunately, thanks to the salvage campaign organized by the Archives and supported by the community, portions of the murals may yet be preserved. Although most of the murals are too badly damaged to be restored, it may be possible to preserve pieces of E. J. Hughes’ mural depicting Malaspina sketching the rocks on Gabriola Island. Art conservators report that it may also be possible to salvage portions of Paul Goranson’s mural, showing Malaspina trading with Maquinna Let us hope so. Fragments of the surviving Malaspina murals might then be displayed at Malaspina University-College in conjunction with the Alexandro Malaspina Research Centre. The fragments would commemorate an enlightened eighteenth century mariner and some remarkable twentieth century art.


[1]The three men were prominent members of Canada’s war artist contingent during the Second World War and in later years were elected to the prestigious Royal Canadian Academy of Art. Of the three, E. J. Hughes is possibly better known today. His work has been considered in several works, including Anthony Robertson, “A pensive clarity: E. J. Hughes,” Vanguard, vol. 10, no. 10 (December 1981/January 1982), 10-15.See also Patricia Salmon and Leslie Forsyth, “E. J. Hughes, painter of the raincoast,” Raincoast Chronicles, No. 10 (1983), 38-45.
[2]Nanaimo Community Hotel, Limited, Prospectus (c. February, 1927).
[3]“Hotel Malaspina is Name Chosen for New Hostelry,” Nanaimo Daily Free Press (22 March 1927), p.2.
[4]According to the Prospectus, “by unanimous action of the Executive Committee a clause will be inserted in the operating contract prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors in the hotel or on the premises thereof.”
[5]Jane Young, E. J. Hughes, 1931-1982: a retrospective exhibition (Surrey Art Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, 1982), p. 26.
[6]The artists received no remuneration for this work. However, they were comfortably installed in the top floor suites of the hotel and were given free choice from the hotel’s extensive menu. E. J. Hughes made a number of sketches of Nanaimo harbour from his hotel window and some of these were subsequently worked up as paintings. Interview with Mr. Hughes at the Malaspina Hotel in Nanaimo, 22 July 1996.
[7]Bold colours and figures also distinguished murals created by the Western Canada Brotherhood for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. The murals were commissioned by the British Columbia government and featured industrial scenes, such as Mining, Logging, and Fishing.
[8]William Kaye Lamb (1904 - 1999) was Provincial Archivist and Librarian of British Columbia from 1934 to 1940.He later served as chief librarian at The University of British Columbia (1940-1948) and as Dominion Archivist and National Librarian of Canada (1948-1968).An authority on eighteenth century voyages and navigation, Dr. Lamb was the author of many publications, including “Vancouver’s Charts of the Northwest Coast,” in Barbara Farell and Aileen Desbarats (eds.), Exploration in the History of Canadian Mapping: A Collection of Essays (Ottawa: Association of Canadian Map Libraries & Archives, 1988).He also edited Capt. George Vancouver’s journals for the Hakluyt Society. See A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, 1791-1795 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1984).
[9]The murals were painted on plaster walls which had been treated with shellac to inhibit moisture. The artists squared off the walls and used a grid system to copy the murals from their preliminary pencil sketches. “Mural Design For Malaspina Hotel, Nanaimo,” Notes for an exhibit of works by E. J. Hughes, Nanaimo Art Gallery, 1993.
[10]Young, E. J. Hughes...retrospective, p. 28.
[11]For details of Malaspina’s whereabouts, see Donald C. Cutter, Malaspina and Galiano: Spanish voyages to the Northwest Coast, 1791 & 1792 (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991).See also John Kendrick, The Men with Wooden Feet (Toronto: NC Press, 1985), C. H. Little, 18th Century Maritime Influences on the History and Place Names of British Columbia (Madrid: Editorial Naval, 1991) and Derek Pethick, The Nootka Connection. Europe & the Northwest Coast 1790-1795 (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980).
[12]“Grand plans for Malaspina Hotel rebirth. Architect excited about plan to transform Front Street landmark into business complex,” The Times [Nanaimo], (16 July 1996), p.3.
[13]The campaign to salvage the murals was organized by Diane Foster, Nanaimo Community Archivist, in 1996.The campaign was reported in the local press throughout the summer of 1996 in features such as “Malaspina heritage murals to be restored,” The Bulletin [Nanaimo] (22 July 1996), p. 1; “Time ravaged treasures. Clock running on efforts to rescue, restore Malaspina Hotel’s once majestic murals,” The Times [Nanaimo] (25 July 1996), p.1, and “Group trying to save murals. Art hidden underneath Malaspina renovations,” Nanaimo Daily Free Press (30 July 1996), p. 1.The murals are also discussed in a feature article by Diane Foster, “Malaspina Rediscovered: The Archival Connection,” AABC [Archives Association of British Columbia] Newsletter, vol. 8, no. 3 January 21, 2015y 21, 2015