A century of the Cecil Hotel: A storied past and uncertain future

The Cecil Hotel’s identity has evolved over the last century -- family business, drinking hole, historical landmark and most notoriously, violent stain on the city.

'That building was the vessel for a lot of tragedy, a lot of human suffering'

The Cecil Hotel in 1912 as it appeared on a postcard. (Calgary Public Library/Community Heritage and Family History Digital Library)

The Cecil Hotel's identity has evolved over the last century from a family business to a drinking hole to a historical landmark and, most notoriously, a violent stain on the city.

With its recent acquisition by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, it looks more and more likely that the Cecil will have a date with the wrecking ball.

The Cecil Hotel as pictured in 1965. (Calgary Public Library/Community Heritage and Family History Digital Library)

But no matter its fate, the building's history is as storied and diverse as its patrons over the years.

Long before the hotel's boarded windows and doors were left it in an impenetrable limbo, the Cecil Hotel was built back in the boom of the early 1900s.

"Calgary was really thinking it was going to be the next Chicago. It was a huge boom," said historian Harry Saunders. "In the span of 10 years, Calgary grew from a little over 4,000 to 43,000. It's as though 10 years from now Calgary had a population of more than 10 million."

In 1911, the year it was built, the Cecil bought an ad in the Albertan — now known as the Calgary Sun — to usher in new guests.

"A comfortable cozy dining room so decorated as to be soothing to the eye and restful," read the ad. "The cuisine and service is the best obtainable and the day has yet to come when the rooms are not in such a demand to such an extent to make housing late-comers a puzzle to management."

The Cecil had its own orchestra in 1914 and boasted a barn and blacksmith shop attached to the hotel so guests could billet their horses, or rent one if needed.

New owner, new clientele 

By the 1960s, prohibition had come and gone and the Cecil's tavern had reopened. That's when Leo Silberman, an Auschwitz survivor, came to Calgary hoping to start a better life. He worked at the 7-Up factory in town and eventually saved enough money to buy the hotel in 1968.

Now 79 years old, Calgary resident Lois Sabo remembers the bustle of the Cecil back then.

"He was a good business man. It was a different atmosphere in those days — women and men weren't allowed to drink, to gather, except in special areas," said Sabo.

It looks more and more likely that the Cecil will have a date with the wrecking ball.

The Cecil's ladies and escorts section became one of the major hangouts in town for Calgary's lesbian softball contingent.

"My partner and I went in, we had been looking for a gay community and hadn't found one," said Sabo. "We walked in and there were probably 30 or 40 women in there and we thought we had arrived in nirvana."

Once gay clubs started opening in Calgary, the softball players started to clear out of the Cecil.

Cheap beer kept it popular with university students and, in 1978, Leo Silberman's son Sam took over.

He kept the Cecil an old-style tavern saying if he fixed it up, it would drive his clientele away — but the hotel and bar just got seedier and seedier.

Drugs and violence 

Drug deals, prostitution, stabbings and even murder started becoming such a regular occurrence that in 1999 the Calgary Police Service assigned Frank Cattoni as an undercover officer at the Cecil.

"In 2007 alone we went there 1,700 times. The calls themselves weren't low level policing issues but they tended to have a very significant level of violence attached to them," said Cattoni. "Whenever you have a lucrative drug trade you see other levels of criminality."

Crime at the Cecil got so out-of-hand that in an unprecedented move, police approached the city in 2008 asking for the Tavern to be deemed a threat to public safety.

According to Cattoni, six months after the bar was shuttered, police saw 90 per cent fewer calls to the area and the hotel was also shut down by February 2009.

The building's fate

George Webber is a long-time Calgary-based photographer who wanted to document Calgary's old hotels and bars for his book Last Call.

He was given unique access to the Cecil in its dying days.

"The place itself has a real end of the road feel to it," said Webber. "That building was the vessel for a lot of tragedy, a lot of human suffering, and you pick up on that when you're inside."

The city paid the Silberman family $10.9 million for the Cecil, which has sat in its boarded-up state ever since. More recently though, the building and land was bought by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) — the people behind the East Village redevelopment.

And while some heritage advocates have pushed for the Cecil to be saved, Michael Brown with CMLC says that's looking less and less likely.

"I think there's not a good chance it's going to be saved and that's being honest with people. Unfortunately, the flood — it was really hard on it. There's still some water in it. So we're doing an assessment but it's not in good shape."

With files from CBC's Paul Karchut


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