Who Saved the Royal Alexandra Café?

The story of Allan and Donni Stern


May, 1971: Standing in the "Selkirk Dining Room" (as the café was called in later years) during its dismantling in the Royal Alexandra Hotel. (At Left) - Alec Billinkoff , hotel demolition contractor, (Centre) - Donni Stern. (Right) - Allan Stern, a partner with Billinkoff in the disposal of the building contents. (These were the key people responsible for saving the room)

 

Behind the Royal Alexandra Hall Millennium Project at the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel, in Cranbrook, British Columbia, there is a very human story.

After the "cafe" of the former Royal Alexandra Hotel was brought to Cranbrook in 1999, more details about how it was saved in the first place began to come to light. This particular story emerged in early 2001, nearly a year after the initial project website was produced.

Many people remember working at the hotel or attending functions in this room, but perhaps the most remarkable part was played by Mr. Allan Stern and his wife Donni of Winnipeg. Both were integrally involved in the actual removal of the room in 1971, just ahead of the wrecking ball !

The museum heard about the Sterns well into the restoration process of the room, but at a critical point where several decisions had to be made about the cornice and capital restoration. Details of these particular items did not show up well on existing, (mostly early promotional) photos of the room, and more visual information was essential to have the re-castings done properly. Through a network of people, names of contacts relating to the hotel history increased, and among the list of contact names, were the Sterns. Along with their name came their phone number. A critical piece to the puzzle had been found. Upon contact, they related the following remarkable story.

   
   

The firm of Atlas Wrecking, owned by Billinkoff Bros. of Winnipeg, was contracted to demolish the Royal Alexandra Hotel, dispose of the contents, and level the property. The hotel was built in 1906 as a large first class Canadian Pacific Railway Hotel. The Royal Alexandra was connected directly to the station, and enjoyed a lavish career for many years. However, by the late 1960's with the increasing dominance of the airlines, and its physical location, the hotel guest number decreased significantly.

Allan Stern was involved with the disposal of all the building contents. The fastest and most efficient way was by auction which took place on two successive weekends. Hundreds of people came. For some it was only to attend the auction and the opportunity to buy some of the many antique pieces. Other people wanted buy a small memento of the thousands of items that were being sold. Still others came to reminisce and see the grand hotel for the last time. It was a time of great nostalgia.

     

May 1971, Room removal foreman Richard Pohl and an assistant carefully chisel plaster away to remove one of the large cast heraldic shields in the upper parts of the curved end walls.

 

Allan felt that the most unique room in the hotel was the "Selkirk Dining Room" (formerly known as the Oak Grill and earlier still known as the Café). He therefore decided that it had to be preserved. Alec Billinkoff agreed with Allan and adjusted the wrecking schedule to allow the time needed to save this important part of the hotel. Allan contracted Richard Pohl, a European craftsman, to dismantle the room. The process, which took several weeks, was documented with photographs. The various parts were numbered and coded to enable the eventual rebuilding of the room so that future generations could appreciate its beauty. It really was a huge, larger than life jigsaw puzzle!

Donni Stern, Allan's wife, was actively involved in coding the dozens of parts from the room and packing and marking of the boxes needed for storage. She recalled spending many hours, often late into the evening, as a labour of love.

     

May, 1971 Donni Stern packing one of the hundred decorative brackets from the elaborate cornice of the original café.

 

The Sterns owned property across from Lower Fort Garry, an original Hudson's Bay Co. fort (a tourist destination located 25 km north of Winnipeg). His plan was to build a hotel that would house both the Selkirk Dining Room and a museum. The museum was to feature his large collections of antique clocks and pocket watches, which includes one of the finest collections of railway and pocket watches in Canada. The hotel project was canceling when the Federal Government expropriated the land.

Options were limited, so the contents remained stored inside a semi-trailer unit in Winnipeg for 25 years. The pieces were finally purchased in 1996 by antique businessman Ernie Streit of Duncan, BC for eventual re-sale. The museum purchased this hidden treasure in Sept. 1999. These last two events will be the subject of two more stories soon to be published.

In late April 2001, Garry Anderson, Executive Director of the Museum, was in Winnipeg for a meeting of the Canadian Council for Rail Heritage. While in Winnipeg, he was able to meet with the Sterns to reminisce about the room, and was shown several photos and other mementos of the café. One was a particularly revealing documentary photo-collage of the four walls and ceiling of the room just prior to its disassembly.

 

May, 1971 One of the outstanding photo documentaries of the café done by the Sterns prior to its removal, was this photo collage showing each wall and ceiling. Although not seen by the museum until well after the restoration was complete, this collage confirmed the accuracy of other information that was available to the museum when the project began.

  Donni Stern also brought out a carved oak desk they had saved where menus and a reservation book would have been kept by the Maitre d' at the entrance to this room. The Sterns decided that this should be donated to the Museum to be part of the room where it would perform much the same function and more. It was also decided that the Sterns would present the desk to the museum as part of the dedication ceremony, June 16th, 2001.
May 1971 The Café (as the Selkirk Dining Room) looking west to the three French doors just prior to removal of the panels and other fixtures.    

Allan Stern standing against the west wall of the café. PHOTO # 7a - June 16, 2001 Allan Stern in a photo re-enactment in the same location at the dedication ceremonies of the Royal Alexandra Hall.

  The story of the Sterns is an important part of the provenance of this artifact-room. It is important to pass on to future generations to understand the many ways in which our heritage is preserved and handed down to us. It has been very gratifying to the Sterns to see their hard work of 1971 acknowledged 30 years later. Without their vision and initiative, this great piece of Canadian heritage would have been lost forever. Canadians and visitors with an appreciation for history owe them a big "thank you".

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