A Classic by the Bay

By Valerie Green

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One of Vancouver's best kept secrets for a weekend getaway is The Sylvia Hotel, an historic building located alongside Stanley Park in English Bay. The hotel has been a significant Vancouver landmark for almost a century.

Guests who visit The Sylvia today come for the special old-world charm of the squeaky elevators and the unique-style rooms and suites. Two ancient, throne-like chairs grace the foyer as you enter the hotel and, everywhere you look, there is a strong sense of history. In addition, visitors savour first-class meals in the Beachside Dining Room with its adjoining Bistro and cocktail lounge overlooking the beauty of English Bay.

Certainly, the same Sylvia guests do return each year and their frequent visits are due to outstanding service supplied by a friendly, unchanging staff, who are all a part of the charm of a bygone era. But who was Sylvia, the lady for whom the hotel was originally named?

Sylvia Goldstein was the 12-year-old daughter of Abraham and Sarah Goldstein. In 1912, her father, a Vancouver developer, hired Seattle architect, W.P. White, to design a prestigious apartment building in English Bay. It was constructed by Booker, Campbell and Whipple Construction and was to be called the Sylvia Court Apartments in honour of Goldstein’s daughter. At that time, it was also the tallest building in downtown Vancouver. And, like the landmark building named for her, young Sylvia Goldstein also grew up to become a bit of a legend in her own lifetime.

The Goldstein’s eldest daughter, Sylvia spent her childhood in Vancouver’s West End. She was an especially strong swimmer and practised regularly in the waters of English Bay under the tutelage of Joe Fortes, Vancouver’s first official lifeguard.

Barbados-born Seraphim (Joe) Fortes arrived in Vancouver via England in 1885 aboard the *Robert Kerr* and soon became a well-loved Vancouver citizen. His work included being a shoeshine boy, a handyman and a porter before becoming a bartender at the popular Bodega Saloon. Once he had settled in his cabin in English Bay, the beach became his home where he loved to teach swimming to children who fondly referred to him simply as “Old Black Joe.”

Today, a seafood restaurant on Thurlow and Robson Streets is named for Joe Fortes and, in 1927, five years after his death, a memorial in the form of a drinking fountain was erected near where he once lived by the beach. The words “Little Children Loved Him” adorn the fountain.

Sylvia Goldstein was, therefore, taught by the best and her strong swimming abilities soon gained her much acclaim, including winning a prestigious race between English Bay and Kitsilano Beach.

After completing a degree at the University of British Columbia, Sylvia moved with her family to California in the 1920s. By then, the Sylvia Court Apartments, like many other buildings and homes in the area, had fallen on hard times. Over 2,000 homes went into foreclosure leading into The Great Depression. In 1936, the Sylvia, then in receivership, was transformed into an apartment hotel and by the beginning of the Second World War, many of the suites had been converted into single rooms in order to accommodate the crews of the merchant marine.

Long before that, however, young Sylvia Goldstein returned to Vancouver. While taking a boat trip with a group of Jewish singles, she caught the attention of her future husband, Harry Ablowitz, by diving off the boat into False Creek. The couple were married in 1928 and settled in North Vancouver. Together, they later founded the Harry Ablowitz Realty Company.

Both Sylvia and Harry Ablowitz were active in the Vancouver business community and in numerous Jewish organizations. Sylvia sat on the board of many Jewish community groups and helped to establish the Jewish Community Centre, the Louis Brier Home, a hospital at Oak and 41st Avenue and a golf course. She was a member of the National Council of Jewish Women and, until her mid-90s, was still volunteering her services with the Jewish Family Service Agency, doing telephone checks for isolated seniors.

Meanwhile, her namesake hotel was undergoing changes. After the Second World War, the number of permanent residents in the hotel began to decrease. In 1954, the hotel opened the very first cocktail bar in Vancouver and, until 1958, was still the tallest building in the West End. The brick and terracotta exterior had been softened somewhat through the years by the growth of the Virginia creeper covering its starkness and adding an old-world charm to the grand old lady by the bay.

By the 1960s, The Sylvia had also become a full-service hotel. Prior to the building boom in the West End during the 1960s, The Sylvia’s dining room, then on the eighth floor, had a restaurant slogan of “first-class dining in the sky,” It was later relocated to ground floor level.

By then, The Sylvia was under new ownership. Norman Sawers and his daughter, Jill Davies, still own the hotel today. And, in 1976, the Sylvia Hotel was designated as a Heritage Building, ensuring its survival as a landmark building in English Bay for years to come. When Sylvia (Goldstein) Ablowitz passed away at the age of 102 in April of 2002, the hotel flew its flag at half-mast.

Interesting events have been connected to The Sylvia throughout its long history. For example, a stray cat who wandered into the hotel one day and liked it so much it decided to check in permanently, became the inspiration behind two popular children’s books entitled *Mr. Got To Go*, written by Lois Simmie and illustrated by Cynthia Nugent. The Sylvia still welcomes guests with pets today.

Many famous people have also graced the halls of The Sylvia. They include English poet and novelist Malcolm Lowry, known best for his novel *Under The Volcano*; poet Robert Service, best-known for his writings on the Canadian North including *The Shooting of Dan McGrew*; Roderick Haig-Brown, Canadian writer and conservationist; and film actor Errol Flynn, famous for his swashbuckling roles in many Hollywood films. When Flynn came to Vancouver, he frequently stayed at The Sylvia and, in 1959, died in a friend’s West End apartment not far from the hotel. If you visit The Sylvia today, you can fantasize about whether you are staying in the room where one of these notables once slept.

The hotel management is currently asking past guests for "Memories" on their website at www.sylviahotel.com. These tales are being collected for the hotel's centennial year celebration in 2012.



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Showing 1 to 2 of 2 comments.

My wife Joan and I spent many a happy time dining at the Sylvia when we were courting in the 1950s. We married on September 19th 1959 and celebrate our anniversaries at the Sylvia. I have written a soon to be published novel and the heroine, Kate McCracken, gets married in Saint Paul's on Jervis Street. She celebrates her wedding at the Sylvia after riding in a horse drawn carriage along the Bay to the Hotel. The novel also features Sylvia Goldstein and her famous swim. It also mentions Joe Fortes. Since I was a lifeguard at Crystal Pool for many years, I can truly identify with Joe. Only I got paid by the city of Vancouver.

Posted by David Caulfield | March 24, 2016 Report Violation

Loved the story. Through my husband who was in real estate, we met and visited with Sylvia, especially in her last years at Crofton Manor. We were concerned that no one would know who Sylvia was, so made up a portrait, her grad photo at UBC, for the hotel. Joe and I often wondered if it was still on display. Guess we have to go and find out. Thanks for the history. H.

Posted by Hilda Quan | January 26, 2010 Report Violation

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