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‘It was the centre of everything’: The past and present of Kentville’s iconic Cornwallis Inn

Joan Kennedy stares transfixed at the new ceiling inside the mezzanine and former lobby at the Cornwallis Inn in Kentville, where she worked as a switchboard operator. The building is now called Main Street Station.
Joan Kennedy stares transfixed at the new ceiling inside the mezzanine and former lobby at the Cornwallis Inn in Kentville, where she worked as a switchboard operator. The building is now called Main Street Station. - Sara Ericsson
KENTVILLE, N.S. —

Joan Kennedy’s eyes turn skyward inside the former Cornwallis Inn.

She is captivated by the old hotel lobby, where a brilliant blue sky has been painted on the gilded, golden ceiling.

She gasps at the sight and smiles. It’s not what used to be there, but still goes a long way in honouring the landmark’s history as a destination hotel for tourists, and hub of activity for Kentville residents.

The space holds a special place in Kennedy’s heart.

It’s where she was married.

She hasn’t set foot inside the Inn in decades — she’s not sure how many — and she is, for a moment, at a loss for words.

“It’s all of the memories coming back. The windows are still the same, and the framework is still here — but it’s different. It is beautiful, it’s just not as it was,” she says.

BUILT IN 1930

Kennedy’s reaction is, in a way, déjà vu. Kentville historian Louis Comeau says people reacted in a similar fashion in 1930 as they walked into the newly-built Cornwallis Inn when its doors first opened.

Comeau says the project was commissioned by the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) and was part of railway manager George E. Graham’s vision of shifting the railway from carrying commercial cargo to passengers.

“The scale of the building was just astounding.” – Louis Comeau, local historian

Travellers began coming in droves, enticed by DAR ads promoting the area as the Land of Evangeline — named as such after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s eponymous poem.

Comeau says this strategy, and the hotels DAR built to support it, are now credited as having kickstarted mass tourism to Atlantic Canada. He imagines tourists would have been struck by the Cornwallis Inn as they saw it looming in the distance when arriving in Kentville.

“The scale of the building was just astounding — it dwarfed any other building in the whole town, period,” he says. “There were not many towns in Nova Scotia at that time that could’ve made the same impression.”

The $1-million project was completed in 208 days, with the Cornwallis Inn officially opening for business in early December 1930.

The hotel featured an impressive 100 guestrooms, a ballroom, a formal dining room and other event rooms for rent with modern fixes: electricity, running water, private bathrooms and telephones.

Construction began at the hotel in 1930. It is said it was built in 208 days at a cost of $1 million (photo courtesy Kings County Museum).
Construction began at the hotel in 1930. It is said it was built in 208 days at a cost of $1 million (photo courtesy Kings County Museum).

The staff list included a head porter, bell boys, maître d’hôtel, accountants, a chef and full kitchen and dining staff, maids, clerks, stationary engineers and drivers.

Kennedy herself began working as a switchboard operator in 1956 at age 18.

FIT FOR A QUEEN

It was her first full-time job, and she earned $21.50 per week.

The hotel was known for its glitzy interior and manicured exterior, which featured a large grass lawn, plush gardens and a circular driveway. This look changed in 1964 when then owners, The Franklin brothers, renovated the building’s front and installed a shopping plaza (photo courtesy Kings County Museum).
The hotel was known for its glitzy interior and manicured exterior, which featured a large grass lawn, plush gardens and a circular driveway. This look changed in 1964 when then owners, The Franklin brothers, renovated the building’s front and installed a shopping plaza (photo courtesy Kings County Museum).

“Whatever was going through the switchboard, whatever calls were being made, we handled them,” she says.

Kennedy also helped out on the hotel’s front desk when things got busy and recalls meeting many travellers from all over.

She once received a request from an inebriated guest from Colombia to place a phone call to a Mr. Jesus Lebou in Caracas. The phone call was never placed, but one came through the next day from Colombia.

“I still have no idea how much that phone call would have cost,” she laughs.

The hotel was a luxurious option for travellers at a time when nothing of its magnitude existed west of Halifax. Kennedy would watch as elegant people whirled with style through the hotel’s revolving doors — the only ones in Kentville.

The lifelong Kentville resident loved being surrounded by it all.

“It was the centre of everything. It was a setting fit for Queen Elizabeth,” says Kennedy.

The inn was also the place to be for area residents. When the Apple Blossom Festival launched its inaugural festival in 1933, the hotel became a central location and the space where the coveted Queen Annapolisa coronation and festival ball were held.

The hotel and ballroom were frequently booked for special events and weddings. Kennedy remembers one that featured bridesmaids dressed in Cinderella-like gowns and a decadent feast featuring lobsters for horses and a pumpkin carriage.

Her own wedding to her now-husband, Bill, was also held at the hotel. It cost the couple $98.76.

“It was definitely a status symbol, to be able to say you had your wedding at the Cornwallis Inn,” says Kennedy.

The hotel’s ballroom and dining rooms were settings for grand parties, like this pictured Christmas dinner feast circa 1950s. It was also a setting for Apple Blossom events and balls (Harold Bailey photo, courtesy Louis Comeau).
The hotel’s ballroom and dining rooms were settings for grand parties, like this pictured Christmas dinner feast circa 1950s. It was also a setting for Apple Blossom events and balls (Harold Bailey photo, courtesy Louis Comeau).

She remembers the hotel’s showrooms being the only place she ever witnessed what she believes may be a unique phenomenon — fine china fashion shows put on by local salesman Bob Palmeter, who’d parade spreads of dishes and crystal through the rooms like models down a runway.

“It was a setting fit for Queen Elizabeth.” – Joan Kennedy, lifelong Kentville resident

“You went all out in those days — it was gorgeous. Those were the ‘50s,” says Kennedy.

But despite it being the centre of it all, the hotel eventually began to decline.

LOST LUSTRE

Comeau says the railway company began experiencing financial difficulties and started getting rid of its hotels, selling the Cornwallis Inn to the Franklin brothers in 1963.

The new owners decided to make changes to the property and tore up its iconic grass lawn and circular drive as they renovated the front to install a row of shops at the hotel’s base along Highway 1. They also added the building’s east and west wings.

Kennedy says this was when she felt the hotel started to lose its lustre.

“It broke everyone’s heart to see that front lawn torn up. It just took away the glory,” she says.

The Franklin Brothers owned the property until 1976.

During this time, Comeau worked at the hotel as a bell boy and says the building continued to retain some of its former glory during the Apple Blossom Festival and following summer months.

But during the winter, the historian says it often sat at just 10 per cent capacity.

Kennedy worked to connect every phone call that came through the hotel’s switchboard while she was on shift. Letters were also sent from and received at the hotel, like this one sent to a recipient in Wolfville circa 1933 (photo courtesy Louis Comeau).
Kennedy worked to connect every phone call that came through the hotel’s switchboard while she was on shift. Letters were also sent from and received at the hotel, like this one sent to a recipient in Wolfville circa 1933 (photo courtesy Louis Comeau).

He says it was a big hit for the hotel when Highway 101 was extended through Kentville and the Annapolis Valley in the 1970s because it ended the steady flow of traffic driving through the Valley’s small towns.

Two competitors were then built and opened at convenient locations just off the highway — the Wandlyn Inn in Coldbrook and the Old Orchard Inn in Greenwich — and the Cornwallis Inn was hit even harder.

“It was terrifying to watch that happening, because Kentville residents worried they might lose the building itself,” says Comeau.

The hotel was later renovated entirely into apartments after it was purchased by then-Old Orchard Inn owner Don Wallace in 1976.

RECENT REBIRTH

This was not the only change in ownership the building would see. It was eventually sold again in 2010 to Alex and Michelle Filimon, and again in 2016 to current owners the Harbouredge Mortgage Investment Corp.

The building has since undergone a new phase of renovations and restorations — all managed by Safeguard Property Management Services co-owner Paul Dixon.

He says managing the building began as a daunting prospect due to the sheer scope of renovations it needed. And it proved no easy task, since patch-job fixes combined with the building’s nooks and crannies meant a confusing network of problems to solve.

“We were handed a bucket full of keys, with some that were the original hotel keys. We had to go through them one by one because there were so many places we had to access during the restoration. It was a very, very long process,” says Dixon.

But the restoration is now complete, and the renovations are nearing a close.

The old hotel was renamed Main Street Station in 2018 and went from housing five businesses in 2016, to 28 as of April 2019. The building is also home to 80 residential units.

Renovations of the east wing are slated for completion in May, and the new owners opted to make adjustments to ensure the ballroom can once again host large-scale events.

They used old photographs to piece together what they could of the former lobby’s original furniture and layout and chose new pieces to pay homage to it.

The iconic Cornwallis Inn was built in 1930 and operated as a hotel until the early 1970s. It now houses nearly 30 businesses, and it is once again becoming a hub of activity in Kentville.
The iconic Cornwallis Inn was built in 1930 and operated as a hotel until the early 1970s. It now houses nearly 30 businesses, and it is once again becoming a hub of activity in Kentville.

Dixon says his company feels tremendous pride in seeing how their work has brought the building back to life.

‘A WHOLE NEW LIFE’

Dixon takes pride in the quiet moments, like when he sees people sitting within the iconic structure’s public mezzanine space.

“It’s those small things — to walk through on an afternoon and see someone sitting, reading a book, in an environment where people weren’t comfortable three years ago,” he says.

It’s this same mezzanine — the former lobby — that still holds Kennedy transfixed as she sits on one of the new couches.

Town of Kentville community and economic development co-ordinator Lindsay Young says despite growing up in the town, she’d never been inside the old inn until the recent commercial renovations were complete.

But she remembers seeing the expansive building as a young girl and feels grateful other young minds will see it too, just maybe in a different light.

“A lot of folks look at the building and see its historic side. But now it’s experiencing a whole new life, so it means something different to folks who are new, or haven’t been here for a long time,” she says.

Kennedy wistfully looks over to where the revolving door used to whirl, mere steps from where her wedding took place.

That space is where her daughter worked as a travel agent, during another incarnation the building had.

She smiles. She’s not sad.

Change is inevitable.

It warms her heart to know the building is still standing, with new ownership bringing new opportunities to light.

“Those old days are gone, along with the long ballgowns and the switchboard. They’re not here anymore,” she says.  

“But I hate to see beautiful buildings demolished, so it makes me happy to see someone keeping that beauty alive.”

The hotel was also a premier wedding venue. Joan Kennedy married her husband, Bill, at the hotel. The lifelong Kentville resident is standing at the base of the same stairs featured in her wedding photo.
The hotel was also a premier wedding venue. Joan Kennedy married her husband, Bill, at the hotel. The lifelong Kentville resident is standing at the base of the same stairs featured in her wedding photo.

Cornwallis Inn: Timeline

1919: The Aberdeen Hotel owned by Daniel MacLeod is purchased by the Dominion Atlantic Railway and renamed the Cornwallis Inn.

1930: The original Cornwallis Inn is demolished to make way for its replacement. Construction begins in March and the luxurious hotel is opened in December.

1933: Events during the inaugural Apple Blossom Festival are held at the Cornwallis Inn, including the Queen Annapolisa coronation and festival ball.

Early 1960s: The hotel is purchased by the Franklin brothers. The front lawn and circular driveway are torn up during renovations to install a shopping mall along the hotel’s front section.

1970s: Highway 101 is extended in through Kentville down to Yarmouth, leading to significant decreases in traffic along Highway 1 and a major hit to local business.

1973: Cornwallis Inn is closed.

1976: The hotel is purchased by Old Orchard Inn owner Don Wallace, who later converted it into apartments.

2010: The property is purchased by Alex and Michelle Filimon.

2016: The property is taken over by Harbouredge Mortgage Investment Corp. and Safeguard Property Management and Services Inc. is appointed to manage, renovate and restore building.

2018: The property is rebranded as Main Street Station.

Sources: Louis Comeau, Town of Kentville website, Paul Dixon

Sara.Ericsson@kingscountynews.ca

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