Vancouver's insanely cool Aboriginal boutique hotel you've never heard of

Skwachay Lodge and Gallery basks in the glowing reviews as a boutique art hotel with first class accommodations and an innovative back story that could be the model for other properties.

Skwachays Lodge interior and exterior facade in the DTES
A salmon run graces a wall of a collaboratively designed room interior; the exterior facade adds to this jewel in the Downtown Eastside.

Filmmakers, designers, and ethically responsible and discerning tourists from abroad and throughout Canada know about it, but ask most Vancouverites what the Skwachays Lodge is, and you are likely to get a blank stare.

Time to fill in that blank. As the only First Nations arts and culture boutique hotel with a gallery, it is truly a Vancouver special.

“People go nuts over it," says David Eddy, CEO of the Vancouver Native Housing Society (VNHS), which owns and operates this seven-story hotel at 29 West Pender St. "In reviews, they talk about the great staff, the beautiful art, the unusualness, the authenticity and the social enterprise.” VNHS also runs the fair trade gallery and two floors of artists' residence housing, and created the operating model. 

Though only a year old as a boutique hotel, the reviews have poured in, and they are glowing. It’s been featured on CBC, CTV, and in Conde Nast Traveller, Globe and Mail, New York Post and Seattle Times, to name only a few. This past month, The Skwachays received awards from both Trip Advisor and Hotel.com. 

Photo by Anne Watson

California Home and Design and DZine Magazine included features on the 18 unique and thematic hotel rooms, created through a collaboration between First Nations and non-First Nations artists and world-class designers. The exterior is also stunning with its juxtaposition of a Victorian façade crowned by a totem pole by Francis Horn Sr. and a grey metal mesh and concrete image based on a designed by Haida artist Eric Parnell.  Behind the longhouse-like façade is a roof-top sweat lodge and a smudging room.

The buzz comes from more than just the sophisticated and elegant design. The Skwachays Lodge is an example of ingenuity combined with art to create sustainability for artists. The hotel helps support housing for 24 Aboriginal artists-in-residence and their studio space, all under the same Lodge roof. An authentic First Nations art gallery shows the work of urban artists. And the hotel’s operating model has garnered interest from Australia to London and may soon be replicated in other Canadian cities.

Photo by Craig Minielly, Aura Photographics

The VNHS wanted to created sustainable housing and came up with the idea of a profit- making hotel and gallery business that would supplement the rent of Aboriginal artists.  And it has worked. 

The benefits are many. Guests can meet artists in the elevator and entrance room. Artists are subsidized. The gallery sells and promotes the work of urban artists. Revenues go back into VNHS. 

“It’s important to support a lot of low-income people but here, because we have a gallery, we have this artistic hotel and we have 24 studio apartments for the artists, it really completes the circle.”

Photo by Craig Minielly, Aura Photographics

The black iron fence that cuts into the sidewalk at the entrance to the gallery and Lodge is just outside the Chinatown gate on a street as mixed as any in Vancouver: a busy walk-in-clinic; a 99-room VNHS housing facility; a mid-sized contemporary condo building; the white wall of a seemingly vacant building plastered with concert and event posters; and across the street, couches and chairs on view in a furniture shop inside the International Village mall and cinemas. It’s part of a neighbourhood in transition. 

Maggie Edwards, Skwachays general manager, is passionate about First Nations art. She brings years of experience as a hotel manager of boutique hotels and loves the Downtown Eastside community. “(The neighbourhood) has a broader base of people. I wouldn’t call it gentrification but getting healthier.”

The hotel has experienced three iterations since 2012 when the VNHS hired architect Joe Wai, who has built several VNHS housing complexes, to redesigned the old Pender Hotel, a derelict SRO. Through persistence and determination, Eddy was able to gather enough funding from federal, provincial and local sources to go beyond what BC Housing could afford at the time, which was a renovation. 

Eddy wanted more than a reno; he wanted a rebuild to create a healing lodge for B.C.’s First Nations people who were visiting Vancouver for medical purposes. With 15 or 16 housing projects at the time, Eddy knew that affordable housing sustainability was a problem for deep subsidy tenants after the 35-year operating agreement ended.

“Getting into social enterprise was to combat that lack of funding we would get once the operating agreement expired. It was one way to create revenue to carry on our mission and mandate.”

But it didn’t work at first. The society needed at least 50-per-cent occupancy in order to break even. In the first five months, they had only 10-per-cent occupancy. This was not, however, a venture meant to fail. Through serendipity, Eddy met Jon Zwickel, a New Yorker-turned-Canadian who was semi-retired from a successful career as a hotel developer and wanted to give something back. He made a proposal to Eddy and asked him to find six artists and he would find six designers. 

It was mid 2013 when the artists and designers met in the entrance room and self-selected their teams. Each of the six teams was given three rooms. By the end of that year, the teams returned with six exquisite and unique designs. The hotel shut down in January of 2014. Eddy thought it would take four months to make the vision real. Seven months later, on Aug. 1, 2014, the Skwachays Lodge reopened. 

“It’s unbelievable; it’s beyond our wildest dreams,” says Eddy. “This model can be pan-Canadian. It can actually be worldwide in any urban centre with a large indigenous population. 

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