The West End's Beloved Sylvia Hotel

The West End’s 105-year-old Sylvia Hotel is the celebrated setting for the original “cat came back” story, home to at least one spectral sighting, and the place where, contrary to popular myth, Errol Flynn did not die.

Undated archival photo.

The Sylvia was built in 1912 by Abraham Goldstein, at a time when Beach Avenue, on both sides, was a row of private houses. He named the new building after his eldest daughter Sylvia.

Years later Sylvia would recall that every night, her dad would take her for a walk, stop at the corner of Beach and Gilford “and just stand there and look.” One night, Sylvia asked him what he was looking at. He replied: “I’m going to build a building there some day.”

Dominating the West End in 1912.

And build it he did.

Constructed in 1912, The Sylvia was designed as an apartment building, after Goldstein was initially denied a hotel permit, by W.P. White, a Seattle architect. Rents weren’t cheap — up to $65 per month for the best suites! The Sylvia Court Apartments opened in May of 1913.

It was the first tenants, a Mr. and Mrs. Ron Kenvyn, who stayed 25 years, who planted the lush Virginia creeper vine that is such a well-known feature of the Sylvia’s presence today.

The Sylvia Hotel in the 21st Century.

Hard times during the First World War hit Goldstein and his Sylvia Court Apartments, as it was then known, and he abandoned plans to build two more buildings and name them after his other children, Cecil and Eileen. In 1923, Goldstein moved his family to Los Angeles and sold the Sylvia to Sandy Mann for $275,000.

In 1936 the building was converted into an apartment hotel, and a restaurant was opened on the top floor. Playing up the fact that this was the tallest building in the West End, offering a spectacular view, they called the new restaurant Dine In The Sky.

In 1954 it opened the first cocktail bar in Vancouver, The Tilting Room, becoming a local hot-spot for the burgeoning nightlife scene. In those days it was illegal for people to be able to look into a bar and see folks drinking, so the lounge windows facing Beach were boarded up, and upper level windows overlooking Gilford were covered up by curtains.

In 1960 The Sylvia was purchased by North Shore builder Norman Sawers, whose daughter, Jill Davies, now runs the hotel. It was Sawers converted Dine In The Sky back to hotel rooms in 1962.

Over the decades The Sylvia has been the focus of many myths and legends. Of the two most enduring, the story of the resident cat, Mr. Got To Go, is based in fact, and the legend that film star Errol Flynn died there is pure fiction.

Flynn was a frequent visitor to Vancouver’s West End and no stranger to the amenities of The Sylvia. But his final hours were spent at a raucous party at the West End penthouse apartment—at 1310 Burnaby Street—of Dr. Grant Gould. He took ill there and ambulance attendants reported later that he was dead by the time they arrived.

The famous Sylvia Hotel cat, "Mr. Got To Go", about a cat that moved into The Sylvia Hotel, has inspired three popular children's books by Lois Simmie and illustrated by Cynthia Nugent. They are engaging tales of the stray cat who arrived at The Sylvia Hotel one day, took control of the premises and decided to check in permanently. A feline resident — possibly the same cat — is mentioned in a song about the hotel by American folk singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler.

Every year The Sylvia Hotel receives about 600 letters from Mr. Got To Go fans; most, but not all, of them children. The books are available for purchase at the hotel’s front desk.

The Sylvia Hotel holds a permanent place in the affections of heritage lovers as one of the most recognizable and accessible historic buildings in the West End. Thousands stroll by the hotel each season on their way to the beach or through to Stanley Park and are by the beautiful brick exterior, a familiar neon sign, and that wall of ivy that’s been the subject of more photos than one can imagine. 

Since its construction in 1912, the hotel hasn’t undergone any significant structural changes. Abraham Goldstein, and his daughter Sylvia, would feel instantly at home again should they be able to visit one more time.