Ontario is home to more than 2,800 hotels, yet only a select few can boast of playing host to captains of industry and heads of state, not to mention a group of lovable mop-tops from Liverpool.
Several properties have played a key role in the history and evolution of the province’s hotel industry. Some remain the beating heart of their community, others helped create a new standard for luxury, while still others have risen to the status of national historic site. Here are five properties that help define the industry in Ontario.
FIT FOR A KING
The Omni King Edward on King St. was considered Toronto’s first luxury hotel when it opened on May 11, 1903, a well-appointed “palace hotel” to rival the likes of New York’s Waldorf or Quebec’s Château Frontenac.
George Gooderham — a prominent Toronto businessman whose grandfather, William, had co-founded the city’s Gooderham & Worts whisky distillery in the 1830s — commissioned the hotel. He viewed it as key to maintaining the vitality of city’s former downtown core, which was shifting westward to Bay and Queen streets following the 1899 construction of what is now Old City Hall.
The 301-room property was originally going to be named the Palace Hotel in honour of Queen Victoria, but its name was changed to that of her son, King Edward VII, following the monarch’s death in 1901.
Along with its well-appointed rooms, the King Edward is renowned for its afternoon tea, as well as Sunday brunch in the newly renovated Sovereign Ballroom. The brunch is hailed for its seafood selection, and other signature items such as Beef Wellington with foie gras. Numerous key figures from the worlds of literature, entertainment and politics have stayed at the hotel during its 114-year history, ranging from Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, to Elvis Presley and The Beatles. The latter’s 1964 stay created mayhem, with scores of teenagers — along with Toronto mayor Phil Givens — reportedly prowling the hallways in an attempt to meet their idols.
Acquired by Omni Hotels & Resorts in 2015, the property has undergone nearly $60 million in renovations in recent years, including a revamp of its guestrooms and upgrades to its Vanity Fair and Windsor ballrooms.
Perhaps the most significant, however, is the $6.5 million restoration of the hotel’s legendary Crystal Ballroom, which had sat empty — save for the occasional video shoot — for more than three decades before being re-opened in April 2017 to considerable fanfare. The 17th floor ballroom first opened in 1922, and quickly became a gathering place for the city’s cultural elite. It would also host some of the world’s great orchestras, including those led by legendary figures such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. General manager Christophe Le Chatton says the refurbished room had booked $1 million worth of business even before its re-opening. “It will probably be the signature ballroom in Toronto,” he says of the space, which is characterized by high ceilings and a series of magnificent glass chandeliers.
“I’ve spoken to some of my predecessors, and every single one hoped to be able to see this ballroom come back to life,” adds Le Chatton. “When I came here it was part of my agenda to not only [restore] this hotel to one of the top luxury hotels in the city from a service and a guest-experience standpoint, but also become part of leading those renovations.”
While the King Edward is regarded as Toronto’s first luxury hotel, it would see the rise of its first serious challenger a quarter-century later. More than 40 million guests, including princes, presidents and pop stars, have passed through the Fairmont Royal York since it opened on June 11, 1929.
The hotel’s original owner, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), built the hotel on the site of the former Queen’s Hotel, which had been operating since 1862 and was regarded as a grand hotel in its own right. The Royal York was briefly the tallest building in the British Commonwealth, surpassed by the Canadian Bank of Commerce tower in 1931.
The Royal York would become synonymous with what it describes as “gracious hospitality,” with touches such as hand-painted ceilings, crystal chandeliers and wall hangings all contributing to an air of refinement that remains today.
But the hotel’s rise to prominence is perhaps best embodied by the Imperial Room, which hosted performances by titans of 20th-century entertainment, including Tony Bennett, Ray Charles and James Brown, during its heyday.
“We have colleagues who have been with us for 35 to 40 years and they remember when it used to be the go-to place [in the city],” says Jacqueline Tyler, the Royal York’s Marketing and Communications manager. One possibly apocryphal story has Bob Dylan being turned away by the maître d’ because he was lacking the proper attire. “They had standards, you know,” laughs Tyler.
The Royal York was also the first Fairmont property to offer guests the Fairmont Gold experience (subsequently rolled out in the majority of the upscale chain’s properties around the world in the early 1990s). The Program is described as creating a “hotel within a hotel.” The experience provides guests with access to the Fairmont Gold Lounge, as well as enhanced concierge service, an honour bar and evening canapés.
The hotel also has the distinction of being the official place of residence for Queen Elizabeth II when she visits Toronto. She stays in the Royal Suite, a 2,470-sq.-ft., two-bedroom suite on the 16th floor, which features a full dining room and a large living area — all serviced by a private elevator.
HEART OF THE COMMUNITY
A little more than 100 kilometres west of Toronto, Kitchener’s Walper Hotel remains firmly entrenched in the city’s social scene more than a century after it first opened its doors. “The city effectively evolved around the Walper Hotel,” says general manager Domini Baldasaro. “In its initial iteration, it was an inn and trading post that became a stopping point for guests coming through the area on horseback.
Abel Walper (1833-1904) built the 92-room boutique hotel bearing his name in 1893. It replaced the Varnum Inn, which had stood on the site since 1820, until it was destroyed by fire.
The original hotel took up four floors, with a fifth floor and the Walper’s signature event space, the Crystal Ballroom, added in the 1920s. The ballroom, which can accommodate up to 224 people, boasts a 13-ft.-high ceiling and original crown moulding. “It’s a beautifully preserved space that has an absolutely classic feel to it,” says Baldasaro. The Walper re-opened to guests in September 2016 following a $10-million renovation that required nearly 18 months to complete and involved key areas such as HVAC, electrical and plumbing, as well as cosmetic upgrades.
The hotel is popular with business clientele drawn by Kitchener’s tech community, and is also a popular choice for weddings and destination travellers attracted by the region’s emerging restaurant scene.
Famous guests include Louis Armstrong (who is said to have played for crowds from a second-floor balcony), as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, Pierre Burton and several Prime Ministers, including Pierre Trudeau, and, most recently, his son Justin. Baldasaro describes the Walper’s guestrooms as a “total departure” from those of its competitors, with hardwood floors in every room, complemented by furnishings intended to look like they belong in a guest’s house or condominium.
Each room also features a whimsical splash of colour, such as a red bathroom door or a bright blue chair. “We really tried to create a great mash-up between historic elements and the contemporary pieces we knew our guests wanted to see,” he says.
The hotel also works closely with local suppliers, with rooms featuring handcrafted soap from Cambridge’s Buck Naked Soap Company and coffee from Kitchener-based roaster, Smile Tiger Coffee Roasters. The latter offers fully biodegradable coffee systems that replace the pod-based systems common in modern hotels. “We know that hotels are huge contributors to landfill waste, and we wanted to be part of reducing that” says Baldasaro.
A CAPITAL IDEA
Often called “the third chamber of parliament” because of its proximity to Parliament Hill and the politicians frequently found roaming its hallways, Ottawa’s Fairmont Chateau Laurier was constructed for $2 million (approximately $48.6 million in today’s dollars) between 1909 and 1912.
Charles Melville Hays, the American-born general manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway of Canada, commissioned the hotel in 1907. Hays would perish on the Titanic on April 15, 1912, just days before the hotel’s scheduled opening on April 26. Due to the tragedy, the hotel was formally opened by its namesake, Sir Wilfred Laurier, during a subdued ceremony on June 12.
The 426-room hotel — which was designated a national historic site in 1981 — was built in the Chateauesque style, a revival of the French Renaissance style characterized by its elaborate towers and steeply-pitched roofs.
No expense was spared on the hotel, which counts white Italian marble, light buff Indiana limestone and copper among its building materials. “We are a castle within a city, and who doesn’t want to stay in a castle in Canada’s capital city?” says Deneen Perrin, the hotel’s director of Public Relations.
The Chateau Laurier also boasts a prime location, situated just steps from Parliament Hill and the city’s famed ByWard Market, as well as the Rideau Canal and Rideau Locks. “You can be enamoured by everything Ottawa has to offer without having to drive anywhere,” says Perrin.
While not all of Ontario’s “historic” properties date back to the agrarian era of britches and hoes, it remains a source of inspiration. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, The Queen’s Landing — which opened in 1990 — was purpose-built to evoke the look and feel of a Victorian-era property.
The 140-room hotel does, however, sit on the site of what was once the Old Niagara Harbour and Dock Company, a shipping company formed in 1831 that would go on to employ a workforce of 400 at its height.
Despite its recent vintage, the Queen’s Landing boasts a decidedly Victorian aesthetic. Its exterior walls feature aged bricks imported from Germany, while the exterior columns, a sweeping grand staircase and panoramic windows were carefully selected to evoke a grand Georgian mansion on the Niagara River.
The hotel has taken full advantage of its proximity to the river, with the guestroom wings constructed in a “T” formation to allow for the maximum number of rooms with a view. During a recent renovation, Vintage Hotels decided to create two large guest suites by knocking down walls between two rooms. “We did this in answer to requests from our guests for larger guestrooms with a luxurious feel, all with the best views of the Niagara River,” says general manager Lily Kszan.
The hotel has also maintained ties with its past, with the original Dockmaster Building (constructed in 1835) housing four private suites. “Although updated and beautified over the years, the building is a national historic site and is a significant part of Canadian history,” explains Kszan.
Queen’s Landing is a popular wedding venue, with couples clamouring to hold what Kszan describes as “fairy-tale weddings” on the property. It hosts more than 90 special events a year, with bookings taking place years in advance. “It is a real privilege to be a ‘Queen’s Landing Bride,’” says Kszan.
Volume 29, Number 4
Written by Chris Powell