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The Royal Treatment

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royal york hotel


The Royal Treatment

by Elaine Weeks

Who says time travel is impossible? A recent stay at The Fairmont Royal York in downtown Toronto convinced me otherwise. From the moment my husband and I walked into this grand hotel after a relaxing train ride up from the Windsor/Walkerville station, we sensed we had been transported back to the early 20th century.

This elegant hotel, conveniently located directly across from Union Station, celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2004. The temporary home for stars, dignitaries and of course, royalty, since opening its doors in the summer of 1929, we can attest that the Fairmont Royal York has maintained its reputation for service and hospitality in a magnificent heritage building which includes every modern convenience imaginable.

We only had a weekend to enjoy its many charms but we made the most of our stay. Shortly after arriving, Alka Patel, the hotel’s gracious Public Relations Assistant, took us on a fascinating tour, including a glimpse behind the scenes. Having recently travelled on a large cruise ship, we were struck by how similar the running of Royal York is to that of keeping a ship sailing smoothly. What impressed us most was the massive main kitchen, which ran the full length of the hotel. The immense laundry facilities were mind-boggling as well – all those sheets!

We were comfortably ensconced in one of the Signature rooms located above the 12th floor. Considered a Junior Suite, we found it spacious and richly appointed, reflecting the history and style of the hotel. A pillow-top king-sized bed, fireplace and a wealth of thoughtful appointments, including a CD player, current magazines, a large television, coffee and tea maker with supplies, and a luxurious assortment of bathroom toiletries made it very difficult to leave. Not to mention the hotel’s wonderful spa/health center with its lap pool, whirlpool, children’s pool, well appointed fitness centre, sauna, steam, massage therapy rooms and full conveniences in the men’s and ladies’ change rooms.

We also enjoyed a spectacular dinner in EPIC, the hotel’s premiere restaurant. We were as impressed with the originality of the food prepared with classic French touches that distinguish Chef Jean-Charles Dupoire’s culinary heritage, as we were with the design of this dynamic, fluid, and contemporary room, which superbly contrasted with the traditional grandeur of the hotel.

We look forward to our next chance to time travel again for another invigorating dose of the “Royal” treatment!

In the beginning...

Ontario was still wild country when The Mississauga sailed into Toronto-Carrying Place’s harbour on July 30, 1793 with Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe and his young wife Elizabeth on board.

Simcoe had concluded from studying maps of Upper Canada that this harbour would be a good place to create a naval arsenal. There weeks later, he issued a general order establishing the town of York in commemoration of His Royal Highness the Duke of York’s victory over Holland.

That same year, a surveyor drew up plans for a town, consisting of a rectilinear gridiron plan of ten blocks. In 1801, its first hotel, the Jordan’s York Hotel, was built on the east side. Although the capital of Upper Canada had a population of just 300, comprised mostly of soldiers, this hotel was popular, especially with the members of the Canadian parliament and those who dealt with the government.

In 1843, Captain Thomas Dick built Ontario Terrace, comprised of four brick houses facing Front Street; later attached to form a row; in 1853, the building was refurbished to become the Sword's Hotel.

queens hotel
Queen’s Hotel, 1890 photo: CP

When the capital moved to Quebec City in 1857, the Sword’s hotel was sold and renamed the Revere House. In 1862, its name changed again to the Queen’s and two wings were added. The Queens’ boasted fine cuisine and staff, 210 boudoirs, 17 private parlours, accommodations for 400 guests, and a private garden. It was renovated and added to many times. It was the first hotel in Canada to introduce conveniences such as a hot-air furnace, running water in the rooms, a passenger elevator and a business telephone.

Birth of a Grand Hotel

In the 1830’s, “grand” or “palace” hotels – large, luxurious, purpose-built hotels that catered to high-end clientele – had begun appearing in Great Britain and the United States. British railway companies opened grand hotels like the Royal Western Hotel in Bristol (1839) and the Adelaide and Victoria in London (1839). The first purpose-built grand hotel in Canada was the Windsor Hotel, which opened in Montreal in 1878.

In 1886, the Montreal-based Canadian Pacific Railway began constructing its chain of grand hotels, which included Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Frontenac and continued to expand their chain into the 20th century. The Canadian Pacific Railway commissioned Ross & Macdonald, designers of The Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal (1923), the largest hotel in the British Empire at that time, to build the Royal York in Toronto – which was to became the largest railway hotel in its chain.

The site chosen for the Royal York Hotel was that of the Queen’s Hotel, which was demolished in 1927 much to the consternation of the local citizens who were shocked to see the demolition of their beloved “Queen’s.”

The site’s location was directly opposite the magnificent Union Station, completed in 1924 and a collaboration between Ross & McDonald and architects Hugh G. Jones and John Lyle.

During the Roaring Twenties, the concept of the grand hotel had evolved along with the flourishing economy, the rise of the automobile, the growing love affair with technology and the rapid changes to modern life. In the pre-WWI era, the luxury hotel was primarily conceived as a sumptuous chateau or palace, but by the 1920’s, the “Age of the Metropolis” the North American hotel came to be regarded as a microcosm of urban society.

The idea of the hotel as a “city within a city” began early in the decade, and reached its culmination in Canada on June 11th, 1929, with the opening of the Royal York by His Excellency Viscount Willingdon, Governor General of Canada. It was declared, “…the Royal York opens its doors to cater to those who care to sojourn with us, to provide the hospitality and good cheer for which Toronto has ever been noted!” Over 2000 of Canada’s “who’s who” attended the social event of the year.

The Royal York was the largest hotel in the British Empire at that time and contemporary writers called it “a mountain over city and lake.” Its block-sized bulk rested against the Front Street sidewalk, on the shoreline of Lake Ontario, at the edge between the central business district and lands occupied by the railway and port. In juxtaposition to the long, low, colonnaded Union Station, the hotel’s 28 stories of steel frame, encased in Indiana limestone, rose in steps to a steeply pitched copper chateau roof.

The 1100 room hotel instantly became a Toronto landmark and dominated the skyline for over three decades.

The hotel’s architectural style, with its geometric forms, stylized ornament, bilateral symmetry and pyramidal massing was dubbed “Modern Classicism.” New York’s Empire State Building is another striking example of this style of building that had emerged from early 20th century avant-garde European architecture and French Beaux-Arts planning and composition.

The Royal York’s ground floor was essentially arranged as a commercial street, centered round a square hall with two corridors of stores, a barber shop, a bank and an exhibition hall. A coffee shop and grillroom was available for travellers entering the hotel from Union Station via a terrazzo and marble-clad tunnel under Front Street.

grill kitchen
Chefs at the Grill Kitchen- “the largest in Canada” photo CP.

Costing $16 million, The Royal York boasted a library with 12,000 books, ladies’ hairdressing parlours, ten ornate passenger elevators, a playroom for children and even a 12-bed hospital with doctor and nurse in attendance. Convention and banquet space served over 4,000 conventioneers and in one of the convention halls, an enormous pipe organ was installed.

Eleven of the bedroom floors were laid out in an efficient H-shaped floor plan, ensuring every room received natural light. Twenty-two storeys above the street, a glass-enclosed roof garden seated 315 diners. The top four floors were used for elevator machinery, ventilation equipment, water tanks and the workshop of the hotel’s silversmith. Instead of messy coal, live steam was piped under pressure from the nearby Terminal Company’s plant to provide heat and electricity for the entire building.

Opening its doors just before the Great Depression hit proved to be a challenging time for the owners and staff of the Royal York. Staff lived off tips and management scoured the streets for guests to fill the house.

The Fairmont Royal York is Born

In October 1999, Canada Pacific Hotels & Resorts acquired Fairmont Hotels and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts was born. The Fairmont Royal York became part of the largest luxury hotel management company in North America, and is sister to properties including The Plaza in New York, Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta, and the Fairmont San Francisco.

In 2001 a $12 million restoration program transformed the new main lobby area and all public meeting areas on the mezzanine level, including creation of the hotel’s newest restaurant, EPIC. The next year saw a $2.5 million restoration program on the famed Imperial Room, The Library Bar and its foyer. Today, after welcoming more than 40 million guests, The Fairmont Royal York continues to represent the epitome of hospitality.

A sampling of some of the famous people who have stayed in the hotel include: Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Francis Ford Coppola, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Jackie Chan, Jane Fonda, John Barrymore, Liberace, Mohammed Ali, Tony Bennett, N’ Sync, Tiger Woods, Barbara Bush, Hillary Duff and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The first royal guests were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. During the Royal Stay, the Queen Mother was impressed by the immensity of the hotel, the modern facilities and the speed of the elevators. Other royalty and heads of state that have stayed at the hotel include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward, King Hussein of Jordan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa and the Dalai Lama.

The hotel has also welcomed many other VIPs, i.e., “Very Important Pets” and has created a unique and thoughtful amenity package for the various “dognitaries” who arrive at the hotel with their two-legged friends.

Certain guests have decided to spend all eternity at the hotel. People have been spotted wandering the corridors and then suddenly disappearing. One such “spirit” is a steward who wears his uniform and wanders the silver room in the hotel’s basement. When hotel staff collects silverware, they often report seeing him out of the corner of their eye, but when they turn to get a second look, he disappears. A bellman also spotted a man dressed in grey flannel and a red smoking jacket cross a hall and then disappear.

A Hotel Milestone

The year 2004 marked the Diamond 75th anniversary year for The Fairmont Royal York. The hotel was honoured by the Ontario Heritage Foundation with a provincial plaque commemorating 75 years of service.

Travel Information
100 Front Street West, Toronto • 416-368-2511 • www.fairmont.com


©2004-06 Walkerville Publishing