A Behind-the-scenes Look at the Royal York Hotel

The more time I spend discovering Toronto the more I realize it is a fascinating city with interesting people and places, historic and current, famous and not so famous. Sometimes our most interesting discoveries are local ones – broadening our minds and expanding our horizons doesn’t always require a plane ticket and thousands of kilometers travelled.

So in the spirit of local explorations I singled out Toronto’s historic Royal York Hotel as the next destination for my inquiries about Toronto. The Royal York (now officially called the “Fairmont Royal York”) has been a distinguished feature on Toronto’s skyline since 1929 and as one of the most prestigious hotels in the city, it has held allure for international travelers and locals alike for almost 80 years. More than 40 million guests have stayed here since the opening, including three generations of Britain’s Royal Family.

The grandeur of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, viewed from Union Station

The name-dropping does not stop there: famous, even legendary guests have graced this Toronto landmark: Sir Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennet, Jerry Lewis, Jane Fonda and Tony Curtis. Other visitors include Annie Lennox, Wayne Gretzky, George Lucas, Queen Latifah, N’Sync and many more. Just last week when I attended a special function at the Fairmont Royal York to celebrate the 196th Anniversary of Mexico’s Independence I spotted Sandra Bullock, who was in town for Toronto’s renowned International Film Festival. Sandra very graciously responded to all the requests for autorgraphs before she retreated to her table in the Library Bar. The Royal York no doubt has been a favourite hangout of the rich and famous for a long time.

Royalty has long been celebrated here

Built by famous Montreal architects Ross and Macdonald, assisted by the Toronto office of Sproatt and Rolph, the hotel opened its doors in 1929. In the Age of the Metropolis, it was entirely appropriate to have a stepped back skyscraper-style hotel anchor the downtown skyline. Every room was equipped with a private phone, a tub bath and a radio, a sensational achievement at the time.

28 storeys rise up to almost 400 feet above street level. Originally the building had five storeys rising from a rectangular basement, then featuring sixteen stepped-back bedroom storeys, a two-storey roof garden restaurant, and finally a four-storey steeply pitched, copper-covered roof. The architectural style can be labeled as “modern classicism” and its geometric forms, stylized ornamentation and stepped-back layout qualify it as one of Toronto’s jewels from the Art Deco era.

The famous clock in the lobby

For a personal discovery of this celebrated institution I met Melanie Coates and Alka Patel who both work in media relations for the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. These two experts were going to give me a first-hand behind-the-scenes look at some of the interesting features of this Toronto landmark.

While I was waiting for Melanie in the ground floor reception area I just sat down in one of the big armchairs to take in the atmosphere. International travelers, here on business and holidays, were streaming in and out of the two-level Beaux-Arts inspired lobby, many of them were waiting for someone beside the railway clock located centrally in the lobby, a popular meeting place for hotel guests.

The lobby impresses with its two-floor design

After we connected, Melanie pointed out that the lobby was completely renovated in 2001. Prior to then it had had a very dark carpet while now a new gorgeous light-coloured mosaic tiled floor is gracing this expansive space. The Imperial Foyer adjacent to the Lobby was also recently renovated and a stunning vaulted ceiling was uncovered. The Library Bar on the south side opened in 1971 and provides an intimate and cozy atmosphere with its dark paneling.

The Imperial Ballroom on the west side of the building is a grand space that used to be the venue for legendary entertainers such as Marlene Dietrich, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope and Tony Bennett. In addition to big band concerts, this grand space was later turned into a dinner theatre and with the increasing demand for corporate meetings and special events, it became a site for conventions in the 1980s. Today it has partly returned to its roots as a ballroom and is a sought after venue for galas and receptions.

The Imperial Ballroom is set up for a meeting

Walking eastwards on the main floor we passed by Epic, the hotel’s signature restaurant whose cuisine combines fresh local ingredients with classic French touches in a contemporary environment. We took an escalator upstairs and Melanie pointed out Toronto’s smallest bar: “York Station” only holds 16 guests, has been referred to by its patrons as “the best bar in Canada” and is the perfect spot for waiting on a commuter train.

The Mezzanine level also holds a range of other meeting rooms of the hotel. We walked eastwards into the addition to the hotel, constructed between October 1956 and February 1959. This addition expanded the hotel’s capacity by 400 hotel rooms to reach today’s total of about 1400 hotel rooms and suites. The meeting rooms in this new section are named after different Canadian provinces and territories and are decorated with immense murals depicting scenes from Canadian history. The public areas hold photos and captions explaining the history of the hotel, and shed some light on the interesting personalities behind this fascinating structure.

Mural in the Ontario Room

Prior to the Royal York Hotel there had already been two earlier hotels on this very site: the Ontario Terrace Hotel opened in 1843 and was renamed the Sword’s Hotel in 1853. In 1860 it was renamed again as the Revere House and finally as the Queen’s Hotel in 1862. The Queen’s had been one of Toronto’s most prestigious hotels prior to its demolition in 1927 to make way for the Royal York Hotel. At the time many people were outraged that this venerable institution was going to be torn down to make way for a new hotel.

Starting in the mid 1880s, the Canadian Pacific Railway had built imposing luxury hotels at significant locations throughout Canada. Among others, these included the Banff Springs Hotel, the Chateau Lake Louise, the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. During the 1920s it was decided that Toronto also needed a grand railway hotel, so the idea for the Royal York Hotel was born. Construction took about a year and a half and on June 11, 1929, the Royal York Hotel opened to grand fanfare. Incidentally at the time it was the tallest building in Toronto and even throughout the entire British Empire until the construction of the Canadian Bank of Commerce’s tower one year later.

The CN Tower is a virtual neighbour

During the ensuing depression the Royal York Hotel managed to stay open and it is said that management scoured the street for guests and staff had to live off tips. A radio station opened at the hotel in 1930 which remained open until 1936. Its call letters were CPRY (for “Canadian Pacific Royal York”). Even more surprisingly, the hotel had a fully operational hospital complete with an operating theatre, two wards, a nurses’ room, a dispensary, a consulting room and waiting rooms.

A key event happened in 1934 when John Labatt, famous entrepreneur and beer industry magnate, was kidnapped and dropped off three days later, tired yet unharmed, at the Royal York Hotel. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth I (the Queen Mother) came to stay in the hotel in 1939. Naturally, royalty has been part of the Royal York Hotel ever since its inception.

Architectural detailing featuring the Royal Yorks coat-of-arms

Tragedy unfolded in 1949: fire broke out on the cruise ship Noronic which was moored at Harbourfront, just steps away from the hotel. 118 people were killed in this disaster. The Royal York became a field hospital for the survivors. In 1959 the new 400-room addition opened on the east side of the hotel, including extensive conference and meeting facilities. This 17-story addition made the Royal York Hotel the biggest hotel in the British Commonwealth.

The opulence of the Ballroom

But you would be off the mark if you assume that the hotel only hosts human guests: the 1975 Shriner’s convention not only brought 65,000 human guests to the hotel, but the hotel was also required to take care of all the parade horses as well as a life-sized papier maché camel.

Extensive renovations were carried out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More than $100 million was invested in order to restore the hotel’s 1920’s glory. In 1976 a celebration was held to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Canadian Pacific Railway Corporation. Meals were sold at 1886 prices, at 89 Cents for a four-course meal this was even cheaper than when the hotel opened in 1929!

In 1999, Canadian Pacific Hotels & Resorts acquired Fairmont Hotels to form Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, a global company with a portfolio of unique architecturally interesting luxury hotels throughout North America and the Caribbean. The official name of the hotel since then has been the Fairmont Royal York. In the early years of the New Millennium Fairmont invested almost $15 million in transforming the new lobby area, public meeting areas, the Epic Restaurant as well as the Imperial Room and Library Bar.

The famous Concert Hall

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