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Presenting: A Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Historic Royal York Hotel - One Of Toronto's Crown Jewels (part I)

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 in...

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Royal York Hotel, Exploring, History, Buildings

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

 

Presenting: A Behind-the-scenes Look At The Historic Royal York Hotel - One Of Toronto's Crown Jewels (part Ii)

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 th...

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Royal York Hotel, Exploring, History, Buildings

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.

Following the history displays on the Mezzanine Level I got to see the Concert Hall which housed the first production of the Canadian Opera Company. This grand space featured a projection booth as it was also used as a cinema. The original projector is still located in an enclosed area and as a unique historic artifact it is currently being studied by a media historian.

As the hotel was completely booked during my visit, to my chagrin we were unable to see any of the hotel rooms or the lavish guest suites that the Fairmont Royal York Hotel is known for. Instead Alka took me to the Upper Canada Room on the 18th Floor, the former Tea Terrace. At one point the 18th and 19th floor were a two-level tea room, however, today they are separate again, making up two separate floors. The 19th Floor is dedicated to executive meeting spaces that afford privacy in professionally equipped facilities. Wonderful views over Toronto’s harbour open up and it really makes you appreciate the Royal York’s location in the heart of Toronto.

But more interesting stops were yet to come: I was going to get a glimpse of the Royal York’s roof, from inside and from outside. We took the elevator up a few more floors and then ascended a number of concrete steps on foot. Along the way I had a chance to admire the original mechanisms of the elevators dating back to 1929 which surely have been thoroughly overhauled several times since then. The mechanical equipment of the Royal York Hotel from the start has been state-of-the-art.

The space right underneath the steeply pitched copper roof is actually empty and very dark. Alka explained that this area used to be occupied by a gentlemen who worked for the Royal York, refurbishing the hotel’s silverware. He apparently was a bit of a loner who enjoyed his time alone under the roof of this Toronto landmark. The entire space has a Gotham-like feel to it and I was actually expecting Batman to swoop in from around the corner any minute.

A small door opened up into the open roof area just below the green copper roof and Alka and I, accompanied by a security guard, stepped outside and were blinded by the bright light. We were surrounded by Toronto’s downtown skyscrapers, from the white marble-clad Bank of Montreal tower, to the black TD Centre designed by Mies van der Rohe, to the Scotia Plaza and the golden Royal Bank Tower. All of Toronto’s blue chip centres of commerce and business are encircling this historic hotel, making its location even more strategic for the business traveller and more central for holiday-makers wishing to explore Toronto.

We walked on a fairly narrow gravel-covered walkway between the hotel’s roof and the sandstone gargoyles that seem to protect this historic structure. We proceeded to the south side and I realized we were right underneath the huge neon letters saying “Fairmont – Royal York” which announce this venerable property to anyone arriving by train and at Toronto’s port, or driving by on the elevated expressway that crosses the city’s south side. The view of the surrounding skyscrapers, of historic Union Station with its many train tracks, the nearby Rogers Centre – the former SkyDome, the CN Tower, the harbour area and the adjacent Toronto Islands was mind-boggling. Alka pointed out that it is extremely rare for anyone to be taken up to this area and I felt very honoured to have seen this unique area that is normally concealed from the public.

Next on the menu was the roof garden, so we descended some stairs, took the elevator down a few flights to the eastern section of the building and climbed more stairs. The roof garden actually holds an extensive collection of organically grown herbs whose cultivation, maintenance and harvest is the responsibility of the apprentice chefs at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. Alka mentioned that the hotel has about 100 chefs and one of their hotel packages offers guests a chance to go shopping at the St. Lawrence Market with the hotel’s executive chef. All the food waste in the hotel, about 2,200 pounds, is picked up daily by Turtle Island Recyling for composting while unconsumed banquet food is donated to Second Harvest which distributes it to over 27 agencies throughout Toronto. The hotel follows a comprehensive green action plan for all of its operations.

The hotel has also made a strong commitment to recycling and sustainability: it has cut its gas consumption by 40% since 1990 by eliminating the incinerator and switching off kitchen equipment that is not in use. Over 400,000 glass bottles and more than 300,000 pounds of cardboard and paper are recycled annually, equivalent to saving 4,000 trees. More than 20,000 pounds of soaps and 4,000 pounds of shampoos as well as reusable bed linens go to social agencies and missions every year.

Now that we had explored the lofty portions of this beautiful building it was time to investigate the below-ground innards of this fascinating structure. We took the elevator all the down to the main level where Alka showed me the biggest hotel kitchen in Canada. As it was mid-afternoon, the kitchen was a bit quiet. But we caught one of the pastry chefs at work who was in the process of decorating a cake which was increasingly starting to look like a signature hole on one of the world’s most popular golf courses.

One floor down in the sub-basement I was fascinated by more parts of the hotel’s infrastructure: Toronto’s largest laundry is located at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. We saw the operation of the huge washers and dryers - one dryer load is equivalent to roughly 11 miles (almost 18 km) of clothesline. Housekeeping as well as a valet dry-cleaning service are also located on the lowest level of the Royal York Hotel. When you visit this area you realize how much work goes into operating one of Canada’s largest and most historic hotels, which has been referred to as “a city within a city block”. Everything, from food, to room service, to event management, housekeeping, cleaning, bed sheets, linens etc. requires a staff of dedicated well-trained employees. At the Royal York these employees come from all over the world, and more than 50 languages are spoken by its employees.

My official guided tour had come to an end. I thanked Alka for her time and took a few more pictures of the lobby area and the Library Bar. In this bar I connected with two long-term employees of the hotel: Ada Kulis is just celebrating her 30th anniversary with the hotel, and Dimitra Maritsa has actually been a waitress in the Library Bar since 1971, since opening day. Both ladies were very gracious and their bright smiles lit up my camera. For international travelers, local revelers in search of entertainment and gourmet food, and for employees alike: the Fairmont Royal York Hotel is a special place…

 

Presenting: Toronto's Distillery District - A Unique Vision And 13 Acres Of Historic Victorian Industrial Architecture (part I)

As a European immigrant, historical districts always hold a great fascination to me. Over the last few years, Toronto has been enriched by the revitalization of an entire district: the Distillery District, a complex of 13 acres composed of 44 buildings, made a stunning transformation from outdated industrial relics to becoming one of Toronto’s hottest entertainment areas. I have visited the Distillery District several times over the last year, but I realized a more indepth in...

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Distillery. Market, History, Tour, Festivals

As a European immigrant, historical districts always hold a great fascination to me. Over the last few years, Toronto has been enriched by the revitalization of an entire district: the Distillery District, a complex of 13 acres composed of 44 buildings, made a stunning transformation from outdated industrial relics to becoming one of Toronto’s hottest entertainment areas. I have visited the Distillery District several times over the last year, but I realized a more indepth introduction to this unique area was in order. After all, this complex is Toronto’s only pedestrian neighbourhood; it is the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian industrial heritage buildings in all of North America, a designated National Heritage site and winner of numerous awards. I knew that, as an architecture and history buff, I would be in my element and was looking forward to discovering this unique Toronto neighbourhood.

I requested a meeting with Mathew Rosenblatt who handles media relations for the Distillery District and was excited to find out that he is actually one of the co-owners of Cityscape who together with Dundee Realty are the developers of this unique heritage area. Mathew offered to give me a personal tour of the entire complex and I was extremely excited to learn about this unique project from one of the key people behind this vision.

We started at the foot of Trinity Street and Mathew explained that about 150 years ago the Lake Ontario shoreline was located right at the bottom of this street. The area to the south, which today includes the Gardiner Expressway, the Via Railway corridor and the new waterfront, was not filled in until much later. In 1832 the first windmill was built in this location when Toronto was home to only about 10,000 people. Mathew explained that these were vastly different times: local residents would leave dead animals on the ice over the winter, which would then contaminate the lake water when the ice melted. As a result, the demand for distilled spirits was born.

Originally the distillery was named “Worts and Gooderham”, after the two brothers-in-law that started this business. But after James Wart’s wife died in childbirth, her husband was so distressed he committed suicide, so William Gooderham continued the business by himself. As a result the name “Worts” was deleted from the company’s official name. James Wort’s ghost is still rumoured to haunt the complex and the Distillery Complex is an official haunted site in Toronto. His oldest son, one of 13 children, later joined William Gooderham in the distillery business, and his name was added back in, but this time after the name Gooderham.

In the middle of the 19th century the Gooderham and Worts Distillery was the largest distillery in the world and provided up to 50% of tax collected by the Canadian government. The oldest remaining building is the Stone Distillery Complex, a large, limestone building dating back to 1859. All the buildings still have names that allude to their original industrial function, for example the “Boiler House Complex”, “The Case Goods Warehouse”, “The Cooperage”, The Maltings”, “The Smoke House” etc., illustrating their original function in this industrial complex.

Gooderham & Worts manufactured whiskey and various hard liquors as well as industrial alcohols and antifreeze, used in both World Wars. During WWI it manufactured acetone used for hardening the fabric wings of by-planes. Gooderham & Worts was sold to Hiram Walker in the 1920s and then sold to Allied Domecq in the 1980s as part of a corporate takeover. In 1990 production shut down and this transformed the complex into the largest film production location in North America. Among countless other big screen productions, TV and music video productions, blockbuster movies such as “X-Men”, Chicago”, “Cinderella Man” and “The Recruit” have all been shot at the Distillery District. Hollywood stars such as Al Pacino, Meg Ryan, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rene Zellweger and Colin Farrell and many more have been immortalized here.

In the narrow passageway between the Cooperage Building and the Stone Distillery Complex Mathew pointed out a sculpture called “Bronze Tree Root”, one of many traveling exhibits of artwork that find a temporary home at the Distillery District. Along the way Mathew pointed out “Sport”, a retail shop focused on the rich history and tradition of sports, often frequented by women who are looking for the perfect gift for their husbands. We also saw "AutoGrotto", a retailer specializing in automobile and motorcycle memorabilia and collectibles. Our stroll continued to the Cooperage Building and we entered the "Sandra Ainsley Gallery", a gallery representing the works of major contemporary Canadian, American and internationally recognized artists working in glass and mixed media. The backdrop of exposed industrial brick, wooden beams and strategically placed lighting provides a perfect setting for hundreds of unique sculptures and art pieces that range in price from several thousand to about a million dollars. The beauty and innovative design of these items is striking and discerning art collectors from all over the world visit Toronto’s Distillery District because of its 14 galleries and its dozens of artists studios.

Among other tenants, the Maltings Building houses an unconventional clothing retailer called "Lileo", featuring some of the most original names in denim, apparel for men, women and children, as well as footwear, accessories, books and much more. We turned eastwards and strolled up Tank House Lane. Mathew introduced me to the “Boiler House”, one of Toronto’s finest restaurants. With several restaurants, cafes and bakeries, the Distillery District offers a broad range of fine dining, casual fare and very affordable bakery food. Diverse culinary pleasures are available at every price point. Just down the street is “Archeo’, a restaurant featuring Italian cuisine where no dish costs more than C$14. Mathew and his partners made a commitment to ensuring that affordable dining options would be available to all visitors. In addition to exceptional, reasonably priced Italian cuisine, Archeo offers unique design features: oversize archival photos of the distillery are used as partitions between the tables, acting as unusual aesthetic and innovative room dividers.

During our stroll up Tank House Lane, Mathew informed me that the cobble-stoned streets of the Distillery District are real brick pavers from the 1850s that used to be located in Cleveland. When Cityscape bought this complex, there were only dirt roads that had to be dug up to install modern gas, sewer and electrical lines. When it came to repaving the developers were looking for historically authentic material and found it when the City of Cleveland was selling off its unused stock of brick pavers. The developers wanted to use authentic historic paving material which had to come from another northern city in order to provide sufficient durability. So they went all the way to Cleveland to secure this batch of historic brick pavers.

To give me a real taste of the Distillery District, Mathew took me into “Soma”, manufacturers of some of the best chocolate, handmade truffles, praline, cookies and fresh churned gelato in Toronto. Soma’s craftsmanship and dedication to quality has made them winners of the “Toronto Choice Awards” for best chocolate. Mathew invited me to taste a “Mayan Chocolate Shot”, which was an espresso-size cup full of the most aromatic medium-brown liquid chocolate I have ever tasted. The intriguing taste is derived from a blend of authentic Mayan chocolate, spiced with Australian ginger, Madagascar Vanilla, orange peel, chili and Soma’s unique blend of spices.




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