16 February 2015

King Edward Lives On

In the things-we-rarely-do department: take a tour of a historic site in our own backyard. The King Edward Hotel in Toronto is a well-aged institution, Built in 1903, it was financed by George Gooderham of the local distillery fortune. The plan was to name it the Palace Hotel in honour of Queen Victoria whose death, alas, occurred before its completion so her son became the honouré. I only know that because my friend Bruce of Bruce Bell Tours was leading the group.

Bruce has developed a uniquely entertaining flair as a story-teller, immersing himself in a love of Toronto architecture and its historical characters. No, sad to say I am not getting a kickback or a discount.

King Edward VII
The King Edward was a landmark for turn-of-the-century times when travellers' hotels were decidedly pragmatic. As well as an elegant venue for travellers, the hotel also represented the height of fine dining and socializing for the local elite. The intention was to eclipse all other inns and hotels in the city, and it succeeded. Little expense was spared in the best of materials. Craftsmen and artists were employed to create opulent features.
Postcard; City of Toronto Archives
The main floor and mezzanine had the expected grand public rooms and dining rooms. Originally, of course, women did not enter the main foyer; there was a side door to their own reception area. If they were wives waiting for husbands to check in, or solo travellers, they could order tea in the women-only parlour upstairs. The Royal Suite has accommodated many royals including Queen Elizabeth and celebrities like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in one of their kiss-and-make-up periods. Hemingway lived here in his early journalism days. Caruso, Valentino, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain; Bruce bubbles over with such stories.

The King Eddy has undergone numerous changes in over a hundred years, but sumptuous teas are a permanent fixture. Naturally, the hotel had to become modernized in many ways, for instance the change from gas lighting to electricity was one major update. Interior changes, restorations, or adaptations for modern functions have been at the discretion of a series of owners since.
Vanity Fair Ballroom; bestoftoronto.net
I learned new things. The arch above the Vanity Fair ballroom has a magnificent glass skylight once-commissioned to Tiffany that never saw the light of day, so to speak. Unresolved business negotiations kept it from being finished or displayed; what a sad case of obscurity! Outside on Colborne Street, back of the hotel, Bruce pointed out a glimpse of the skylight and its position. Our chattering collective awakened an interest in a brand-new resident of the condos into which much of the old addition have been transformed. He hailed us from a sixth floor window and much lively dialogue was exchanged.

I was gobsmacked to hear that Gooderham planned an underground station to receive out-of-town arrivals. From the train station, prestigious guests would be able to continue on to the King Edward by carriage below ground. Presumably this would be to avoid mingling with the hoi-polloi on the street. The unfinished tunnel still lies beneath Scott Street to the west; access to it is blocked (but I suspect Bruce has wangled a way to see it).

Although the hotel at first contained several ballrooms still in use today, the 1921 higher addition included the new Crystal Ballroom. The lofty top venue, named for its massive crystal chandeliers, became renowned for parties of grandeur. Now empty and almost derelict, it nonetheless gives a superb view of my 'hood from three sides. I see my home! I see the homes of my friends and neighbours! ... Ahhhh. Thank you, Bruce.

For history lovers, see the lovely blog I discovered: History of the KingEdward Hotel.

© Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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