Château Laurier
Ohe is dignified and gracious.

And, considering her age—she'll turn 85 on the first of June—she's remarkably well preserved.

Oh, she's had, not to be too indelicate, the usual plumbing problems associated with advanced years. She has increased in girth, and has had several facelifts, but she's proud of these changes.

Rooted in England and France, she was raised in Canada. Her infancy was clouded by controversy, and her youth by tragedy. Her launching into society was overseen by a Canadian prime minister, and she matured under the tutelage of her father's business rivals.

She has staged Ottawa's, and Canada's, premier social events, and she's offered her hospitality to many of this century's influential and famous people. The King and Queen of Siam, Madonna, Charles de Gaulle, The Rolling Stones – all have been her guests. Broadway star Carol Channing, a current visitor, "wouldn't dream of staying with anyone else."

She is an institution, one of Ottawa's grandes dames.

She is the Château Laurier Hotel.

A graceful, turreted structure

Charles Melville Hays had a vision.

As general manager of Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, Hays was responsible for the advancement of his company's interests in Canada. In 1907, Canadian Pacific Railway had a secure foothold across the country. Grand Trunk was playing catch-up.

Hays envisioned a chain of hotels from coast to coast, providing his railway's passengers with safe, consistent and luxurious accommodation.

It was by no mere chance he began realizing his vision in Ottawa; Canada's capital had neither a true luxury hotel nor a passenger-friendly railway station. Hays planned to build both, across Rideau Street from one another, just east of the Parliament Buildings.

Governor General Earl Grey encouraged Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to support the project. Hays negotiated with the federal government for the south end of Major's Hill Park, overlooking the Rideau Canal locks and Parliament Hill, and occupied in 1907 by two rusting cannons. The press and public balked at the idea of losing city parkland, but a deal was struck, and Laurier fought all opposition in the House of Commons to a standstill.

American architect Bradford Lee Gilbert was commissioned by Grand Trunk in 1907, and developed elevations for both hotel and station. Excavation work began that autumn.

Gilbert's hotel echoed the Gothic design of the Parliament Buildings. His exterior plans called for dark limestone walls and a dark slate roof.

Hays' vision was of a graceful, turreted structure reminiscent of les châteaux in the Loire Valley of France. His hotel would be faced with pale Indiana limestone and topped with a copper roof.

Gilbert's elevations were published in the May 1908 issue of Construction Magazine, then one of Canada's premier trade publications, and were hailed as "elegant" and "world-class". His initial estimate was $1.5 million.

By April 1908, the railway faced a hard choice: either the cost would rise to $2.5 million, or the plans would be revised to make the hotel smaller.

Hays orchestrated a third option. Gilbert was relieved of his duties, and Montréal firm Ross & Macfarlane was engaged, but not without an oh-so-Canadian brouhaha.

It was immediately apparent that Ross & Macfarlane's elevations were disturbingly similar to Gilbert's. In its August 1908 issue, Construction Magazine found itself defending architectural ethics in support of an American company rather than a Canadian company: "...It is, however, not quite clear to us that the religious adherence to the policy of giving preference to Canadian architects should blind us to any infractions of the basic principles of professional ethics... There has been considerable discussion... as to just what extent Messrs. Ross & Macfarlane found it necessary or convenient to incorporate in the plans submitted by them the ideas submitted in Gilbert's design..."

Nevertheless, spring 1909 saw serious construction begin, giving Ottawans something new to goggle at. One of the first parts of the project to be completed was the arched brick subway which would link the hotel and the railway station. It was 3.7 m high and 6 m wide at floor level.

"The tunnel is still open," says Château Laurier communications and promotions manager Deneen Perrin. "It goes to the Conference Centre [formerly Union Station], and it's still in use today, but it's only open when there's a conference."

By autumn 1909, the hotel's basements were completed. They housed electrical and engineering departments, myriad service rooms, the children's dining room, and the kitchens.

Spring 1910 saw the first girders rise above ground level, and the goggling began in earnest: The Château Laurier was one of the first buildings in Canada with a structural steel skeleton. Photographs of the construction site appear remarkably contemporary until closer examination reveals no hardhats, no safety boots or railed scaffolding, and steam-powered machinery.

The facing of the hotel and the finishing of the interior began in the spring of 1911. American limestone, Belgian marble, English oak, Italian walnut, Dutch window glass, French mirror glass, Romanian crystal, Scottish carpeting in seamless strips measuring 1.8 m by 91.5 m, Flemish material (9,144 m' worth) for chair- and sofa-coverings... Ottawa held its breath as the Château Laurier rose in splendour, a truly international hotel from the foundation up. The final $2 million price tag made it, for a time, the most expensive privately-owned building in the world – one which would be available to guests for $2 per night.

Four weeks before the scheduled May 1, 1912 opening ceremony, Hays, by then president of Grand Trunk, was leaving London, England to meet his family in Southampton. There, they joined another great lady for her launching – White Star Line's Titanic.

When Titanic foundered in the early hours of April 15, Hays saw his wife and daughters safely into a lifeboat. He and his son-in-law went down with the ship.

'Courtesy of the Laurier'

The Château Laurier's opening was postponed one month. Prime Minister Laurier officiated at the June 1 ceremony, a subdued affair with hotel flags at half-staff. Laurier's graciousness carried the day, and was acknowledged when the hotel unveiled a Paul Chèvre bust of the prime minister.

Laurier disliked it forever after because the nose had been chipped in transit.

Deneen Perrin has been with the Château only four months, but already she's an ardent fan.

"Besides the Parliament Buildings, the Château Laurier is Ottawa," she says with pride. "But this isn't only a hotel. It's a historical site. This building has probably seen as much history as the Parliament Buildings have."
She's right.

In 1916, when the Parliament Buildings were destroyed by fire, several government offices set up temporary residence in the hotel, and commanders of First World War Canadian forces overseas became accustomed to receiving messages "courtesy of the Laurier".

In February 1919, the hotel was draped in black crêpe to mark the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Later that same year, the Prince of Wales visited Ottawa. The Château hosted several gala events, and was festooned with thousands of coloured lights depicting his crest.

"When Royalty comes, they stay with the Governor General," says Perrin. "As you can imagine, they have enough space. But we do get the entourage, usually, and we always have a banquet or a gala reception."

In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth dedicated Ottawa's new War Memorial, then crossed Rideau Street for a lavish banquet at the Château. In 1951, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip received a warm welcome; in October of 1957, Elizabeth and Philip returned as Queen and Consort. 1984 saw the Queen and Prince Philip again dining at the hotel, as did Prince Charles and Princess Diana during their Canadian tour.

Ottawa's first winter carnival was hosted by the hotel in 1922, as were many of Canada's 1927 Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Aviator Charles Lindberg was fêted there shortly after his successful New York to Paris solo Atlantic crossing in Spirit of St. Louis.

Big plans

The Château Laurier's father company, Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, failed in 1919, and GTR's holdings were purchased by the newly formed, government-owned Canadian National Railway.

CNR had big plans for the hotel. Originally L-shaped, with the base of the L along Rideau Street and the ascender along the Rideau Canal, the Château Laurier underwent major renovation work in 1929. CNR architect John Schofield teamed with Montréal architect John Archibald to double the depth of the front of the hotel, and add an East Wing along Mackenzie Avenue.
The Ballroom and Ballroom Lobby, the Governor General's Entrance Corridor, the Music Room, the Adam Room and Corridor, and the Drawing Room all date from the 1929 renovations.

The 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris had launched the Art Deco movement, and the Château was quick to hop on the bandwagon with an 18m swimming pool, changing lounges and The Health Spa, all resplendently Art Deco. The hotel promoted this new facility as bringing to guests "...the unparalleled pleasure of the plunge, and the health-inducing factors of treatment by Hydro- and Electro-Therapeutic methods...surpassing the hot springs of the south, the spas of Europe and the health cures of sanatoria."

"The Health Spa was the place to be in Ottawa," Perrin says. "It was a good draw for people. Our pool today is that original 1929 pool, and people still really enjoy it. In 1991, we renovated the original spa rooms and put in a fitness facility, so you could say we've always been on the cutting edge of health and fitness."

The Château Laurier was ahead of the cutting edge when it came to recognizing the effects of acid... rain. Ottawans bemoaned the fact that the new wing's fiery copper roof would take years to weather to the soft green patina of the West Wing roof. The problem was addressed by pouring buckets of urine (courtesy of the workmen) onto the new copper.

It worked.

'The third chamber of Parliament'

After the Wall Street crash of 1929, CNR knew formerly wealthy Canadians and Americans wouldn't be travelling to the south of Europe in winter, and so the Château Laurier began hosting annual ice sculpting contests, skating and skiing trials, hockey matches and dogsled races.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, India and Denmark, among others, set up their embassies in the hotel. As well, many members of the Canadian government took up residence in the Château, and, in keeping with the spirit of wartime camaraderie, doubled up with guests when space was short.

The July 1948 issue of Canadian National Magazine quoted a "prominent government official" as saying the Château Laurier was "...the third chamber of Parliament. The Commons and the Senate merely approve the bills which have been agreed upon in the Château."

"We do get a lot of politicians and celebrities staying here," says Perrin. "We're very low-key about it. We never mention it, if they're here."

Prominent guests always appreciate their hostess' discretion, but most are never aware of the behind-the-scenes efforts to make their visits comfortable.

When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited in 1939, hotel manager William "Big Bill" Aylett overheard the Queen mention it was a shame there was no balcony from which she could wave to the crowds. Aylett and hotel carpenters worked through the night to build a wooden platform above the main entrance; by morning it was draped with bunting and festooned with flags, awaiting Her Majesty's pleasure.

When City of New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia stayed at the Château Laurier, he always occupied a pricey suite but sent out for food from a diner down the street. The hotel discreetly stationed a fleet-of-foot bellhop outside his suite to speed up the process.

Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Sir Winston Churchill, Pope Pius XII, USSR Premier Alexei Kosygin, General Dwight D. Eisenhower – all have visited the great lady in the years since WWII. And celebrity guests abound, among them Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul Newman, Bryan Adams, Keifer Sutherland and long-time resident portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh.

"People come here for a little bit of history," Perrin says, "but they also come here for that special attention we can provide."

Such as the extra-large bed frame for Rudolph Nureyev, so he could practise dancing in bed. Or the two mattresses sewn together to accommodate 181.5-kg King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga.

The Château Laurier offers special services on a grand scale, too.

"We had kosher events every day this [Passover] week," says Perrin, "and that can be challenging for the kitchen. The rabbi has to bless the room and the workers, and then stay till all the food has been prepared and served. The tables can't be set till just before the meal. It can be hard sometimes, but that's why we have more than one kitchen."

Hotel within a hotel

In 1984, architect Clarke Darling Downey oversaw the beginning of a 10-year, two-phase $25 million renovation of the Château Laurier. With the addition of an atrium facing Rideau Street, the Music Room became Zoé's Lounge, named after Sir Wilfrid Laurier's wife. Peacock Alley, a retail corridor opening to The Terrace, became Wilfrid's Restaurant. The lobby was refurbished with a circa 1840 fountain from New York, a new grand staircase leading to the mezzanine, and a new check-in area – more than 2,323 m² of marble.

The air conditioning system was upgraded, windows were replaced and security card locks were installed throughout the hotel, but reproductions of the original door handles with the hotel's logo maintain the flavour of times past.

"We never modernize just for the sake of modernizing," Perrin says. "But people do come here for business, too. We have 17 function rooms, and it's pretty busy 99.9 percent of the time."

This round of renovations brought the Château Laurier into the business-oriented, hi-tech '90s. The fourth floor became a "hotel within a hotel", offering private meeting and board rooms, a reading lounge, and a separate concierge desk and locked entrance. Guest room desks were fitted with modem hook-ups to meet current hi-tech requirements.

As all great ladies are trained to do, this one didn't flicker an eyelid when, in 1988, she passed into the hands of her father's business rival, Canadian Pacific Hotels and Resorts.

Ottawa held its breath again when The Terrace, since 1912 one of the city's favourite outdoor spots for tea and scones, was dismantled in 1988 to permit construction of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. And exhaled with pleasure when it was rebuilt in 1991.

The Château Laurier does even small things grandly.

The hotel's main elevators make it wheelchair-accessible throughout, except on the lower lobby level, where a four-step flight of stairs leads to the fitness centre and pool area. Rather than build a long ramp, the hotel installed a wheelchair-sized, open-concept lift of marble, brass and glass. It's efficient; it's tastefully attractive; it's what you would expect of the Château Laurier.

As are all great ladies, the Château is active in the community. Each year she hosts the Teddy Bear Tea (in benefit of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario), the Gingerbread Workshop and Auction (for Canadian Mothercraft), and Easter egg painting with the Rotary Club (for Easter Seals). The hotel hosts children's brunches at Christmas and Easter, and an appreciation lunch for veterans after the Remembrance Day services at the National War Memorial just across Rideau Street.

And the hotel's policies of waste reduction and recycling (it was one of the first hotels in the country to put blue boxes in guest rooms), energy and water conservation, and the use of environment-friendly cleaning products, keep it on the cutting edge of things environmentally sound and healthy.

'It feels homey'

Perrin is confident the Château Laurier will be gracing Ottawa well into the next century, but not for the reasons you might think.

"This hotel has the history and the elegance," she says. "But people say they come here because it has a certain charm to it. They say it feels homey."

It's likely most great ladies, at any age, would be happy to be considered elegant, charming and homey.

And – "It's beautiful, isn't it?" Carol Channing says.

Let's not forget beautiful.

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