Reserving a room in Canadian history

By Keely Grasser

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Winston Churchill, Herbert Hoover, Shirley Temple and Nelson Mandela. What do these people have in common? They’ve all stayed at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier.

For these distinguished guests, the hotel may have been just another place to rest their heads. For Canadians, and more specifically Ottawans, the Chateau Laurier is an important and recognizable part of their heritage.

“Twenty-four Sussex doesn’t resonate in the same way as the White House,” explains Herb Stovel, a Canadian studies professor at Carleton University. “But the Parliament buildings and the Chateau do.”

Its rooms have seen so much political wheeling and dealing that the hotel’s been nicknamed “the third chamber of parliament,” and it’s been home to former prime ministers Bennett and Trudeau.

The CBC also broadcasted its French and English radio programming from the seventh floor of the hotel until 2004.

World famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh lived and worked in a Chateau suite for many years. Guests can still stay in his old suite and be surrounded by his famous works.

The hotel is a part of Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. The heritage-rich chain will likely be bought by Kingdom Holding Company, owned by Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia, and American-based Colony Capital. Fairmont joins the list of Canadian companies that have become casualties of foreign takeovers.

The companies bought it because of its value and potential, says the prince in a press release.

Duncan McDowall, a history professor at Carleton University, believes that this is a testament to the accomplishments of the company. It’s a “viable, profitable and an attractive investment,” he says.

“In fact, this takeover is a reflection of success, not failure.”

But the new owners haven’t just bought companies, rather icons of Canadian history. The question is whether they will give these heritage-rich businesses the respect they deserve?

“It’s very important to protect the heritage of this building,” says Michel Prévost, chief archivist at the University of Ottawa.

This hotel can attribute its birth to Confederation, when the fledgling nation depended on the construction of a railway system to move freight and immigrants.

The Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) was the first large rail company in Canada. Their lines were then the largest in the world, travelling between Ontario, Quebec and the United States.

During Confederation, railways needed to be expanded westward. British Columbia joined Canada under the condition the province would be connected to central Canada by rail.

GTR refused to build it, and as a result, the Canadian Pacific Railway was formed. After the CPR line was completed, the ever-expanding pacific market became more lucrative to the once-disinterested GTR.

“We were literally a nation bound by steel,” says McDowall.

The company’s president, Charles Melville Hayes, didn’t simply plan rails. He envisioned seven hotels at major stops such as Quebec City, Montreal, Victoria, Lake Louise in Alberta, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.

But GTR’s flagship hotel was planned for the nation’s capital and was built on a prominent site beside the Parliament buildings. It was across the street from Ottawa Union Station and the two buildings were connected by an underground tunnel.

Together, the two comprised “an early form of package tourism,” says McDowall.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, prime minister at the time, championed the project and helped get permission to build the hotel on property that was then part of Major Hill’s Park. He thought a luxury hotel would add prestige to Ottawa, which wasn’t the cultured capital it is today

The hotel is in the French Renaissance style, with influences of the neo-gothic vertical lines of the adjacent Parliament buildings. No expense was spared — from granite blocks, to Italian marble to pricy antiques — it was pure luxury.

To commemorate the hotel’s namesake, GTR commissioned a sculptor to make a bust of Laurier to reside in the lobby. Just as it was to be shown to Laurier, a mover dropped the sculpture and its nose was chipped, angering the prime minister. But the bust was repaired and it remains in the hotel to this day.

The impressive building was completed and the opening was planned for April 26, 1912. Hayes, travelling from England, never made it to the opening because he was a victim in the sinking of the Titanic.

Laurier opened the hotel at a subdued ceremony, which was postponed until June 12.

But there was nothing subdued about the 306-room hotel, which cost $2 million to build.

In 1919, CPR took over GTR. They added a 240-room wing, as well as an art-deco pool and state-of-the-art spa. The first half of the 20th century was the heyday of the Chateau Laurier. As people’s incomes increased, the railways and their hotels became more synonymous with luxury than necessity.

“Initially those systems were for moving freight and immigrants,” says McDowall. “But in the twentieth century, tourism became a part of it.”

But rail travel soon became outdated. Ottawa Union Station closed in 1966 and train stations moved to suburbs to ease congestion in downtown streets.

Newer and cheaper hotels and motels were opening and the chateau had to find new clientele.

But luxury remained the chain’s biggest draw. To maintain this, the hotel underwent renovations during the 1980s. In 1988, CPR bought out the American Fairmont chain of luxury hotels and adopted their name. This re-established the hotel as the epitome of lavishness in the nation’s capital.

Today, when the community wants to celebrate, the Chateau Laurier is the premiere place to host an event, says Prévost.

“It’s all about the architecture,” he says. “But also because of the name and the place. I think it’s really associated with the top of the top.”

The Chateau Laurier is ranked as one of the top 50 places to stay in North America, according to the prestigious travel magazine, Conde Nast Traveler.

“I can’t imagine the new owners would want to sacrifice that,” says McDowall. “They would be sacrificing their own investment.”

But can foreign owners understand the importance of the hotel’s place in Canadian heritage?

“They (the Fairmont hotels) are critically important,” says Stovel. “Because they give us a sense of place. They tell us what we’re all about,” adding that they remind Canadians of the huge importance of rail in the shaping of the country.

“They are distinctively Canadian,” explains McDowall. “And flatter the east-west structure of the country.”

This won’t be forgotten, says Prévost. “I think that its history and heritage will always have a special place in the national capital.”

For now, it’s a waiting game to see if the new owners will view the Chateau Laurier as a monument to heritage or just another hotel.