November 27, 2012

Fairmont Château Laurier: A Story of Timeless Elegance

Building a grand château in turn-of-the-century Ottawa could only begin with the vision and foresight of a strong and ambitious individual. Charles Melville Hays an American who ventured to Canada as the General Manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway of Canada had that vision. Hays wanted to extend the Grand Trunk Railway to the West Coast and build several railway stations and deluxe hotels in all the major cities along the way.

After dismissing the originally commissioned American firm of Bradford Lee Gilbert, Hays hired Ross and Macfarlane of Montreal to take over the design of the Château. That design combined the French Renaissance style with the neo-Gothic vertical lines of the Parliament Buildings. No expense was spared to make the Château a truly luxurious hotel. Builders used granite blocks, white Italian marble, light buff Indiana limestone and copper for the roof. The elegant Château was furnished with antiques, a travertine marble staircase with brass railing, Czechoslovakian crystal and Sèvres vases. Unfortunately, Hays never had the chance to see his dream come true. Days before the hotel was scheduled to open on April 26, 1912, the new president of the railway was returning from England on the ill-fated Titanic. Hays and the male members of his party perished on April 14, 1912.

The grand opening was delayed until June 1, 1912. Hundreds of people flocked to see Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s seventh Prime Minister, officially open the hotel. A renowned French sculptor, Paul Romaine Chevré had been commissioned to create a bust of Laurier for the lobby of the hotel. On opening day, moments before Laurier went for a private viewing of the bust, workmen dropped the statue and the nose was grossly chipped. Unaware of the mishap, Laurier was terribly insulted when he saw the bust. Nonetheless, Laurier was the first to sign the hotel’s guest register and the marble statue was repaired.

The regal Château changed the face of downtown Ottawa lending a new elegance and sophistication to the city. The building costs totalled $2 million. The 306 rooms, priced at $2 per night, were among the first hotel rooms to offer indoor plumbing. Ottawa finally had a hotel fit for a capital city.

In 1919, Canadian National Railways assumed control of several railways and Grand Trunk Hotels, including the Château Laurier. In 1929, Montreal architect, John Archibald, and CN's own architect, John Schofield, adapted a design for expansion of the hotel. An East Wing and 240 rooms were added and the shape of the hotel changed from an “L” shape into a “U” shape. The Château also opened a state of the art spa. The art deco swimming pool, now part of the Health Club, was the spectacular centrepiece of the spa built with pale pink Tennessee marble walls and dark green marble pillars. A gallery with hand-wrought brass railing surrounded the pool with a Greek fountain at one end. Visitors relaxed on the chaises longues warmed by sunlight emitted from overhead brass lamps.

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Since its opening, Fairmont Château Laurier has hosted a prestigious list of politicians, heads of state, royalty and entertainers. The hotel has often been dubbed "the third chamber of Parliament" because of the politicians who regularly roam the corridors. Within its walls, political deals have been consummated, careers launched or destroyed and governments created and dissolved. The hotel has been home to former Prime Ministers Richard Bedford (R.B.) Bennett and Pierre Trudeau. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and her consort Prince Philip, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, The King and Queen of Siam and former U.S. President Hoover have all graced the hotel registry.

Three films have been shot at the hotel: Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney, Little Gloria: Happy at Last and H2O, starring Paul Gross. The star-studded guest list over the years includes Shirley Temple, Harry Belafonte, Marlene Deitrich, Churchill, Billy Bishop, Karen Kain, Roger Moore, Bryan Adams, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Felipe Calderon, Yo-Yo Ma, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood and Carlos Santana just to name of few.

CBC Radio broadcast from Fairmont Château Laurier’s seventh floor for 80 years, until moving to their new location on Sparks Street. World-class portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh lived at the Château for 18 years. He also operated his studio from the sixth floor; there he photographed international celebrities between 1970 and 1992. Karsh gave seven of his famous portraits to the hotel when he moved in 1998. Years later, his wife Estrellita gifted an additional eight portraits to the hotel. These outstanding images are now part Fairmont Château Laurier’s history and are located in the Reading Lounge and the Karsh Suite.

Fairmont Château Laurier continues to set a benchmark for luxury accommodation and impeccable service in the hospitality industry. As a heritage building, the hotel is a vital part of Canadian history and a stunning landmark in Ottawa. For nearly a century, the Fairmont Château Laurier’s stateliness, regal beauty and charm have captured the hearts of guests from around the world.

Did you know?

• Sir Wilfrid Laurier threatened not to sign the guest registry for the hotel’s opening because he was not happy with his nose on the bust created in his honor. The bust was promptly repaired to his liking to ensure his signature and presence at the opening.
• People always ask about unique requests, this one would qualify…Rudolph Nureyev requested an extra-large bed on which to practice his routine before a big performance in Ottawa.
• The story of an underground tunnel is true! The hotel is linked to the Parliament buildings by a steam pipe tunnel. Of course, this location is secured and locked, but it does indeed exist.
• When the hotel first opened there were separate sleeping quarters for men and women, as well as a separate entrance for female guests.
• When the hotel first opened, bedrooms were sold at a rate of $2.00 per night.
• Famous photographer Yousuf Karsh, not only lived in the hotel for 18 years, but he also operated his studio from the sixth floor of the hotel from 1973 until 1992.
• Charles Melville Hays, general manager of the Grand Truck Railway and visionary behind the hotel, perished on the Titanic while returning from England. The hotel opening was delayed from April 26, 1912 to June 1, 1912 out of respect for his family. Some say his spirit lives on in the hotel.

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