By Jamie Bradburn, originally published March 15, 2011
The story of the Royal York’s predecessor
For over a century-and-a-half, the northeast corner of Front and York Streets has offered tourists and dignitaries a place to lay their head. Its central location and easy access to a major transportation hub made the intersection an ideal spot for a hotel ever since the first passenger train pulled out of a nearby platform in 1853. TheFairmont Royal York carries on a tradition of hospitality with a regal moniker from its predecessor, the Queen’s Hotel.
The first elements of the hotel were built in 1844 as four row houses designed by John Howard, who later bequeathed High Park to the city. After a decade housing Knox College, the homes were combined and opened for business as Sword’s Hotel in August 1856. Most of the early clientele were government officials—when the colonial capital was moved to Quebec City the following year, operator Patrick Sword followed. A decade of expansions and name changes followed, with the name “Queen’s Hotel” permanently assumed in 1862.
By the end of the 19th century, the hotel had gained a reputation as one of the city’s most fashionable spots. Its location near the various incarnations of Union Station brought in tourists, businessmen, and politicians. Among those whose names graced the hotel’s register were the Prince of Wales (King Edward VII), Sir John A. Macdonald, and Civil War figures Jefferson Davis and William Tecumseh Sherman. The Queen’s offered over 210 rooms, 17 private parlours, a fine restaurant, and private gardens.
Fine furniture, such as the buffet these two gentlemen begrudgingly posed in front of, was a highlight of the hotel. The city archives note that this piece, carved from black walnut, was built by Toronto-based Jacques and Hay for display at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.
By 1927, as the current incarnation of Union Station neared completion, the Canadian Pacific Railway scouted the neighbourhood for a site suitable to build a grand hotel. The Queen’s Hotel’s location made it an ideal acquisition, one the CPR made that February for just over $1 million. The new owners announced that the Queen’s would remain in business until the end of the Canadian National Exhibition in September. The new hotel’s name was revealed at the end of June, prompting an anonymous historian to complain to the editorial page of The Globe:
But why is it necessary to use a new name instead of continuing with the old one…which for many years occupied the site and was so well and favourably known. Besides being a suitable name, it would preserve the historical continuity of the old hostelry which filled so large a place in this city’s life in days gone by. There may be some important reasons why the name cannot be carried on, but they are not apparent to an ordinary citizen.
The last guests checked in on September 10, 1927. That evening resembled a school reunion, as frequent guests, long-term residents, and hotel staff gathered to send off the Queen’s. In an interview with The Star, the hotel manager indicated that the impending closure had not sunk in for regular clientele:
I expect that we shall have some difficulty getting rid of them, too. It’s strange how many still cling to the old house. There are people who come here because they come here because they came here when they were children, as their fathers did before them; you can find the same names on our books as there were in the first year the hotel opened. I have had a number of letters from people saying what a shame it is that the Queen’s should be pulled down; one man even wanted a question asked in parliament about it.
As another reporter summed up the night, “Oldtimers stepped in on tiptoe as if there were a coffin in the parlour and laid on it rare orchids of anecdotes and fragrant wreaths of memory.” An orchestra closed the final dinner with a round of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The last person to check out the following day was long-time “Red Room” resident Charles Bland. His lodgings, named for the colour of its carpeting and decor, had previously been used for dignitaries (Macdonald favoured it for cutting deals) and was slated to be incorporated into the new hotel. Demolition began quickly and the Queen’s successor opened for business less than two years later.
In their final thoughts about the Queen’s Hotel, The Star believed that “[T]he Royal York…will no doubt have many glories in addition to a tunnel from the station, but perhaps on the tongues of the spielers in the tourist buses it will have no greater fame than this. ‘On this site stood the Queen’s.'”