Foundations of Construction: Royal York Hotel’s panoramic painted ceiling, carved limestone décor

“A 1929 colour postcard featuring Canadian Pacific Railway’s majestic new Royal York Hotel, the tallest in the Commonwealth at the time.” Vintage Toronto/Facebook. Retrieved from

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

The finest, the tallest, the utterly lavish. Only magnificence would fit the strategic plans of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Building a series of hotels across the country, the company planned a hotel for Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Launching construction in 1927, the doors of the Royal York Hotel opened two years later to welcome weary, wealthy travellers.

Visitors were already accustomed to luxurious accommodations at 100 Front St. W. across from Union Station, in the business district between York and Piper Streets. Before the Royal York got underway, another hotel onsite was demolished. The Queen’s Hotel began in 1844 as four row houses. Later combined into one building, the establishment opened in 1856 as Sword’s Hotel. Renamed Revere House in 1860, two years later the building was sold. Owner Thomas Dick’s renovations brought the hotel up to high standards, and it was dubbed the Queen’s Hotel.

Hosting the Who’s Who of the era, the Queen’s Hotel welcomed the Earl and Countess of Aberdeen (Canada’s governor general from 1893-1895), as well as “Their Royal Highnesses, Prince Leopold, Prince George, Princess Louise and the Duke and Duchess of Connaught,” according to The Queen’s Hotel Traveller’s Guide, published in April 1918 in Toronto. Visiting from afar, “His Imperial Highness, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia also slept at the refined accommodations. (Lake Louise in Alberta is named for Princess Louise.)

The owner of the Queen’s Hotel sold the property in 1927 to Canadian Pacific Railway.   Demolishing the once-lovely building, CP officials commissioned one of the largest architectural firms in Canada at the time to design the hotel. Ross and Macdonald worked in conjunction with prominent Toronto architectural firm, Sproatt and Rolph.

Ross & Macdonald “was expert in shaping complex building mass and organizing vast interior space,” said Ontario Heritage Foundation press release in 2004, commemorating Royal York Hotel’s 75th anniversary. The firm’s architectural accomplishments included “Union Station, six grand hotels, and other large-scale commissions.”

Headquartered in Montreal, Ross & Macdonald was founded in 1904 as Ross & MacFarlane. On MacFarlane’s withdrawal in 1912, Ross partnered with Australian architect Robert H. Macdonald. The prosperous company continued to soar, employing “a sizeable staff for maximum production, specializing in executing large commercial and industrial buildings, and often invested in their own speculative projects,” according to Geoffrey Simmins and David Rose in The Canadian Encyclopedia, edited December 15, 2013.

Underway in 1928, the Royal York Hotel’s footprint measured 120 metres by 59 metres. The architects’ châteauesque design rose 122 metres, with creamy-beige Indiana limestone covering the 28-storey steel structure. Stone-carved ornamental trim was dignified and impressive. The predominant feature was “the biforate Lombard window, consisting of two semi-circular heads separated by a slender colonette and framed by two twisted columns,” wrote France Gagnon Pratte in Royal York Hotel (Éditions Continuité Inc. 1996).

Nature images and geometric patterns were carved in low relief on the exterior, and other ornamental pieces “consisted of vertical cable mouldings at the corners of the building, machicolations, foliated capitals, and various gargoyles and animals.”

The Royal York’s lobby was a sumptuous experience. Bronze décor with oak and marble was enhanced by gilded reds and greens, plus coffered ceilings with provincial coats of arms and decorative plates. A panoramic ceiling was distinctive with “delicate corals, soft purple and touches of gold,” characterizing its hand-painted décor inspired by the art of Northern Italy.”  Lush carpeting was adorned with the hotel’s flower-and-crown emblem.

Whisked by ‘elevator girls’ to upper floors in one of 10 elevators, guests stayed in one of 1,048 rooms, from standard bedrooms with private bath (a rarity), to specialty suites, each with its own exotic design, and to Vice-Regal apartments. Considered “a city within a city,” hotel guests enjoyed an expansive dining room and café, both supplied by staff of a large kitchen, plus a library stocked with 12,000 books. Laundry facilities and telephone switchboard were located in the basement. and the building was protected throughout by fire safety systems.

The ballroom’s 7.6-metre-high ceiling “was designed by Edward and William Maxwell,” said Historic Hotels Worldwide. Fine workmanship provided “the spectacular ceiling show[ing] Venus on her swan chariot drawn by bulls and accompanied by a dove, originally hand painted on canvas then attached to the ceiling and seal with lacquer.”

In 1959, the Royal York Hotel commissioned architectural firm Ross, Townsend, Patterson & Fish to design a 15-storey east tower. The hotel increased rooms by several hundred, and the convention centre could accommodate 8,000 people at meetings. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the hotel underwent an extensive restoration.

In 2001, Canadian Pacific Hotels became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. In 2007, the Toronto hotel became Fairmont Royal York. Still managed by Fairmont, the hotel is now owned by investor firm Ivanhoe Cambridge. The luxurious Royal York Hotel remains a jewel of Canadian architecture.

© 2024 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.


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