On the morning of Jan. 22, 1901 the world awoke to some shocking but inevitable news: Queen Victoria, after reigning over a vast empire which included Canada for the past 64 years, was dead.
During her reign Toronto had grown from a colonial outpost of 8000 people in 1837 to an economic powerhouse of almost 500 000 by 1900.
So ingrained was Victoria in Toronto’s psyche that most found it hard if not impossible to utter the less appealing word king.
A new era was dawning and at its helm was King Edward VII, eldest son of Victoria, a man of insatiable appetites and the complete opposite in everyway from his mother. At the time of Queen Victoria’s death Toronto was shifting its core from Front and Jarvis to Bay and Queen, the site of the New City Hall.
George Gooderham, founder of the Bank of Toronto as well as builder of the famed Flatiron building at Church and Wellington, was afraid that the old Downtown core would sink into an inner-city warehouse district.
So he formed the Toronto Hotel Company and aimed to build a hotel that would be unsurpassed by any on the continent in order to keep King Street east of Yonge from becoming a depressed area.
In 1900 Gooderham purchased an entire city block on the south side of King Street, including two of Toronto’s largest and oldest shopping emporiums: the Golden Lion and Golden Griffin. They were built in the 1840s and work began immediately on the construction his new hotel.
To build the new hotel, the Toronto Hotel Company hired Henry Ives Cobb; a prominent Chicagoan architect who would build the new 6-story hotel in the then-popular beaux-arts style.
In 1901 a few months after construction had begun and without much explanation Toronto architect Edward James Lennox, who just finished his 10-year masterwork the Toronto City Hall (now Old City Hall), took over the hotel project.
He modified Cobb’s design by adding another floor to the brick middle section and another floor on top, bringing the hotel to a total of eight stories and making it then one of the tallest buildings in Toronto.
The new hotel was originally going to be named the Palace Hotel to honour Queen Victoria, but after her death George Gooderham personally wrote to the new king asking permission to re-name his venture King Edward Hotel after the new monarch.
King Edward VII graciously accepted and Gooderham set out to build a hotel that was going to rival anything the European continent had to offer and out shine any other hotel in North America.
The King Edward Hotel opened on May 11, 1903 at 6 a.m., to welcome the first paying guests.
The main entrance was through an ornate, dark-green metal porch with a canopy that was as the hotel’s opening day brochure stated, “a perfect introduction to the interiors beyond.”
The first name on the hotel register was fittingly George Gooderham, but the first real paying guest was John A. Davidson of Chicago, who had supplied the marble for the hotel and was shown to Room 459 at $2 a night.
Once inside the hotel lobby, called the Rotunda, guests were greeted to a series of spectacular rooms with names like the Louis VI Drawing Room and Queen Alexandra’s Tea Room– each one evoking a different mood amidst sumptuous surroundings. From the 2-storey atrium with its hand-laid mosaic tile floor the Rotunda was furnished with dark leather-and-wood chairs, settees, potted palms and Turkish and Persian rugs spread throughout.
In 1903 the King Edward hotel had sweeping parlours for ladies to enjoy afternoon tea and private enclaves for men to enjoy their port.
The Edwardian Age came to an end with the death of King Edward VII on May 6, 1910 but his namesake hotel went on treating its wealthy guests in the opulent Edwardian fashion. However all this was about to change.
On Tuesday Aug. 4, 1914 at 7 p.m the Globe newspaper posted on its bulletin board outside the hotel that Great Britain had declared war on Germany.
This new war was seen as a chance to expand the British Empire and make her Dominions (us) even more powerful with what was thought to be a short war with modest casualties.
But it wasn’t to be as the war lasted four long grueling years with the deaths of some 37 million people, including 25,000 young men from Toronto. The world was a different place after the Great War and the King Edward Hotel, after 10 years of unparallel success as the “axis of influence,” was going to change its ways if it was to survive.
The hotel went through a radical transformation, shedding its Edwardian elegance and stripping away its beaux-arts opulence for a sleeker “Jazz Age” look with the addition of an 18-storey tower and a then all-the-rage cafeteria in the basement. In the 1920s fashionable people were calling the venerable institution the “King Eddy” and once again the hotel became the in-spot for dining and dancing after years of war and the devastating influenza pandemic that had followed.
For the next few decades the King Eddy not only survived when so many of its contemporaries were being torn down, but it thrived, willing to change with times.
Now 110 years after its front doors first opened, the King Edward Hotel is still welcoming guests—and condo owners alike since three floors have been redeveloped for private use—ensuring another century of being the undisputed monarch of King Street.
To celebrate its 110th, the King Eddy has unveiled a permanent historic photo exhibit in the lobby showing how the hotel looked on its opening day.
Join me Wednesday May 22 at 6pm for an after-hours tour of St. Lawrence Market including a wine and cheese reception. Tickets can be reserved at www.brucebelltours.ca or by calling 647-393-8687. Also look for me on Doors Open Sunday May 26 on Market Street.