January 6, 2016

Lord Elgin Hotel – A History of Hospitality

….an excerpt ..the early story..

The Lord Elgin Hotel: 75 Years of History and Hospitality

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For 75 years it’s been a monumental presence in the heart of Canada’s capital — an elegant limestone landmark adorning the Ottawa streetscape, etched with history, welcoming the world. The Lord Elgin Hotel was an offspring of war and an early expression of the modernist vision that would eventually transform a dusty, rough-hewn lumber town into a cosmopolitan city and epicentre of national pride. An architectural triumph designed to complement the stone-walled, copper-clad houses of Parliament nearby, The Lord Elgin has remarkable links to Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, Mackenzie King, and to the hotel’s aristocratic namesake, the 8th Earl of Elgin.  This 19th-century governor general, whose 1853 visit to the city helped propel Ottawa’s quest to become Canada’s capital, is best known for ensuring that Responsible Government — in a word, democracy — would reign supreme in this wintry corner of Queen Victoria’s vast empire. A warm relationship between the hotel and Lord Elgin’s descendants in Scotland, including the present 11th Earl, continues to this day.

At the cornerstone ceremony marking The Lord Elgin’s construction in February 1941, a time when Britain was reeling from the enemy’s nightly bombing Blitz and the future of all democratic nations was in doubt, the fast-rising hotel was hailed by King himself as a symbol of the faith that freedom would ultimately prevail over tyranny in the war then raging. The building and the business it embodied would come to represent other values, too: a belief that public and private interests could ally to create a world-class capital for Canada; and that tourists, business travellers and other visitors to downtown Ottawa — some 10 million of them to date — would be drawn to a place where history and hospitality share a stylish, storied home.



Even before the Second World War broke out in September 1939, it was clear that Ottawa needed many more hotel rooms to match its expanding importance as a government nerve centre, commercial hub and tourist destination. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth made their historic visit to Ottawa in May 1939 — the key stop on the first ever tour of Canada by a reigning monarch — city officials were forced to enlist hundreds of homeowners with spare rooms to help accommodate the influx of royal watchers from out of town. With the onset of war just a few months later, the scarcity of quality, affordable hotel rooms in Ottawa became an urgent problem. A steady stream of military officials, public servants and equipment suppliers from coast to coast were pouring into the capital every day to plan and carry out Canada’s war effort. Soon, several members of the city’s Civic Industrial and Publicity Committee, a body formed to promote tourism and economic development in Ottawa, began a North America-wide search for a company willing to build a large new hotel in the capital’s downtown core. Europe was in flames and German U-boats threatened Canada’s shores; it was not an ideal time to attract investors or secure building material for a major hospitality project. But led by local businessman and city alderman Chester Pickering, by the spring of 1940 the special hotel sub-committee had wooed John C. “Jack” Udd, young president of the U.S.-based Ford Hotel Company, to Ottawa. The Ford company had built a no-frills, 750-room hotel in Toronto in 1928 and ran similar operations in Montreal, Buffalo, Rochester, N.Y. and Erie, Pennsylvania. After talks with Pickering and other top municipal and federal officials, Udd tentatively agreed to construct a hotel with at least 350 rooms in central Ottawa. But the exact site, design, financial terms and name of the proposed hotel still had to be worked out. Who ultimately made it all happen? Along with Pickering and Udd, the key player in the birth of The Lord Elgin Hotel was none other than Canada’s wartime prime minister:  William Lyon Mackenzie King.



Though the grandson of one of the country’s most famous political outlaws — William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion — Mackenzie King was cautious, understated and eager to compromise. He is best remembered by Canadians for dithering over the explosive question of conscription during the Second World War, for consulting mediums to communicate with his deceased mother and for showering affection on his pet Irish terrier, Pat, the country’s best known dog. But in pursuit of his goal to make Ottawa a classy, cosmopolitan capital — the place envisioned in 1893 by his mentor and predecessor Sir Wilfrid Laurier as a potential “Washington of the North” — the eccentric prime minister was highly knowledgeable and resolute. In 1936, King had enlisted (in his words) the “exceptionally brilliant” Jacques Gréber, a renowned urban planner from France and promoter of the “City Beautiful” movement, to help him create a Canadian capital encompassing both sides of the Ottawa River and worthy of international admiration — a showcase of grand public buildings and exalted monuments, stately boulevards and scenic parkways. Next, King convinced his cabinet colleagues to support the federal acquisition of various properties along Elgin Street. Widened in 1938 and its north end punctuated by the soaring National War Memorial unveiled during the 1939 royal visit, Elgin Street was central to King’s vision of a pride-stirring, river-spanning ceremonial route approaching Parliament Hill and ringing the urban heart of Ottawa-Hull — today’s Confederation Boulevard. It was to be a circuit of symbolism lined with magnificent architecture and dignified statues — a place befitting a confident young nation striving for greatness on the world stage. In King’s mind, Ottawa’s immediate practical problem — the wartime hotel-room crunch — could be solved in a way that also made an enduring contribution to old Bytown’s transformation into a world-class metropolis.