As we approach our 75th anniversary of the opening of this iconic downtown Ottawa hotel and landmark, we have enlisted the help of a well known journalist and professor – Randy Boswell, to document the story of the historic Lord Elgin, from it’s inception to current day. It is a fascinating tale, one which is interwoven with the history of Ottawa as well as Canada.
Here is just the beginning of Lord Elgin’s story, as written by Randy Boswell. There is so much more to come.
For more information, please contact:
Randy Boswell (firstname.lastname@example.org; 613-868-8447)
The Lord Elgin Hotel: 75 Years of History and Hospitality
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 — about 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.
On May 3, 1940, a meeting was held between King, Udd and Redverse Pratt, a key Pickering ally and city-employed manager of the sub-committee working to secure the new hotel. The lobbyists pitched King on the idea of building an Ottawa branch of the Ford Hotel Company on land along Elgin Street recently acquired by the federal government. The prime minister quickly nixed any plan to construct a standard, boxy, red-brick Ford Hotel with its uninspired architecture and cheap construction materials. “I gave them to understand that the government would probably consider favourably the erection of a first class hotel in that locality, providing it fitted into Gréber’s plan for development,” King recounted that evening in his diary. “Also that the building was faced with stone, either wholly or in part, and that the height was in accordance with what Gréber deemed essential for the preservation of a suitable sky-line. The company is now prepared to erect a hotel as fine in appearance as the Mount Royal in Montreal… This shows how wise we have been to secure this frontage when we did. That was my own thought, and I had more or less to use all the power I could command to secure the appropriation.”
The Mount Royal, an 1,100-room luxury hotel designed by the prestigious Montreal architectural firm Ross and Macdonald, was opened in 1922 and built to a scale well beyond Ford’s intentions or Ottawa’s grasp. Even so, King had raised the stakes dramatically. And while there were many more steps to take before the city’s hotel dream could be realized, the stars were aligning. The tentative support of Canada’s prime minister — not to mention his direct involvement in the building’s proposed placement and design — had pushed the imagined hotel a good way towards reality.
Meanwhile, as the three men were meeting in Ottawa, Nazi Germany was continuing its aggressive advance across Europe. Norway was being overrun that day by invading forces, portending a new northern base of operations from which Germany could escalate its attacks on Britain. In his diary, just before recording his happier thoughts about Ottawa’s potential new “first class hotel,” King had written: “It must be a dark and sombre night in the British Isles.”
According to Pickering, the crucial moment in securing the final agreement to build The Lord Elgin came on July 24, 1940. On that day, below a banner headline about deadly firefights in the skies above England, The Ottawa Evening Citizen carried a front-page picture of an architectural drawing that showed the city’s future hotel impressively positioned on the northwest corner of Laurier and Elgin streets. Envisioned at the site of what was then a lowly gas station, the building’s great scale, handsome stone-covered walls and château-style roof not only conformed to King’s expectations of grandeur, but also seemed to declare Ottawa’s coming-of-age as a city of consequence and ambition. “The magnificent new hotel,” the newspaper reported, “will be constructed of Canadian limestone and furnished in lavish manner.” Now projected to cost $1.3 million (much more than the $900,000 Udd had originally intended) and to be ready for guests as early as April 1941, the depiction of the still-unnamed hotel and the accompanying story left readers with the impression that federal approval for the project was essentially a done deal. It was not, in fact, but the story had been planted to help persuade King to give his final stamp of approval to the project. “Admittedly I had to use some shenanigans,” Pickering recalled in Net Worth, the 1973 memoir of his life in business and politics. “I knew, for example, that Mackenzie King longed to make Ottawa the most attractive capital in the world, so I was sure that the idea of cleaning up that dilapidated section (of the city) would appeal to him.” A plan had been hatched, Pickering claimed, to use the news coverage to project the notion that the new hotel was so perfect an addition to Ottawa’s skyline that “getting permission to build there was almost a foregone conclusion.” It was arranged through Pickering’s friend Walter Turnbull, the prime minister’s private secretary, that the day’s newspaper would be placed promptly in King’s hands. “We heard later from Turnbull that, when the ‘Old Man’ came in, even though those were the busiest hours of the war, he spent a full half-hour looking at that picture and daydreaming. The stage was set.” King’s diary from the same day does indeed suggest that the artist’s rendering — along with a conversation he’d had about the proposed hotel with his Public Works Minister Arthur Cardin — fueled his enthusiasm and firmed up his support: “Discussed with Cardin the new hotel for Elgin Street. He has had the architects carry out my suggestion about change of the roof to … Chateau style. Also has secured building completely of stone and has new hotel planned to be located in the middle of the area between Laurier Avenue and Slater Street … It will be ornamental on that location — a real addition to Ottawa.”
Ald. Pickering had lured one of North America’s top hotel builders to Ottawa in the darkest days of the Second World War. He’d then used all of his leverage at city hall to secure approval of a contentious tax deal that would allow the Ford company to pay just one-third of the standard municipal assessment for the hotel’s first 15 years. Furthermore, Pickering had drummed up enough local investment dollars to satisfy another of Udd’s preconditions for committing his own firm to a million-dollar stake in the hotel project. Finally, the alderman helped finagle federal approval for the building site (under a 99-year lease arrangement) and facilitated design changes that met King’s demands for capital-worthy elegance without sacrificing Udd’s need for profitability. In short, Pickering had achieved what most of his municipal confreres and other doubters had deemed an impossible task just a few months earlier. It’s little wonder that, some years later, this determined and dynamic businessman-politician who’d poured so much energy into securing a grand new hotel for Ottawa would become the principal owner of The Lord Elgin.
With the deal in place, it was time to get building. On Sept. 11, 1940, Udd and Pickering were joined by Ottawa Mayor Stanley Lewis and a host of other dignitaries for a special sod-turning ceremony at the site of the future hotel. “Lewis took off his coat and hat, and swung a pick-axe manfully into the hard-packed ground near Elgin and Laurier,” the Ottawa Journal reported the next day. “Taking the shovel handed him, the Mayor ladled out a good shovelful of earth and threw it aside.” So began a construction blitz that, remarkably, would see completion of a 12-storey, 400-room hotel — at the height of the war and through the dead of winter — in just 10 months. Ottawa and all of Canada needed just such an emotional lift; during the week Mayor Lewis broke ground for the hotel project, hundreds of Londoners were killed in German air attacks and Buckingham Palace itself was targeted by the Luftwaffe, destroying the palace chapel as the King and Queen took cover nearby. “No one should blind himself to the fact,” British prime minister Winston Churchill stated in a famous speech broadcast worldwide on Sept. 11, “that a heavy, full-scale invasion of this island is being prepared.”
As construction began on the Ottawa hotel, even in the face of such grim news from across the Atlantic, the city had found a way to be upbeat, hopeful, forward-looking. Udd relocated temporarily to Ottawa to personally oversee construction; city leaders and the local newspapers were impressed by the gesture. The Ford president’s strong attachments to Canada — evident not only from the hotel company’s operations in Toronto and Montreal, but also in Udd’s marriage to the former Grace Eaman, a nurse from the Cornwall-area village of Osnabruck Centre who knew Ottawa well — reassured all concerned that Udd’s commitment to the Canadian capital was genuine and deep. General contractor John Wilson announced that, as far as possible, all sub-contractors, equipment suppliers and skilled labourers for the massive undertaking would come from the local area, a huge boost to the city’s economy. “There were smiles on the faces of all interested parties at the realization that work on the big hotel was at last under way,” the Citizen observed. “As the new hotel will occupy a most important site in the centre of the Capital, it was essential that it be a building of dignified and attractive appearance.”
“Dignified and attractive” it would be, thanks to King’s interventions. Apparently in response to the prime minister’s mention of Montreal’s Mount Royal as an example to emulate, Udd secured Ross and Macdonald to design the Ottawa addition to Ford’s existing five-city chain. The Montreal architects had already designed many other prestigious hotels across Canada. The firm had also helped to define what’s been described by Harold Kalman, author of A History of Canadian Architecture, as a “uniquely Canadian architectural style” — a look typified by monumental, “châteauesque” public structures and grand railway hotels with stone-faced walls and steep-sloped, dormered copper roofs. The company’s previous hotel projects in this “national style” included the majestic Royal York in Toronto (1929), the Fort Garry in Winnipeg (1914), the Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton (1914) and (under the predecessor partnership Ross and MacFarlane) Ottawa’s own Château Laurier (1912), the historic, castle-like hotel beyond the north terminus of Elgin Street. By the time it was hired in 1940 to design Ottawa’s newest hotel, the company run by George Allen Ross (1879-1946) and Robert Henry Macdonald (1875-1942) had earned a sterling reputation for creating ambitious, classically inspired, functionally modern landmarks. Notably, the Château Laurier and Lord Elgin — situated just 400 metres from each other, but built three decades apart — represent bookends in the architectural oeuvre of Ross, MacFarlane and Macdonald, being the firm’s first and last hotels respectively. The two structures also signal the evolution that occurred within North America’s “grand hotel” tradition from old-world opulence to the more economical, restrained elegance of the post-Depression years. Ottawa’s new hotel would be an aesthetic success, but not a symbol of sumptuous wealth.
Assisting Ross and Macdonald in realizing their vision was W.C. Beattie (1886-1945), the project’s Ottawa-based associate architect. His surviving designs from the 1920s and ’30s include the York Street Public School in Lowertown, the former St. Patrick’s College in Ottawa East (now Immaculata High School) and the heritage-designated former Ottawa Hydro headquarters at the corner of Bank and Albert streets, an Art Deco classic that’s now a Bridgehead coffee shop located just a few blocks from The Lord Elgin. While the finished hotel would be described as a “modernized” design in the “French château” or Normandy style, certain exterior embellishments — including chevrons and other geometric patterns etched on the building’s façade — and many aspects of the original ground-floor interior reflected the Art Deco impulses of the era.
By November 1940, the ground had been broken, the concrete foundation had been poured and hundreds of workers were swarming day and night over the Elgin Street construction site between Laurier and Slater. What the hotel still needed was a name — a seemingly simple step that, in fact, prompted 154 different proposals, many months of debate and indecision and, at long last, a choice that was widely and warmly embraced: The Lord Elgin Hotel.
But it might well have been called The Kingsford (to triply honour King George, Mackenzie King and the Ford Hotel Company), The Tweedsmuir (after the late governor general Lord Tweedsmuir, who had died suddenly in February 1940 after a stroke at Rideau Hall) or The Winston Churchill (in tribute to Britain’s inspiring new wartime prime minister) — just a few of the contenders that earned serious consideration. Also on the list of possibilities: Empire, Confederation, Capital, Marlborough, The Lion and Dunkirk. “So long as they don’t call that new hotel the Bluebird or the Pussywillow or anything quaint or kittenish, we shall be satisfied,” the Ottawa Journal teased as the city, even in the throes of a world war, battled over a hotel’s name.
King himself had spent time wondering what the place should be called. “I would like to give it a name,” the prime minister wrote in his diary that July. “Cannot think of one unless it were ‘Queen Elizabeth’ ” — an idea meant to honour the wife of George VI and mother of Princess Elizabeth, the future queen. But the wildly popular star of the 1939 Royal Visit to Canada — who pioneered the crowd-pleasing royal “walkabout” on Elgin Street during that trip, and was known from 1952 until her death in 2002 as the Queen Mother — was not, in the end, granted the honour. Nor were Canada’s first prime minister John A. Macdonald, silent-era Canadian film star Mary Pickford, or Ottawa Valley pioneer settler Philemon Wright, though each had their champions as the name game played out through the spring, summer and fall of 1940.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the intense public interest in what name should grace the new hotel, a solution proved elusive. Finally, at a municipal meeting on Nov. 12, 1940, Alderman Hamnett Pinhey Hill, Jr. submitted that “Lord Elgin” should be chosen, a name that had been previously suggested by a letter writer to the Citizen. Hill’s proposal was embraced unanimously. Moments later, a phone call was made to the New York headquarters of Ford Hotels; Udd and other Ford executives promptly endorsed the city’s choice. According to some news reports from the time, the prime minister was also consulted and voiced his approval, though King’s diary is silent on the matter. The precise reasons given by Ald. Hill for his sponsorship of the name were not recorded in the day’s press coverage nor in the archived minutes of the city meeting, though Lord Elgin’s service as a pre-Confederation governor general would certainly have been known to Hill and his council colleagues. The name, after all, was already attached to the downtown street where the hotel was being built, and which city planners had just broadened into a showy boulevard as part of the Greber-King plan to beautify Canada’s capital. But Hill, the son of Ottawa’s leading local historian (H.P. “Hammy” Hill, a lifelong friend of King’s) and a descendant of one of 19th-century Ottawa’s most prominent families, might also have been aware of something else: a historic encounter between Lord Elgin and his own his great-grandfather — the pioneer physician and civic leader Dr. Hamnett Hill — on a banner day in Bytown nearly 100 years earlier.
Scottish nobleman James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin and heir to the clan of Robert the Bruce, medieval King of Scots, was governor general of the Province of Canada from 1847 to 1854. Lord Elgin first figured prominently in Ottawa’s history in 1849, when the British colony (today’s Ontario and Quebec, or the united Upper and Lower Canada) was convulsed by conflict over the Rebellion Losses Bill, dividing Tories and Reformers, English and French, and Protestants and Catholics in riotous hostility. The Reform government’s bill, modeled on a similar measure passed earlier in Upper Canada, compensated Lower Canada residents who’d suffered lost or damaged property during the suppression of the 1837 rebellions — which, though quickly crushed, led to important democratic reforms and kind treatment of rebel leaders (including King’s grandfather, W.L. Mackenzie) by later historians. Yet Tory opponents slammed the restitution bill as a financial reward to rebels, even though anyone directly implicated in treasonous activity was excluded from compensation. Passage of the bill in April 1849 by the majority Reform government, followed by Lord Elgin’s formal consent, sparked mayhem in the colonial capital of Montreal, where Parliament was burned and Elgin’s carriage was pelted by stones and eggs. The governor general’s determination to support the duly-elected government — despite his own misgivings about the bill, and even in the face of violent protests — has been hailed as a landmark moment in Canadian political history, confirmation of the principle that democratic, autonomous rule or “Responsible Government,” a central aim of the 1837 rebellions, shouldn’t be thwarted by unelected administrators, including the Queen’s own representative in Canada. Yet continued agitation by Montreal mobs forced Lord Elgin to make a fateful decision: he would relocate Canada’s capital to a more peaceable city.
Montreal’s misfortune was Bytown’s golden opportunity. The city that would be renamed Ottawa in 1855 was located a safe distance from the border of a potentially hostile U.S., and on the very shore of the Ottawa River, the boundary between French and English Canada, making it the perfect seat-of-government compromise between the country’s two main linguistic groups, as well as old Upper and Lower Canada. But Lord Elgin’s proposed visit to Bytown in September 1849 — widely viewed as a scouting trip for a new colonial capital — ignited a Montreal-style uproar known as the Stony Monday Riot. Tories and Reformers in the future Ottawa, just like their fellow partisans in Montreal a few months earlier, clashed violently over whether Lord Elgin, vice-regal backer of the contentious Rebellion Losses Bill, should be warmly embraced or vehemently protested when he arrived in Bytown. Instead, the governor general steered well clear of the rowdy place and announced that Canada’s capital would — at least for the time being — alternate every four years between Toronto and Quebec City. Bytown, Kingston, Hamilton and other hopefuls were out of luck for the moment, but Lord Elgin had clearly set the stage for soon choosing a new, permanent capital of Canada.
Nearly four years passed before Lord Elgin’s next major impact on the future of Bytown/Ottawa. The tensions of 1849 had died down by the summer of 1853, and the governor general was finally scheduled to visit the rapidly growing lumber town at the industrial and intellectual heart of the Ottawa Valley. When he arrived by steamship on July 28, 1853, Lord Elgin was met by throngs of well-behaved well-wishers, all of them eager to impress upon Victoria’s top Canadian designate that once the expensive, inconvenient system of alternating Canada’s capital between Toronto and Quebec had run its course, the Queen should make Ottawa her permanent, picturesque “metropolis” of British North America. At the front of the crowd was Dr. Hamnett Hill, president of the newly formed Bytown Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum, a society dedicated to developing the Ottawa Valley’s natural resources and spreading knowledge about science, nature, industry and the arts among all classes of citizens. “We, the trustees and officials of this Institute,” Dr. Hill had declared in his inaugural address earlier in 1853, “hereby give notice that we intend to make this place, now called ‘Bytown,’ the Capitol, to be henceforth called the ‘City of Ottawa’…. Here alone do we find the two provinces really and geographically united.” Now, just a few months later, Dr. Hill got his chance to press the governor general directly on the seat-of-government question as he delivered a glowing welcome to Lord Elgin — “with the liveliest feelings of pleasure and satisfaction” — and accompanied him to the grand opening of the institute’s special exhibition showcasing Ottawa’s resource wealth and intellectual sophistication. “I am grateful to you,” the distinguished visitor replied, “for giving me so admirable an opportunity of seeing how rapidly the Arts which accompany and adorn civilized life advance along the banks of the Ottawa.” Dr. Hill and other civic leaders were infused with newfound confidence as they carried their “Capitol” campaign forward through the mid-1850s. On Dec. 31, 1857, Queen Victoria announced her choice for Canada’s permanent seat of government: Ottawa. By the time the Parliament Buildings were erected and the legislature officially opened in June 1866, the Province of Canada was already committed to a Confederation pact that would, on July 1, 1867, see Ontario and Quebec join with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to form the Dominion of Canada — the sprawling nation destined to stretch from Atlantic to Pacific to Arctic. Its capital, too, would be Ottawa. And Lord Elgin’s legacy as a true friend of the city, bound up in the struggle for democracy and the seat-of-government saga, was cemented in 1940 when, at the urging of Dr. Hill’s own great-grandson, a splendid new hotel being built a short distance from Parliament Hill was christened “The Lord Elgin.”
James Bruce returned to Britain in 1854, later serving as high commissioner to China and viceroy of India, where he died of a heart attack in 1863 while travelling in a remote part of the country on a diplomatic mission. His widow — Mary Louisa, the Lady Elgin — arranged for the placement of an elaborate tombstone in the forested hills of northern India, a loving tribute to her departed spouse. The esteemed Canadian historian, W.L. Morton, hailed Lord Elgin for his pivotal role in helping Canada evolve a “government of moderates between the extremes of race, partisanship and tradition. What was extraordinary in Elgin’s career in Canada was his immediate and imaginative mastery of his role, and the creative spirit in which he developed it.”
Even as construction of The Lord Elgin Hotel ramped up rapidly in late 1940, there was a niggling concern about its name that generated further public discussion in Ottawa and beyond. A popular watchmaker in the U.S. — the Elgin National Watch Company — pronounced its name (like the eponymous Illinois city where it was based) with a soft ‘g’ sound: as in “gin and tonic” or “Eljin”. Were Canadians mispronouncing the name of Ottawa’s proposed new hotel? As the issue “had become one of considerable controversy,” an enterprising journalist at the Toronto Star — convinced the soft ‘g’ was “an Americanism” — sought a clear answer by writing to Lord Elgin’s grandson, the 10th Earl of Elgin, at the Bruce family estate in Dumfermline, Scotland. “I am very much interested in what you tell me of the new hotel in Ottawa,” replied the Earl, adding that the suggestion “the Bruce family pronounce the name of Elgin with a soft ‘g’ is not correct. So far as I am aware, the ‘g’ is always pronounced hard in Scotland. I have heard it pronounced soft in London, but whenever I have had the opportunity, I have corrected this.” The Ottawa Journal reported Lord Elgin’s definitive intervention under the bold headline: “This Should Settle It”.
There was another alleged wrinkle with the Ottawa hotel project, and this one took high-profile advertisements in Ottawa newspapers to iron out. During local elections scheduled for Dec. 2, 1940, some candidates sought to undermine Pickering’s campaign for a seat on the city’s powerful Board of Control by asserting that, due to military needs, steel would not be available for the construction of The Lord Elgin, and that the hotel could not possibly be completed until after the war. An incensed Pickering denied the suggestion in news stories that ran on the day of the election, and Ford Hotels quickly placed prominent ads in the Citizen and Journal in a bid to throttle the damaging gossip. “CITIZENS OF OTTAWA — TAKE NOTE,” the advertisements trumpeted above a large image of the planned hotel. “Any rumour that the steel for ‘The Lord Elgin Hotel’ will not be available until after the war is False. Delivery is guaranteed in 4 weeks. The hotel will be built under Government Supervision, which will guarantee a substantial building, and will be a credit to the Capital City.” Signed personally by Udd, the emphatic newspaper notice had its desired effect. Ald. Pickering was the leading vote-getter in the election, securing his position as a city controller with increased influence in municipal affairs. “Mr. Pickering,” the Journal reported, “said the vote given him showed clearly that the people of Ottawa were in favour of the Lord Elgin hotel project, which he sponsored in and out of the council.” The shipment of steel girders arrived in Ottawa before Christmas, and work on the skeleton of the Lord Elgin was under way just after New Year’s Day 1941.
It’s a rare private enterprise in Canada that can claim to have had a sitting prime minister lay the cornerstone of its place of business. But in the case of The Lord Elgin, so much a product of Mackenzie King’s broad vision for the national capital as well as his direct influence on the project’s planning and architecture, the PM’s presence at the historic occasion might have been expected. And on the bitterly cold afternoon of Feb. 27, 1941, the prime minister was chauffeured to the Elgin Street construction site and, on a raised platform in front of a sizable crowd of onlookers, accepted an ornate silver trowel from Udd. A specially prepared block of limestone was then lowered into place at the northwest edge of the building’s footprint. The cornerstone, set about hip-height atop two previously laid rows of the hotel’s outer wall, was engraved simply: “THE LORD ELGIN A.D. 1941.” But inside the stone was a hollowed-out space where an assortment of “coins of the realm,” copies of the day’s newspapers and one other document — an elaborately lettered scroll prepared at Pickering’s request — were placed as a time capsule for some future generation to discover. Inscribed on the scroll was a message that captured the awful dread of that moment in history, when the threat of a German invasion of the British Isles still loomed, but even moreso the Allied spirit of resilience, courage and confidence: “We who are living to-day have faith there’ll always be an England — Democracy will always prevail.” A further line declared the cornerstone “truly laid” by the prime minister, below which were the signatures of 25 witnesses, among them King, Pickering and Udd, public works minister Cardin and Mayor Lewis, the architects Ross and Beattie, and construction chief Wilson.
Pickering described in his memoir how there was a genuine fear at the time that “Britain might not survive,” so “on the spur of the moment” he’d had the scroll created to make the ceremony a more uplifting event, countering the time-capsule newspapers “with their sad headlines.” Remarkably, in an account of Pickering’s scroll gesture published a few days before the cornerstone was laid, the alderman was quoted saying that, “it would be nice when the hotel had outlived its usefulness in 75 years or so, and was being torn down, that the people living then would know the thoughts of the people who took part in the ceremony.” While the scroll’s message of faith in democracy has reached the people of Canada, circa 2016, the hotel can look forward to many more decades of “usefulness” than Pickering predicted in 1941.
King, writing in his diary, commented on the scroll’s promise to future Canadians: “It is, I believe, a true bit of prophecy.” He recounted the day’s events in detail, noting how he “went through the motions of laying the cement and striking the stone with a mallet” before declaring the building’s architecture “an inspiration to all” —and an excellent example of the Gréber plan in action. Udd also showed the prime minister a model room for the finished hotel that had been made up for demonstration purposes in a Slater Street building adjacent to the construction site.
In his public remarks, King had spoken eloquently about the life of Lord Elgin and his links to “the struggle for freedom a century ago” and “the achievement of responsible government.” He had also congratulated “the working man” toiling to erect the great hotel and expressed his delight that construction was “going so rapidly.” King then paid special tribute to a 49-year-old Ottawa labourer, Charles Corbett, who had died that month from a tragic fall at the building site.
In the diary, the prime minister reflected further on the day’s rich symbolism, from the new hotel’s intriguing connections to his rebel grandfather — granted amnesty by Lord Elgin in 1849 after spending 10 years in exile in the U.S. — to King’s own early career as an industrial relations expert, Canada’s first deputy minister of labour and finally the federal labour minister under Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
“There have been numerous things today to confirm my belief that there is no such thing as co-incidence in some of the happenings but rather that they are part of a real plan. They centered around the laying of the corner-stone,” King wrote just hours after he’d spread the mortar with his ceremonial trowel. “There comes to my thought the significance of a corner stone of the British Commonwealth of Nations being that of Responsible Government… There also comes to mind the (commemorative) stone at Niagara near my grand-father’s residence as marking the birthplace of Responsible Government. I am as certain as I can be that my being asked to lay the corner stone of the Lord Elgin Hotel and taking into account all that the ceremony signifies of the relations between Elgin and my grand-father, Elgin having been the one who gave the official recognition to Mackenzie’s work for Responsible Government … is all part of the working out in the course of a century of the evidence of Divine Justice illustrated by the events of history — the Hand of God in the affairs of men.”
King, his mind seized by the multi-layered meaning of the moment, also observed that the cornerstone and much of the rest of the hotel’s limestone façade had been shipped from the famous quarries at Queenston, the Niagara-area town where his grandfather had established a radical newspaper in 1824 to begin his battle against Upper Canada’s old oligarchs. “It was significant how the ceremony had to do with municipal authorities as well as the Federal Government; Sir Wilfrid as well as Lord Elgin; U.S. representatives as well as Canada in erecting this structure in architectural beauty; (the) part of labour as well as of capital, government and management. In fact, all of the things with which my life and that of the family connection has been most closely associated.”
It’s little wonder that Udd, possibly overwhelmed by King’s torrent of historical and metaphorical associations, turned at one point to the prime minister and (as King recalled it) “told me what I had said caused them to be drawn into something much more than they had ever dreamed of, and were pleased beyond words.”
Laying down the hotel’s cornerstone was far from King’s last involvement in the birth of The Lord Elgin. In May 1941, the prime minister again welcomed Udd and Pratt to a private meeting, this time to receive the silver trowel from the cornerstone ceremony — now suitably engraved — as a personal keepsake. (The object is a treasured artifact at Laurier House, the former home of both King and Laurier that is now a small national museum located about 1.5 km east of the hotel on Laurier Avenue in Sandy Hill.) By now, Pratt had been lured from his position with the city to become Udd’s choice as general manager of the hotel; a news story from about this time reported that Pratt “has a total of 1,004 applications on his desk for positions with the hotel.” During the visit with King, the prime minister mentioned a letter he’d just received from the 10th Earl of Elgin about the proposed placing of white marble busts of his great-grandparents, the 19th-century Lord and Lady Elgin, in the lobby of the completed building. King and the Scottish earl had apparently been corresponding on the matter and now, just weeks before the expected grand opening of The Lord Elgin, an extraordinary gesture was in the works.
“Also suggested the wisdom of having the interior of the rooms done in one colour, instead of a variety of colours — sort of a rainbow effect, as, in showing me the little sample room, (Udd) had told me was likely,” King noted in his diary, further evidence of the prime minister’s hands-on involvement in — bordering on micro-management of — the hotel project. “He agreed this was a very useful suggestion. I told him it was a sort of product of jazz to colour up rooms in that way. Men, having serious work to do, want to have quieter tones, and single tones.”
The official opening of The Lord Elgin Hotel on July 19, 1941, marked a milestone in the modern evolution of Canada’s capital — the successful collaboration of a private company, the local municipality and the national government in bringing both a vitally important public service and a stunningly attractive piece of architecture to Ottawa’s urban core. Another story unfolded that day, too, one that hasn’t been told before in connection with the hotel’s christening, but which encompasses not only the auspicious public occasion but also the deep personal anguish of Canada’s most successful — and most peculiar — prime minister. In so many ways, The Lord Elgin was already Mackenzie King’s hotel. But his front-and-centre participation in the ceremony that formally launched The Lord Elgin on that mid-summer Saturday 75 years ago would create an enduring bond between the politician and the place. It’s a connection symbolized by the shape of the structure itself and the two gleaming works of art he arranged to unveil upon the hotel’s inauguration; but the link is evident, as well, in the preserved private thoughts of a man who was compelled by duty that day to perform on a public stage while still grieving over the loss of his closest companion: Pat the dog, the “great noble soul” so central to King’s life.
His pet since 1924, the dog was referenced in King’s diary almost every day for the next 17 years. Known for accompanying King to the voting booth on election days, the pooch and the PM had even been photographed by Yousuf Karsh, Canada’s most famous portraitist, and featured many times in newspaper stories. But on July 15, 1941 — after many months of failing health, and just days before the planned opening of The Lord Elgin — the aged dog finally died. King, who had rushed home from a meeting of the war cabinet to be with Pat at the end, was deluged with telegrams, telephone calls and handwritten condolences from across the country. The passing of the prime minister’s dog even earned front-page news coverage in Ottawa, where King’s beloved “little man” was a familiar sight.
But amid his evident grief over the dog’s death, King gamely prepared for The Lord Elgin’s grand opening. On July 17, two days before the scheduled celebration, the prime minister was given an advance tour of the completed hotel “to see the lay of the land before Saturday’s function,” as he noted in the diary. Udd showed several rooms to King, who was pleased that “they had kept 3 top floors as I had indicated, in one colour… (Udd) himself agreed that they were really the best of all.” King said he wished more of the rooms were painted in a single colour and that they were larger, but Udd’s explanation — that the hotel was aimed at travellers of modest means, did not offer grand ballrooms and was “not intended to compete with the Château” — struck King as a “wise” strategy in the Ottawa marketplace. There was a brief discussion of the thickness of the pillars at the hotel entrance; King (according to Pickering’s memoir) had personally pressed for wide columns to support the porte-cochère, but said he now regretted exerting his influence in this instance and wished for narrower pillars. The ever-accommodating Udd promised to make the change, which was later carried out at the Ford Hotel Company’s considerable expense. “The building itself is a real addition to the Capital,” King concluded, “and has much to commend it inside as well as out.”
On the morning of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, King visited Pat’s burial place at Moorside, the prime minister’s cottage property north of Ottawa that, after his own death in 1950, would be bequeathed to the people of Canada as the nucleus of Gatineau Park and to help fulfill King and Gréber’s vision of a distinctively green National Capital Region. Touchingly, King plucked some pink flowers from the animal’s gravesite to adorn his suit for the hotel’s official launch party. “I had dressed in my grey flannel suit, put on (a) black tie — for my own feelings re Pat — When I saw the flowers I took the brightest … and put them in the button hole of my coat, to wear while I spoke in the city. To me they spoke of ‘the life that shall ever be’ — of resurrection, joy of eternal life — they expressed my real feelings re little Pat.”
Sporting his dark tie and bright blossoms, the dual signs of King’s conflicted emotions on that day, the prime minister was driven to Ottawa before noon. He took special notice, while crossing the bridge from Hull, of an optical illusion in which the old Château Laurier, the new Lord Elgin and the East Block of Parliament all appeared to sitting side by side — “a true relationship,” in the mind’s eye of the prime minister, between the private and public architecture of the burgeoning capital.
The grand opening of The Lord Elgin Hotel was the subject of exhaustive advance coverage that morning by the Citizen and Journal, each of which published lavishly illustrated supplements devoted to the story of the hotel from conception to completion. Scores of congratulatory (and self-congratulatory) advertisements from local companies, almost all of which had supplied goods or services to The Lord Elgin for construction or interior elements, peppered the 30 pages of special coverage. It was almost as if the war had stopped for a day so that Ottawa could pay full attention to the unveiling of its new hotel. But the rest of the news on July 19 made clear that the war had certainly not stopped, including reports of a furious German offensive on the recently opened Russian Front and dark foreshadows of the coming Pacific War with Japan. There were local stories, too, about the famed American actor James Cagney, who had arrived in Ottawa to shoot scenes for the propaganda film Captains of the Clouds. Cagney, best known for playing gangsters, was cast this time as a Canadian bush pilot drawn into the war against Germany.
Finally, there was an astonishing coincidence that linked another famous Churchill moment with The Lord Elgin’s genesis. On the very day the hotel opened, and at about the same time King and 150 invited guests were gathered at The Lord Elgin for its inaugural luncheon, the British prime minister was making history across the Atlantic by launching his famous “V for Victory” morale-boosting campaign. Churchill’s stirring two-finger salute and the emblazoning of the letter V just about everywhere on Allied soil — and as a subversive sign of resistance across Nazi-occupied Europe —
The hotel opening attracted a who’s who of elite Ottawa — much of the federal cabinet, leading opposition members, U.S. and British diplomats, top federal public servants, municipal politicians, business leaders and journalists. Among the list of invited guests was Tommy Douglas, a C.C.F MP and party whip at the time, future premier of Saskatchewan and eventual father of the Canadian medicare system. But the stars of the day were King, Udd and Mayor Lewis, who singled out Pickering for his work in heading the municipal sub-committee that brokered the hotel deal with Ford Hotels and the federal government.
Pickering’s 10-year-old daughter, Marlyn, was chosen to hand “silver-plated shears” to Mayor Lewis for the requisite ribbon-snipping. Then the crowd gathered around King for his formal announcement that 19th-century marble busts of Lord and Lady Elgin had been given by the present Earl of Elgin to the government of Canada on the understanding that they would remain indefinitely on display in the lobby of the new hotel. “At the suggestion of Lord Elgin,” King told the assembled guests, “these historic works of art are today being given a place of honour in this hotel which bears the name of his illustrious ancestor.”
The “historic treasures,” as King called them, had been sculpted shortly after Lord Elgin’s death in 1863, the busts’ creators at opposite ends of their respective artistic careers. The renowned English artist William Behnes produced the marble portrait of Lord Elgin, possibly his last completed commission before his death at age 70 in January 1864. The Scottish artist Amelia Robertson Hill (née Paton, a Dumfermline native) carved Lady Elgin’s likeness in one of her first commissions, early proof of the tremendous skill possessed by the Victorian era’s leading female sculptor. The busts had been displayed for decades at Broomhall House, the Bruce family estate in Scotland, when the 10th Earl wrote to King to offer the statues to Canada following the announcement that the new Ottawa hotel would bear the name of Lord Elgin. “For sentimental reasons,” the Earl had stated, “I think that these two busts should not be separated and it would be a pleasure to me and to my family if they could find a home in Ottawa.” Following the unveiling of the artworks, King stepped to a nearby telegraph and wired a cablegram of thanks to the present Lord and Lady Elgin “for your thoughtful and most acceptable gift,” and to assure them that “the portrait busts have been placed in an honourable position in the main lobby of the hotel.” King added: “Not only will it serve as a reminder of the memorable part played in Canada by your grandparents, nearly a century ago, but it will be, as well, a visible evidence of your own and the Countess of Elgin’s constant interest and friendliness in all that relates to our country.” Udd wired his own message to Scotland, saying the hotel’s owners “are fully conscious of your generosity and will always endeavour to justify this token of your interest.”
In giving his blessing to the hotel named for his grandfather, the 10th Earl had urged the The Lord Elgin’s management to adhere to the sentiment that his vice-regal ancestor had voiced upon leaving Government House in Quebec at the end of his term in Canada in 1854: “I trust,” Lord Elgin had said, “that this house continues to be, what I have ever sought to render it, a neutral territory, on which persons of opposite opinions, political and religious, may meet together in harmony and forget their differences for a season.”
King, who repeated the words to the assembled crowd, was almost moved to tears by this expression of “the common good,” as he later recounted in his diary.
“As I concluded, I almost broke down in reference to Lord Elgin’s quotation,” wrote King, who appears to have endured the ceremony on the brink of an emotional unraveling, ever-conscious of the reminders of the departed Pat that he’d worn to the hotel. “I thought of dear little Pat at this point — indeed, all the way thro’ my voice might have betrayed my feelings, which it was difficult to control. But when I referred to the ‘common good’ my thoughts were of ‘our mission’ — he and I & our brotherhood — to be worked for together. I got over it all right, but it was like a last leap and I could not have uttered another word. It really was the covering of 100 years — looking down on it all from above as it were . . . the picture of a country that struggled for the fruits of self government in the lives of individuals, in the life of the Nations — Britain and Canada. It was all part of a plan.”
King, naturally, was bestowed the honour of registering as the first guest of The Lord Elgin. Photographs of the signing show the prime minister pen-to-hand and peering through his trademark pince-nez, black ribbon dangling and the wilting blooms still there in his buttonhole, the whole scene sharply reflected in the gleaming surface of the hotel’s front desk. Udd, in his turn at the podium, gave King much of the credit for the hotel’s extraordinary appearance, revealing that “this entire undertaking was conceived and determined at Laurier House in the relatively short course of an informal interview which the Prime Minister graciously granted me on a certain day a year ago” — an apparent reference to the May 3, 1940 meeting at which King had insisted on the copper roof, limestone façade and all-round architectural ambition for the new hotel. Pickering, no doubt, basked in the glow of it all — singled out for praise by the mayor, and then again by the city’s main newspaper, for having successfully spearheaded the capital’s urgent hotel mission. “Ottawa has been handsomely served by the public-spirited promoters, planners and builders of the new hotel,” the Citizen editorialized after The Lord Elgin’s inaugural. “They deserved to be honoured by the prime minister’s presence at Saturday’s opening ceremony.”
And so began the rest of the story — the 75 years of workaday service, hospitality, maintenance, marketing and management that followed the 18-month effort to get The Lord Elgin built and officially launched. Ownership changes, major expansions and momentous happenings would ensue as the years, then decades, unfolded. And through it all, hundreds and eventually thousands of hotel employees, plus hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of guests and visitors, would add layers of human experience to the grand architectural creation. A hotel, after all, is a stage where the drama of real life plays out daily.
The Lord Elgin immediately began serving the principal purpose for which it had been erected, that of alleviating the shortage of visitors’ accommodations in the busy wartime capital. Even before the hotel had been completed, local politicians expressed delight that the 1941 edition of Ford Hotels’ promotional road map for northeastern North America — widely distributed to motorists on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border — featured the architect’s drawing of The Lord Elgin on the front panel, with the proviso that the hotel would be “Open After July 1st”. Ford’s five other hotels in the Great Lakes area were also marked on the map and touted for their “convenience, comfort and economy,” but Ottawa’s unfinished landmark was already getting top billing within the chain.
Military personnel, tourists and other clientele had barely begun checking in to The Lord Elgin when the 225-member staff was put on high alert. On July 23, just four days after the hotel’s official opening, Pratt — the former city official recruited by Udd to become The Lord Elgin’s first general manager — rallied his employees for their first royal visitor: Princess Alice, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the Earl of Athlone, Canada’s governor general since Lord Tweedsmuir’s death.
Two days before, the vice-regal couple had been King’s guests at Moorside, comforting the prime minister in his ongoing grief over Pat’s death and even visiting the dog’s burial place. “They, too, are great lovers of dogs,” King had written in his diary. “It is interesting to note that the first persons from outside to visit little Pat’s grave should have been a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and a representative of the King in Canada. It was like royal honours to the little man, honours more than merited…”
King had evidently urged Princess Alice to visit the newly opened Lord Elgin. The princess, popular among Canadians for her energetic promotion of home-front activities in support of the war effort, arrived at the hotel on the morning of the 23rd in the company of Lady Byng of Vimy, a longtime friend of the Athlones and widow of an earlier Canadian governor general, Viscount Byng. The women and their attendants were greeted by Udd and Pratt, owner and manager together, who escorted the distinguished guests as they signed the official registry, toured the dining room, “were whisked on the high speed elevators to the 7th floor” to see the hotel’s “cosy bedrooms,” and otherwise “inspected the splendid new building from top to bottom,” according to reporters who witnessed the event. They also enjoyed the air-conditioned lobby, where the vice-regal consort “tried out a beige leather chair” before the entire party “paused for several moments before the white marble busts” of Lord and Lady Elgin. It was said that Princess Alice voiced her “enthusiastic approval” of all that she saw before being chauffeured back to Rideau Hall — amid happy sighs of relief, no doubt, from Udd, Pratt and the entire hotel staff, having passed Her Royal Highness’s white-glove inspection.
Not everything went according to plan in those very early days, though. By Aug. 1 the Journal was reporting that some door locks with a fresh coat of protective lacquer were becoming so stuck that a number of guests couldn’t back get into their rooms. “On one occasion, a third-floor guest locked himself out and hotel employees were unable to open the door with emergency keys,” a scribe noted, adding this scary nugget of news: “A man had to be lowered down the outside of the building from the fourth floor, and, after gaining entry through a window, was able to open the door from the inside.” Pratt offered assurances that the locks, “after being used once or twice, functioned perfectly after the lacquer was worn off.”
At the end of the hotel’s first year in operation, a celebratory advertisement was placed in local newspapers and even The Toronto Daily Star, The Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette. The Citizen’s full-page version of the ad trumpeted the hotel’s role “in helping maintain a smoothly-working centre in Canada’s war effort,” and even revealed the total customer count for The Lord Elgin’s opening 12 months: 128,329 guests, “the great majority of whom were in Ottawa on vital war work.” The hotel boasted, as it had throughout its initial marketing blitz, that its accommodations were not only reasonably priced considering the prime location, but had “a radio in every room,” as well as private bath. “Ice water fountains at both ends of every floor” was another highlighted pitch.
The hotel’s early success earned news coverage, too, with the Journal reporting that “the list of guests registered at the Lord Elgin during its first year reads like a directory of the United Nations’ war personnel. From all of these countries guests have come, their business being with some phase or other of Canada’s part in the fight for freedom.” A sense of intrigue accompanied the year-end report: “A great many world figures who have registered at the Lord Elgin have, of course, travelled incognito,” the writer remarked suggestively.
Among those who stayed at the hotel in those maiden months of operation was American airman LeRoy Gover, a 27-year-old California crop duster who’d also flown sightseeing tours over San Francisco before deciding to go war against Germany as a Royal Air Force pilot. Thousands of such American volunteers enlisted with Canadian or British forces prior to the U.S. entry into the war, many passing through Ottawa on their way to Europe. Gover joined the RAF’s famed Eagle Squadron and became one of its most decorated fighter pilots. The Californian transferred to the U.S. Air Force in September 1942, eventually earning both British and American versions of the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Silver Star and eight Air Medals during some 200 combat missions. Gover, whose story has been recounted by U.S. military history Philip Caine, kept a diary that detailed his November 1941 journey to Ottawa to sign up for overseas action. “Met by RAF representatives and checked in at Lord Elgin Hotel,” noted the entry for Nov. 8 — less than one month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would draw his own country into the war.
Gover was joined at The Lord Elgin by three other American pilots heading to England via Canada’s capital: Don Young, Jack Mause and Jay Reed. From their base at the “luxurious” hotel, the foursome made the most of their time in Ottawa: “This is a swell town — sure pretty — snowed this morning,” Gover noted. “We get 10 percent more for our U.S. dollars. Had a fifty cent lunch, gave them a U.S. $5 and got a Canadian $5 bill back — not bad. It would sure do everyone down there a lot of good to see the people up here. Boy, they’ve really got a spirit. Really doing all they can to help win the war… Don Young and I went to the House of Parliament…. There are lots of cute French gals in town.” After a four-day stay at The Lord Elgin, Gover and the others took a train to Halifax and shipped out to England on Nov. 21. The stop in Ottawa was perhaps typical of the time, when military personnel of all stripes were in continuous transit to and from distant theatres of war, the city’s new hotel offering a few nights’ respite on the voyage to glory, death or other fates.
The Lord Elgin quickly emerged as a centre of charitable spirit in the community, providing the 1941 headquarters for Ottawa’s annual “Community Chests” fundraising drive to sustain a crucial network of social services for the city’s poor, disabled and otherwise needier citizens. The hotel HQ of the program — a precursor to the United Way campaigns of today — was an early symbol of what would prove to be The Lord Elgin’s enduring commitment to the social and cultural development of the city, as well as the wider country beyond the capital. Through its generous support for countless charitable causes, sponsorships of local festivals and in-kind contributions (including deeply discounted room rates) to various non-government organizations gathering in Ottawa for local, national or international conferences, The Lord Elgin made community engagement a central part of its identity. The give-back ethic would be reinforced through the civic leadership roles played by people like Don Blakslee, the hotel’s long-serving general manager, who helped give local youth their best shot in life by serving as chair of the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club, then gave the capital its best chance for prosperity by chairing the city’s Hotel and Convention Bureau and holding top positions with other economic development organizations.
Year One also saw the hotel featured prominently in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, including a photo spread offering views of the lobby, lounge and a “typical bedroom,” as well as a full-page shot of the hotel from a northeast vantage point. This classic perspective, a favourite ever since the hotel’s first public appearance on the Citizen’s front page in July 1940, shows the First Baptist Church across Laurier Avenue but not another building anywhere in sight to mar The Lord Elgin’s stately presence against a clear summer sky. It would be years before the construction of taller office towers in that corner of downtown Ottawa began crowding the frame and casting their shadows over Ross and Macdonald’s last hotel masterwork. In an accompanying article titled “Hotel Planning,” Macdonald lists the myriad challenges faced in designing any major urban hotel, from spatial organization to electrical systems, plumbing to guest security, ventilation and lighting to kitchen and convention services. “The main consideration, (with some assurance to the owner that he will enjoy financial benefit from his undertaking) is the comfort of the guest,” Macdonald astutely observed. “It happens, unfortunately, that guests are not all cast from a perfect mould. There is the desirable and the undesirable, the man of affluence and the other of slender means, the tourists of all types, the travelling salesman with his samples, the guest who desires privacy and the other who craves publicity, and they arrive with their varied demands and expectations of hotel service.”
The Lord Elgin would have its desirables and undesirables over the decades. But particularly welcome during the war years were some of Canada’s top political powerbrokers, who used the hotel as a surrogate meeting space away from Parliament Hill to debate and decide key issues. “The Lord Elgin has been headquarters for many official conferences of the highest importance,” the Journal reported in 1942. “Due to its ideal location, the base in front of the hotel has been used as a reviewing stand by the Mayor and by officers of all branches of the Service. A large number of parliamentary members, of both Houses, have been constant guests at the Lord Elgin.”
In fact, one room booked frequently by Liberal Senator W.A. “Bill” Fraser — a close friend of Pickering who’d helped him seal the hotel deal with Mackenzie King, and later joined The Lord Elgin’s board of directors — came to be known as the “Senator’s Suite” because of the high-powered gatherings routinely held there to hammer out war-related matters. Among those was the conscription crisis that occupied the King administration throughout 1942. “The debate on conscription was practically settled in that room,” Pickering recalled in his memoir, adding that “a dozen top men from the Liberal Party” dropped in weekly for “food, drink, talk, gossip and laughs. At one time or another, all the key government people let their hair down at these dinners. They needed a chance to relax because government operations were very tense during the war.”
For a hotel that emerged in the midst of the great Allied struggle against the Axis powers, it was fitting that when Ottawa residents poured into the downtown core to finally celebrate victory in Europe in May 1945, the Lord Elgin distinguished itself by feeding (literally) the euphoria of the throngs that filled Sparks Street between Elgin and Bank for the ticker-tape bedlam.
“Ottawa’s thousands who turned out yesterday to continue the celebration of V-E Day and to attend the ceremony on Parliament Hill found themselves without a place to eat when they finished their merry-making,” stated a May 9, 1945 news report. “All restaurants and other eating places in the city were closed tight all day and those looking for a snack went without, except those who discovered that Murray’s Lunch Ltd. in the Lord Elgin Hotel had remained open and the Château Laurier cafeteria… ‘We had a tremendous day and I feel our staff who remained on the job deserve some thanks,’ ” Murray’s manager J.B. McDonald told the Journal. “We received congratulations from many persons.”
The promise of Pickering’s scroll had been kept. And now the overjoyed locals were able to raise a sandwich and soda, thanks to The Lord Elgin, to toast democracy’s triumph.
It was around the same time, between May’s victory in Europe and the Japanese capitulation in August 1945, that The Lord Elgin welcomed a notable long-term guest: the renowned (and sometimes despised) Canadian-born writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, a one-time apologist for Adolf Hitler who recanted as Nazism’s dark truths fully emerged. Along with his wife Gladys, whom Lewis affectionately called ‘Froanna’, the famous but impoverished novelist and portraitist is known to have occupied a room at the hotel for about two months as he sought commissions and loans to finance the couple’s planned trip back to Britain, where Lewis had spent most of his life. After a period of particularly stressful and unsettled living arrangements, Lewis wrote that “it was not until we moved to the Lord Elgin in Ottawa that we enjoyed normally peaceful occupation, and the scandals were of a more decorous and diplomatic kind.” It was during this stay in Ottawa that Lewis sketched a striking though unfinished portrait of Malcolm MacDonald, the British High Commissioner to Canada and Lewis’s chief patron at the time. MacDonald had been an honoured guest at the grand opening of The Lord Elgin four years earlier. The portrait, conceived as the artist’s “tribute to his benefactor” and executed at a time when Lewis was “confronted with the spectre of his own imminent blindness” from a pituitary tumour, has been hailed by Canadian art critic Catharine Mastin for its “extremely sensitive rendering of an intelligent face” and “ample insight into the character of this sympathetic and patient gentleman, especially through the rendering of the sitter’s eyes.” Lewis’s portrait of MacDonald, a worthy product of his Lord Elgin sojourn, is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
A Hollywood legend checked in to The Lord Elgin for a memorable week in the fall of 1956, and her stay in Ottawa made news. Louisiana-born Dorothy Lamour was the sarong-wrapped star of a string of “South Seas” films devised to show off her famous figure, cascading hair and exotic facial features. An accomplished actor and singer who sought to overcome the Jungle Princess image that shot her to stardom, she also teamed with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the globe-trotting, seven-film Road to… series that added comedy to her oeuvre and confirmed her status as a wartime pinup idol. By September 1956, not long after Road to Bali marked the peak of her career, Lamour was performing on a North American nightclub circuit that took her to the posh Gatineau Country Club for a series of shows. Be My Guest was on her songlist, but Lord Elgin employees were singing that tune to her all week — and Lamour needed the pampering. “The girl who shook a sarong authoritatively must shake a severe cold before she can unveil the latest in ‘native-girl’ costumes at the Gatineau Club,” the Journal reported after a successful opening night. “Running a temperature of 101 last night, Dorothy went on with the show but with something warmer than a sarong. She had been bed-ridden for two days in an Ottawa hotel and worked in spite of her doctor’s advice that she stay there.” The 41-year-old entertainer said she’d “changed my perspective a little since the early days,” noting her 13-year marriage and two sons. “But don’t think I’m not grateful to that sarong. It has been good to me.” Before she left town, Lamour recovered from her cold and won some more cheers at an Ottawa Rough Riders game by sending her toeless, heeled shoe farther than a football teed up for the ceremonial kickoff. The picture of her flubbed attempt — and a wisecrack about her broken toenail — ended up in Life magazine with the caption: “Chic Shoe Flies High”