The Royal Hotel has anchored Picton, Ont.’s Main Street since 1879. Built to service an influx of commercial travellers and tourists brought into the area by the Prince Edward County railway, it was, according to The Settler’s Dream, a pictorial history of the County’s older buildings, the grandest accommodation in town.
But that was far from the state of things when Greg Sorbara and his family bought it in 2013. The former watering hole and rooming house had sat vacant, soggy and neglected for years as water poured in the collapsed roof and caused irreparable damage. For Sale signs had long covered the derelict building. It was the demolition of a historic church down the street and the prospect that a similar fate might befall another town landmark that finally spurred the developer and former politician into action.
Well before pandemic delays affected labour and materials, there were construction challenges including the unexpected sinking of the building’s east wall in 2017. The scope expanded to include the site of old stables behind the hotel. “We went from refurbishing the Royal to reimagining the Royal,” Sorbara says of his first site visit, which made it abundantly clear that a complete rebuild was necessary.
It’s been a significant investment of time and money but the meticulous, patient work became a passion project for several generations of the family. Now, the Royal Hotel has reopened with 28 rooms (plus the stable annex that now houses five Scandi-inflected suites), a café, bar, bakery, restaurant and, this summer, a swimming pool terrace. Great care has been taken to restore the hotel to its former place of pride in the County while honouring its evolution over more than a century.
The Sorbaras have been in Prince Edward County themselves for over 15 years. The family’s life is centred on a 700-acre farm in Northport with extensive gardens, pastured livestock and a sugarbush, all of which now supply the hotel. Their commitment to a legacy project is what shaped the overall design vision of architect Pina Petricone of Toronto-based Giannone Petricone Associates. Throughout its history, the building’s place in the community evolved away from its Loyalist roots, she says. Understanding the site, its more recent context and even the general mindset of the community around the building is expressed through design tensions between the genteel versus the real, or what she dubbed the “Royal contrast.”
What this means is that the design and build teams carefully disassembled and reassembled the structure’s remaining Victorian elements to create something new. “There’s such a kind of palimpsest of literally layers of foundation that the hotel is standing on,” she says. “We wanted to selectively pull and drop those threads but leave them a little more open-ended.”
One such dismantled inspiration is Victorian fabrics. They have now been translated into tweed-like herringbone flooring and the show-stopping floor-to-ceiling tartan mosaic tiles in the bathrooms. The lobby’s halo lighting radiating from a hand-plastered column references Victorian doilies, as do the scalloped edges of bathroom counters. There’s also the pixelated stitch of the Royal’s crown emblem and chainstitch needlework motifs on the headboards.
Sol Korngold, Sorbara’s son-in-law, was the revamp’s project lead, collaborating closely with Petricone. “We can’t base the design on what it’s not,” is what they told themselves. “So, what is it becoming?” Today, light streams through the expansive main floor windows overlooking the bustle of Main Street into the inviting all-day Counter Bar. Arrivals alight into an airy hybrid lobby area and parlour where contemporary wingback chairs are clustered around a sleek fireplace. “The Royal is for locals,” Korngold says. “I want people to come and watch the soccer in the summer or hockey in the winter at the bar – to feel welcome like they’ve always been.”
In the parlour, a walnut and Birdseye maple cupboard by Barlow Cabinet Works anchors the convertible space that Korngold envisioned. Come evening, it transforms into a dynamic entertaining hub when the doors of the armoire swing open to reveal a full mirrored bar – or “barmoire,” if you will. “The idea behind this is in the summer we’ll have the wineries come and do tastings or cocktails,” he says. Similarly in warmer months, the dining room’s bifold doors will allow tables to spill out onto a modern veranda.
Local maker Claire Telford developed the Royal’s amenities to take its olfactory cues from the region. “We’ve got lavender in there and cedarwood for all the shrubby junipers and cedars all around the County, and rosemary for both the farm and foodie sides of things,” she says. Layering in functional vintage accessories – antique hotel bells, ornate ice buckets and silverplate serving trays – add both patina and a wink to the past, Korngold says. More playful wit disarms visitors to the parlour’s ladies’ room, where the vanity mirror sits on gilded cast iron chicken and duck feet. “We wanted to have moments in the hotel that were a bit nonsensical,” Petricone says. “This place is about escapism, it’s not so heavy. And in our research into the hotel history, it was a pretty quirky place.”
Touches that acknowledge the Royal’s more recent past as an abandoned landmark are more abstract. “The idea is to really recall the waterlogged version of the hotel,” Petricone says. “The Victorian ceiling rosettes are like ripples of water, like pebbles in the stream.” Wood fins define the entrance like timber studs stripped of their drywall. The curlicue relief of the parlour fireplace evokes furling plaster. Petricone describes this as “the idea that this kind of genteel layer is delaminating from the husk of the historic building.” Even the illuminated metal cage that wraps around the elevator shaft conjures a state of rawness.
Though the term “restoration” undersells this new build on the former hotel footprint, where only the two upper stories of the front façade are original, it captures a reverence for the building’s history, both splendid and decayed. “The whole energy here,” Sorbara says, “was to re-establish, to reimagine and bring back the Royal.”
Stays from $429/night through theroyalhotel.ca.
In the Royal Gala suite, a Loewe dress plays up the room’s mix of hard and soft elements.
Loewe dress, price on request through loewe.com. Shoes, price on request at Hermès (hermes.com). Socks, $9 at Soop Soop (soopsoop.ca).
Fluted details fill the hotel. Here, rippled glass adds an abstract filter to Bottega Veneta’s juicy hue.
Bottega Veneta dress, $2,550 through bottegaveneta.com.
An acoustic detail on the dining room ceiling references the underside of a mushroom.
Proenza Schouler dress, $2,405 through proenzaschouler.com. Vintage earrings, price on request through farfetch.com.
The antiqued mirror of the parlour’s “barmoire” adds extra patina to the lobby’s natural materials including curvaceous plaster and white oak.
Emilia Wickstead dress, $5,755 through emiliawickstead.com. Vintage earrings, price on request through farfetch.com. Bottega Veneta bag, $1,550 through bottegaveneta.com. Shoes, $2,030 at Prada (prada.com).
A floating check-in desk is backed with a wall of custom amenities and vintage finds such as a brass counter bell and retro bellboy hats.
Jacket, dress, both price on request at Christian Dior (dior.com). Kelly bag, price on request, smartphone case, $2,975 at Hermès (hermes.com). Dr. Martens shoes, socks, both stylist’s own.
Zigzags accenting a Gucci piece are echoed in the meandering light fixtures that lead hotel guests to the back terrace.
Dress, $7,750, helmet bag, boots, both price on request at Gucci (gucci.com).
The Chloé collection’s palette favoured faded citrus tones in leather and knits.
Chloé bustier, $450, dress, $2,535 through chloe.com.
Many of the hotel’s surfaces tweak traditional elements. Terracotta baseboard tiles run vertically to create a feature wall in the meeting space.
Dress, $5,300, shoes, $2,030 at Prada (prada.com). Earrings, stylist’s own.
A gilded elevator surrounded by an ornate cage captures the design tension between new and old.
Dress, $13,400, Birkin bag, $14,000, bracelet, $1,800 at Hermès (hermes.com). Gucci boots, $2,060 at Nordstrom (nordstrom.ca.). Earrings, price on request at Christian Dior (dior.com).
Styling by Nadia Pizzimenti for P1M.ca. Makeup and hair by Sheri Stroh for Plutino Group/Nars Cosmetics. Styling assistant: Alex Petropoulakis for P1M.ca. Model: Jas Herrera-Morales at Want Management.
Style Advisor travelled to Picton as a guest of the Royal Hotel. The company did not review or approve this article prior to publication.