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The Royal York Hotel is a city within a city. When it opened in 1929 it was the biggest hotel in the British Empire and the tallest building in Toronto. Two thousand of Canada's elite attended the formal opening. The first signature on the hotel's guest book was that of Governor General Viscount Willingdon.

For many years, the Royal York's tall, wedding-cake silhouette dominated the Toronto skyline. It was the 13th showpiece hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Even as the Royal York was being built, it was described as "a veritable poem in stone." The unpoetic response to this flowery accolade, from the Ontario premier of the day, Samuel McBride, was: "The new type of construction, using steel and cement rather than lumber, is a serious blow to the forest industry."

Over the years, debutantes, bedecked in lavish ball gowns, celebrated their "entry into society" in this grand structure. Forty million guests have used its beds. It cost an amazing $20-million to construct almost three-quarters-of-a-century ago, yet its most recent renovations ran up a bill of $100-million.

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The Royal York opened its doors with 1,048 guest rooms, three-fifths of a hectare of public rooms including a 12-bed hospital and a 12,000-book library. The Concert Hall featured a full stage and an enormous pipe organ. The huge lobby ceiling was entirely painted by hand. There was a glass-enclosed roof garden and the largest hotel kitchen in Canada.

The hotel came complete with its own bank and its own off-premises golf course, now known as St. George's Golf and Country Club.

In those days, a room at the Royal York cost $2 a person and guests enjoyed grilled Lake Ontario trout for 85 cents or a filet mignon for $1.75. It cost 50 cents for a cab to the Steamship Docks or $1.50 to Leaside Airport. (Today, room rates range from $179 for a standard room to $1,899 for the best suite.)

An East Wing extension, opened in 1959, allowed 2,000 guests to be accommodated at once. The 17-storey addition provided 14 new convention rooms decorated in themes representing Canada, the provinces and the territories. The Canadian Room boasts a seating capacity of 3,000.

Back in 1929, the Royal York had its own radio station, CPRY, and beamed musical programs across Canada by land-line. Six years later, the railway abandoned its broadcasting activities.

The Royal York, however, did believe in show business. The hotel's Imperial Room delighted the dinner-dance crowd with big bands. The names Moxie Whitney, Mart Kenney and Rex Battle identify with the early years. In the 1960s, it was Ella Fitzgerald, Joel Gray, Carol Channing, and Sophie Tucker. In the late 1980s, the hall was revamped to carry on the dinner/dance format as the home of Jackie Rae and his Spitfire Band.

The hotel has also seen tragedy. On Sept. 7, 1949, a fire on the cruise ship Noronic, docked in Toronto Harbour, killed 118 people. Many of the survivors, dazed and bleeding, found their way to the Royal York where the lobby was turned into a field hospital.

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When the city hosted the 1954 Grey Cup game, one over-zealous Calgary fan rode a horse into the hotel and paraded back and forth, leaving lasting impressions on the carpet.

Among the Royal York's many employees, one was as well known as the hotel itself. That was Johnny Ferguson, the diminutive pageboy who for nearly four decades reported proudly for duty at the hotel's front desk. He retired in 1984. Johnny stood 3 feet 8 inches tall (107 centimetres) and weighed 65 pounds (30 kilograms).

As always, the guest list tells the story of a great hotel. Winston Churchill was one of the early guests. Others since then have included royalty from all over the world, political leaders (such as Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa of Poland, Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia), religious leaders (Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the Dalai Lama of Tibet), entertainers (Bob Hope, Harry Belafonte, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Zsa Zsa Gabor), and sports figures.

The Royal York has lost none of its grandeur over the years. The lobby still shimmers with chandeliers and is still overlooked by a comfortable mezzanine balcony. Facilities include a health club and swimming pool.

As with other Canadian Pacific hotels, the Royal York has set aside a large area for its Entrée Gold business-class service. The entire 12th floor is reserved for this hotel-within-a-hotel. It features more than 60 rooms, special concierge staff and private check-in. The 19th floor is given over to a new state-of-the-art meeting facility.

The Royal York is operated by Canadian Pacific Hotels (marketed as Fairmont Hotels and Resorts). Entrée Gold rooms cost $90 above the standard rates, which begin at $179. For reservations call (800) 441-1414 or use the Web site http://www.fairmont.com.

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