It's funny: Most architectural criticism lobbed back-and-forth about Toronto is that it lacks history, or that what we do have, we demolish. Chicago this, Montreal that - I'm sick of it, frankly.
While it's true our road to preservation is peppered with potholes, we have many places to make a preservationist's heart sing: Fort York, Cabbagetown for the gingerbread set, the financial district for deco-heads and midcentury modernists and everything in between. We also have the great architectural gifts left behind by families such as the Masseys and the Gooderhams. The problem, if there is one, is that we are a financially focused, pragmatic city. We like heritage, we usually understand its importance, but it needs to be useful and profitable. If we only had a model to follow!
The King Edward Hotel might just be it.
In March, Dundee Realty, Skyline International Development, Serruya Realty Group and Alex Shnaider purchased the storied King Eddy for the bargain price of $48-million from New York's Lehman Bros. Over the next few years, this group will probably spend a great deal more renovating and restoring George Gooderham's gift, but, more importantly, the third, fourth and fifth floors, vacant since 1991, will become the King Edward Private Residences.
What does this mean? Well, with prices starting in the low $400,000s for a studio, it means these suites aren't just for the wealthy (as a result of too many film noir marathons, I used to believe that only the very, very rich or grifters and private eyes live in hotels). It means, with 35 to 38 residences of varying sizes on each of the 30,000 sq. ft. floor plates, this irreplaceable piece of local history will now be co-owned by Torontonians of all stripes.
"Even if you're not a history buff, how can you not get excited about something like this, and what's going on here?" asked Jason Lester, Dundee's chief operating officer, as he showed me the cavernous and stripped-to-the-concrete fifth floor. Gazing down from the hotel's distinctive rounded corner at King and Victoria (the current vinyl windows will be replaced with operable, double-hung units) to see a streetcar slip between Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's TD Centre and Edward Durell Stone's First Canadian Place, it was hard to think of anything but history.
The hotel - ventilation, colonnades and all - opened in May 1903 and was advertised as "absolutely fire-proof" (built of steel and concrete) to calm guests fearful of staying on upper floors. It had everything: Women-only areas for solo female travellers, lavish murals, a men's barber shop, the Palm Room, the Oak Room bar and, of course, the exquisite Rotunda. In 1921, the 18-storey "skyscraper" addition, designed by a Buffalo, N.Y. and a London, Ontario firm, was tacked onto the east side of the hotel; until being eclipsed by the Royal York in 1929, the King Eddy was the largest hotel in the country. The Crystal Ballroom on the 18th floor set a new standard, and celebrities from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor partied there.
But will twenty-first century celebs get that chance?
"We do not know what we're going to do with the ballroom," said Mr. Lester, ruefully. Boarded up since 1978, the decaying beauty will be studied over the next few months and may open on a temporary basis "to see what type of response we have… and see if it works well as an event space," he said. Should Dundee decide to do a full-on restoration, I'm sure it will be top-notch, since they've proved their heritage mettle at another of Mr. Gooderham's gifts, the Distillery District. The fact that heritage heavyweight Michael McClelland and his firm, ERA Architects, are onboard as architects-in-charge doesn't hurt, either.
And that's just it: In addition to a chunk being offered up as condominiums next month (suites go on sale June 12), the hotel can now boast local ownership and local brainpower behind the redesign.
"The thing is, you've got to live and breathe it - for us, our offices are a block away," said Mr. Lester. "I think that's been part of the problem with some of these previous owners; you can't push the buttons from White Plains, New York, and figure out what the best thing to do is."
And the "best thing" for this city is to prove that heritage and good business are not mutually exclusive. A tightrope act, for sure, and there may be stumbles. Will adding balconies to the King St. façade (where there originally were some) animate the building or just anger preservationists? Will the refreshed Rotunda look timeless or dated in 30 years? Will a worthy successor to Luigi Romanelli and his King Edward Hotel Orchestra take up residence in a restored ballroom? Will a five-star restaurant on the ground floor woo foodies from the four corners of the city?
I hope so, because if the King Eddy is crowned king again, this model can be applied to other significant properties when their time comes; in the 2060s, will the Residences of the TD Centre be on offer?
The King Edward Hotel (including the Crystal Ball Room) will be open tomorrow and Sunday during the city's 11th-annual Doors Open Festival. For more information, go to www.toronto.ca/doorsopen or www.kingedward.ca.