The grand history of the great Gladstone House, Toronto’s art hotel

March 15, 2024

As I approached the façade of the Gladstone House in the charming neighbourhood of Queen Street West in Toronto, I was taking a small step back in time. The building has been brilliantly preserved and is faithful in every detail to the work that its renowned architect George Martel Miller planned. Its Romanesque style labels it as one of the oldest hotels still operating in the city. Unsurprisingly, it carries a historical designation, which is there to preserve this wonderful iconic building whose roots hearken back to 1889. I wouldn’t be surprised if the then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie had a slumber party or two in this magnificent building.

As you enter the hotel, there is a sense of time that stopped. A huge smile greets you, as you approach the front desk and are swiftly checked in. “Let me help with your bags,” a lovely member of hotel staff, chimed. “I’m good, it’s only hand luggage,” I responded and, as I was only on the second floor, I suggested I’d do fine on my own and meander up the wide sweeping stairs to the floor above. “If I may,” he suggested, “the elevator is part of the experience.” And it was. I was guided into a manually controlled Otis Elevator that dates back to 1907 and was in an absolutely pristine condition. Referred to as a Bird Cage design, the ornate elevator began moving as the lever was expertly pressed by my guide and abruptly stopped at my floor.

With a nod, I bid the helpful check-in clerk adieu and headed towards my room. It was in stark contrast to the period, yet an eclectic feel in line with the rest of the hotel. Bright, modern, almost minimalistic with a touch of artistic whimsy. The incredible comfort of a fabulous mattress and contemporary elements that contribute to luxury hotel living for the weary traveller were welcomed.

This was a fabulous treat for me, as I absolutely love boutique hotels. A far cry from the oversized network hotels of multinationals, this precious property is one of the two (and soon to be three) hotels of the Archive Group. What I love about most boutique hotels with a heritage theme is their commitment to retain historical cues, while providing contemporary comforts. Not an easy balance to make gracefully. The Gladstone did not disappoint in this regard.

I stepped downstairs to have a chance meeting with the hotel’s engaging Marketing Director Camille Borody of the Archive Group. I find slogans tiring and often contrived, so I always enjoy posing the question: “What’s behind the slogan” (a question often met with a blank stare). In this case, History Restored and Hospitality Reimagined is the group’s tagline. “Tell me about Hospitality reimagined,” I queried. “It seems like a high-action standard, no?” Borody didn’t miss a step. “Not at all. Our team is  brilliant, and hand-picked to read the level of interaction our guests desire.” You expect to receive a nice smile and hello when you arrive at a boutique hotel, however there was a sincere, and almost personal, warmth that for this writer felt genuine and endearing. “We have a sense of community here at the Gladstone,” noted Borody, “with an acute focus on art.” I would later understand how acute the art focus was after meeting the group’s art curator.

Walking through the lobby, you are touched by the group’s commitment to have faithful restoration. The millwork and moldings have been painstakingly restored, as if a fine Italian tradesman had put his hand to the task. The amazing elevator was embalmed in plaster and put back into brilliant working order with brass trim and all. I desperately wanted to ask the operator to let me take it for a whirl, but embarrassed myself into not doing so.

And then there’s the Bistro. More like a step into Paris than a step back into the Canadian horsedrawn carriage era, again what felt a little eclectic and surprising, but in a lovely way. Naturally, I had to saddle up to the bar and taste their signature cocktail: The Streetcar (thoughtfully crafted with Haymans Gin, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, house-made pomegranate grenadine, egg white and sumac rim): no doubt named as result of the huge electric beasts that inhabit the tracks outside the hotel. Again, there was a sense of time stopped.  A sense of déjà vu in the most beautiful way.

After a sip or two of that delicious cocktail, I walked up the staircase to the third floor. A lovely billiard table greeted me and beckoned me to shoot a little stick. Minnesota Fats I am not, but I can hold my own with the average player across the table. Décor, small very special sitting areas and comfortable furnishing make the space and, indeed, all spaces in the Gladstone very inviting.  It’s a somewhat of a contrast with the dine-and-leave feeling you get from many network hotels.

The last stop on my self-imposed tour was the tower suite. If you’re not in physical shape, you may want to avoid this, but I loved the unique pseudo alpine climb of 20+ stairs to arrive at my destination. A large and beautiful bright room overlooking the city greeted me. The suite is graced with a lovely balcony. Sadly, it was a grey and cold day, otherwise I would have sat for at least an hour or two, sipping on a glass of Chardonnay and thinking about times gone by.

One of the hallmarks of the Gladstone and Archive Group is that they have their very own art curator, Lee Petrie, who was kind enough to give me a tour of their artist-in-residence program, which in and of itself is another surprise and unique offering. “It brings a sense of local vitality to the hotel,” she noted. “We periodically have a call for entries and allow the selected artist(s) to use the studio free of charge for two months at a time. Occasionally, their art finds its way into the hallways of our hotels. Guests are welcome to visit and chat with the artists present. Everytime new art arrives to review, it’s like Christmas, opening a present,” she beamed. Lee is not new to this area and yet still has the lovely enthusiasm and passion of a true art lover.

After a wonderful night’s sleep, I sauntered down the stairs for breakfast. It was a quiet morning. Possibly, because I overslept. I was greeted by the waiter with a big smile and an extended hand to shake. Lovely at a time where most are merely waving, in a post-COVID world. I indulged myself and my guests to three of the marquis breakfasts: the mandatory pancakes and 100% pure Canadian Maple Syrup, poached eggs and toast and, lastly, avocado toast. Each dish was prefect and delicious.

As I checked out, I felt more like I was leaving a friend’s home than a hotel. A sign of excellence to be sure.

Photography by Thomas Pigeon and courtesy of rock-it promotions on behalf of the Gladstone House.


Story by Thomas Pigeon

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