A Royal Rebirth

IN THE NEWS     Published

Hamilton’s storied Royal Connaught Hotel is about to be reborn. Will the Grand Old Lady Regain some of her former glory? We’ll soon find out.

The Royal Connaught Hotel stirs conflicting emotions for most Hamiltonians. On one hand, it reminds us of the time when Hamilton was a veritable boomtown, every bit as bright and shiny as Toronto but with an even brighter future. The biggest stars in the world stayed, performed, dined and danced at the Royal Connaught. The hotel hosted everyone from Prince Edward, whose entourage enveloped two entire floors in 1919, to Pierre and Maggie Trudeau, who kicked up their heels in the ballroom at the height of Trudeaumania.

On the other hand, its neglected, boarded-up facade reminds us that those days are long gone. All that remains are the ghosts of past glories, haunting the abandoned, water-damaged hallways. The land on which it sits would be more valuable if the building were destroyed.

Then again, Hamilton has seen plenty of destruction — and value is not merely monetary. When plans to refurbish the Connaught were announced earlier this year, new and old Hamiltonians alike greeted the news with guarded enthusiasm. The value of the Royal Connaught as a symbol remains strong. Derelict, it symbolizes defeat. Restored, it would symbolize something else entirely.

The Royal Connaught existed as a hotel for 88 years. During that time, it hosted meetings, conventions, bar mitzvahs, political events, Quarterback Club gatherings, Miss Tiger-Cat pageants, famous guests, concerts, dinners and shops; it went through cycle after cycle of ownership, staff, renovations and re-openings. A century’s worth of memories, for generations of Hamiltonians, where created there.

The hotel met and surpassed the expectations of its founder and champion, Harry Frost. Frost, founder of the Frost Wire Fence Company, proposed the hotel in 1911. He saw Hamilton as a city on the cusp of its heyday, and he believed we needed a hotel that would live up to that potential. The city agreed, and Piggott Construction began work on the 244-room hotel. The Royal Connaught name came courtesy of a contest winner — 12-year-old Alfie Richards, who suggested its namesake be the popular Duke of Connaught.

In 1916, the 50-metre-high Royal Connaught Hotel, with its 1,500 capacity banquet hall and rooftop restaurant, opened to the public. Hamilton’s elite celebrated in the ballroom, but workaday citizens were curious, too; they swarmed the open house, from 3 to 5 pm, to take a peek at the core’s new crown jewel.

Frost, who fostered the project and brought it to fruition, died in 1919, felled by the Spanish flu epidemic. His widow, Clara Mae Frost, eventually moved into a corner suite at the hotel.

Harry Frost II is the grandson of Harry and Clara Mae. He spent many years visiting his grandmother at the Connaught. “She had her own waiter,” he recalls of his grandmother. “His name was Tommy. I can still see him in front of me. He was a little man, an Englishman with a bit of a Cockney accent. My grandmother had her own table and Tommy always waited on her. It was very old-world, but it was charming.”

Frost, now 85, has some of the earliest memories of the hotel. He speaks of Mrs. Rankin’s dance classes, held in the ballroom during WWII. “They were an institution in Hamilton,” he says. “It was a way to meet the girls. We learned the waltz and the foxtrot and the tango — all of the original dances.”

By that time, the heyday foreseen by Harry Frost senior had become reality. The ballroom played host to the most popular swing bands on the continent. Louis Armstrong didn’t just play, he had his clothes fitted by the hotel’s in-house tailor — for years. If you had the means, you held your daughter’s coming-out party at the Royal Connaught. After all, where else would be good enough for your daughter’s finest hour?

The Connaught, however, was never simply a playground for the rich and famous. Ron Foxcroft, of Fox 40 and Fluke Transport fame, was a lower-middle-class child in the ’50s when his mother would take him shopping downtown and, as a treat, to the Royal Connaught for lunch. The family even scraped together the monies to hold their family dinners at the restaurant on New Year’s Day.

“As a kid, you felt like royalty when you walked in that front lobby,” he recalls, “with the mahogany front desk and the amazing chandelier and the mezzanine overlooking everything. ”

Foxcroft remembers sitting in the restaurant, listening to the excited whispers when Hamilton’s movers and shakers came into the room. Burlington Street luminaries — bigwigs from Fortune 500 companies like Firestone, Westinghouse, Dofasco and Stelco — were regulars, along with politicians, lawyers and judges. It was, as they say, the hottest spot in town. Even the shopping amenities at street level were renowned — places such as Soble Furs, McLelland’s Haberdashery and, for a long time, Dack’s Shoes. “If you could afford a pair of Dack’s shoes, you were successful,” Foxcroft says. “Many of us took great pride in going into Dack’s and buying a pair of shoes even though we couldn’t afford it.”

“[The hotel] was beautiful, it was ceremonial, it had an aristoc racy about it,” says Foxcroft. “The Crystal Ballroom dining room was the place to be. I think it was back in the ’60s when if the maître d’, whose name was Mr. Defreitas, knew your name and what you liked to drink, that was a status symbol.”

Connie Smith, long-time reporter and anchorwoman for CHCH, watched the Connaught throughout the ’70s and ’80s. “Everyone stayed at the Connaught,” she says. “There was always a buzz, whether it was famous people staying there, speakers, a big meeting … you never knew who was going to get out of a taxi in front and walk through the lobby doors.

Smith recalls interviewing B.J. Thomas at the height of his fame (circa “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”), interviewing bands in the nightclub Peppermint Patty’s, business lunches and the Press Club at the Connaught, where she and other reporters were almost expected to go after work.

Business, of course, is no longer the same; as Smith says, “You can’t have a 2 1/ 2-hour lunch anymore. The world has sped up.” The Grand Old Lady lasted two world wars and a Great Depression, but the 1980s brought countless changes in the way we live, the way we work, the way we celebrate — changes that signalled the beginning of the end for the hotel. Nevertheless, its second-last owners, the Mongeon family, did their best to keep the traditions alive in challenging times. Ron Foxcroft goes so far as to call the Mongeon’s period of ownership (1988 – 93) “the real glory days.”

“Well, that was kind,” Joyce Mongeon says, “but actually we came on a shade too late.” Mongeon, the first female president of the Chamber of Commerce — and the first female president of any major Chamber in Canada — blames legislation and new tourism taxes for a drop in business. At the same time, changes in retail practices meant fewer commercial clients. Private sector manufacturing was dwindling; public sector operations didn’t have the budgets for opulent celebrations, just as newer small businesses didn’t have the staff to even attend such events.

Nevertheless, she and her son Marcel kept service at a premium, treating visitors like luminaries and following up after events with a personal phone call. The post-Gulf War recession, however, was too powerful to oppose. The hotel was eventually sold to the Howard Johnson chain. With respect to the brand, the HoJo label seemed too casual, too commonplace, for the Royal Connaught. Business continued to slip; other hotels landed more visitors, while larger events moved to new banquet halls and the Convention Centre. The Connaught slipped into receivership and was closed unceremoniously in 2004.

Hope wasn’t lost quite yet, though. The following year, the “Grand Connaught Development Group” purchased the hotel with plans to refurbish and reopen. Despite the hope, however, nothing happened and the hotel sat vacant. The site became synonymous with the perception of Hamilton — once grand, now dank and filled with pigeon dung, not worth preservation or investment capital. The sheer size of the derelict building seemed to rub our collective noses in the sorry state into which our city had fallen.

Developer Harry Stinson proposed a larger-than-life plan a few years later, one that included a tower that would be the tallest in the country, but plans were short-lived. In 2010, two members of the Development Group called in the $4 million mortgage, forcing the group into bankruptcy. The ground on which the building stands is worth more without the building upon it, and people seemed to know it.

Then, two years ago, a new partnership rose from the ashes of the Development Group. Rudy Spallacci and Ted Valeri, developers with strong local reputations, were planning to develop the site, announced Mayor Bratina. The announcement was premature, but the plans were real; over the next two years, the partners cleared away the debris of the old partnership, looked at new ideas, dotted “i”s and crossed “t”s.

Today, an unprecedented number of cranes reach into the Hamilton sky and many smaller developments are happening right on the Connaught’s doorstep. The time seemed right for the duo to officially announce the plan.

The Residences of Royal Connaught condominium project would, in its initial phase, include 135 units constructed behind the original facade of the two existing Connaught buildings. Units will start in the high $100,000s and range in size from 530 to 1,190 square feet. There’s talk of more than 35,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor recreation space, including a theatre, gaming room, fitness centre and a rooftop terrace. New towers would be built later, to total around 700 units, with 13,000 square feet of retail space stretching from King Street along Catharine to Main.

“It’s a lot if you think we’re going to do it all at once, yes,” explains Valeri. “If it takes 10 years, that’s only 70 units a year, which is not a lot. Over 10 years, and you’ve got a complete city block developed, all self-contained.”

Without near-inconceivable changes, the days of downtown Hamilton as our number one shopping destination are over. If it is to survive, the core will likely have to become a combination of specialized destinations (arts, food, boutique shopping) and a self-sustaining residential neighbourhood. Locke Street already fits this paradigm; James St. N., James St. S., Ottawa St. and other neighbourhoods are already in various stages of this shift. Gore Park itself may be next in line, and a successful Connaught project would be a monumental step in that direction. Valeri and Spallacci firmly believe that both the younger demographic and empty nesters will appreciate living in an urban centre, walking to buy their groceries instead of driving and feeling the buzz that accompanies events like Art Crawl, Supercrawl and other street festivals.

“Both our firms are honoured to be involved with the Connaught,” says Spallacci. “To be able to work on that type of building means a lot to our firms, and when it’s finished, it’s going to mean a lot to the core. It’s going to bring life back to the core.”

There are, of course, skeptics, and their doubts aren’t without reason. Yet cautious optimism seems an evenhanded reaction to the Royal Connaught proposal. The prime movers have solid reputations, the timing seems appropriate and the plan involves restoration, even though the building is not designated as a historical landmark. Spallacci and Valeri plan to restore the Edwardian facade, the glass staircase in the lobby, the glass railings, the columns, chandeliers and plaster mouldings. It’s out of respect for a landmark, but it’s also part of the sell. You can only own a piece of the historic Royal Connaught if it remains, in essence, the historic Royal Connaught. History, after all, is the point. If there were no significant history at the Royal Connaught, no one would seek to preserve it.

The word history, of course, has different inferences. It can suggest value — that the incidences, events and people in that history are important. It can also suggest loss — when something is history, it’s history, it’s done, it’s never to return. Coming-out parties beneath crystal chandeliers, Louis Armstrong in the lavish ballroom, and a maître d’ who knows your drink; considering how the world has moved on, the images are quaint. Those days are history, in both of the above definitions. Expel those ghosts of history, however, and what remains is a building — solid brick and mortar, once stately, now neglected, simultaneously symbolic of a glorious past and a difficult present. If the Connaught can be returned to its glory and refashioned for a new generation, it will no longer represent the past and present, but the future as well.