The expansion to the Château Laurier can and must still be stopped – and better ideas explored toward a new premier hotel for the next century, writes Alastair Gillespie.
By Alastair Gillespie, July 16, 2019
In the wake of Ottawa Council’s refusal to block the controversial modernist expansion of the Château Laurier, the community has been left with a sense of resentment that a great public wrong has been committed. The expansion can and must still be stopped – and better ideas explored toward a new Château Laurier for the next century.
At the heart of this controversy is the truth that the château is not a mere private possession to be disposed of at her owner’s pleasure. Next to Parliament itself, she is the grandest building in Ottawa, completing the romantic vision of Parliament Hill on the bluffs above the Ottawa River. We all take pride that such a building exists, and in that sense the château belongs to all of us.
Many would accept that the Château Laurier must change with the times, but the reasoning behind the decision to expand is questionable. The decision to expand any business is complex – especially for a luxury brand. The château is already a big hotel. Instead of pursuing volume business – the long-stay customers the addition is supposed to target – the château should invest to be the best, a showcase for the very best hospitality that Canada has to offer.
At heritage hotels around the world – there are good and bad examples of how to change with the times. Take Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace, a wonderful Saracenic confection of 1903, balconies and domes abounding, fronting Mumbai Harbour and the Gateway of India. Since 1973 it has been disfigured by a 22-storey tower addition, and everyone wants to stay in the original hotel.
For one to admire, take Claridges in London, Mayfair’s Art Deco masterpiece – one of the greatest hotels in the world, still contemporary and fun. Managers there speak of running a modern, glamorous, inspirational hotel, while remaining respectful of the past. They have done a fabulous job – investing not only to keep the hotel at her best, but also in the staff, at the heart of the guest experience.
The Château Laurier could also be one of the best hotels in the world, through sensitive modernization and investment in the existing footprint, and in its wonderful staff, many of whom feel a deep sense of responsibility to the hotel itself and its guests. Relaxing some of the corporate procedures that come with Fairmont management would let staff take more initiative and offer a more natural experience to guests. The grandest hotels are a great performance, where the staff take the starring role.
The grandest hotels are a great performance, where the staff take the starring role.
The chateau’s owners have remained silent in this drama – Vancouver’s Lalji family through their vehicle, Larco Investments. Their investment in our community should be welcomed, and a fair return on that investment is to be hoped for. But the Laljis are also stewards of a grand hotel of national importance to Canada, and above corporate duties comes a duty to the public and posterity to pass her on unblemished to the next generation.
In terms of next steps, the public outcry is a measure of the public intervention required. Urgent consultations with Larco should be convened by the Minister of Canadian Heritage in concert with the National Capital Commission and the City of Ottawa. Existing views of the château from Major’s Hill Park and Parliament Hill should be protected, in the way views of St. Paul’s Cathedral are protected in London. And Larco should reconsider its design – the early ’90s plan to honour the original architect’s vision with an expansion similar to the original hotel should be revived.
Ottawa is expanding, Canada is expanding, and Canadians hope to have the best hotel possible at the heart of our national capital. Those opposed to this expansion are not anti-development, nor even anti-expansion. By all means – build up the château, make her the best, and get on with it. Just not like this.
Perhaps we might even issue a parting challenge. A century after the château was built, let us ask Larco and other developers to do even better. Build us a grand new hotel to take our city into the next century. Like the château’s namesake, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, let us say the 21st century will belong to Canada too.
Alastair Gillespie is a Canadian lawyer and Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.