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Hello from Ottawa – The Lord Elgin Hotel – A Historic Landmark in the Heart of Ottawa
As far as travel to Ottawa is concerned, you’d be hard pressed to find a more central lodging location than the Lord Elgin Hotel. It is located right at the Intersection of Elgin and Laurier Streets, just steps away from Parliament Hill, the War Memorial, the Chateau Laurier, the Government Conference Centre and the National Arts Centre. Confederation Park, one of the main locations for Winterlude, is located right across the street.
We could not have found a better spot for our Ottawa Winterlude getaway last weekend. My room on the 4th floor was very comfortable and I had a perfect view out over Elgin Street, looking at the Chateau Laurier and the War Memorial on one side, and facing Confederation Park and the Rideau Canal on the other. We literally left our car parked for the whole 2 days and were able to get everywhere we wanted on foot.
The Lord Elgin was a perfect starting point for our adventures on the Rideau Canal, and our excursions to the ByWard Market and Sparks Street. Further south on Elgin Street is another major entertainment area nestled inside an established neighbourhood with exclusive homes and condominiums.
Ann Meelker from the Lord Elgin Hotel was kind enough to give me a lay of the land and pointed out the local landmarks. She also explained to me that the National Conference Centre actually used to be a railroad station many years ago, when train tracks were routed right next to the Rideau Canal.
My big interest in this hotel was its history as it was constructed more than 60 years ago. So I did some reserach to dig into the background of this historic building.
In 1940, as the Second World War brought more and more official visitors into town, Ottawa found itself desperately short of hotel accommodation. A local entrepreneur and city alderman by the name of Chester Pickering, President of Dustbane, Modern Building Cleaning, and Michael’s Industrial Equipment, was entrusted with the job of bringing a good hotel to the City. He connected with Jack Udd, a wealthy businessman from Rochester, New York, the president of the Ford Hotel Chain.
They were looking for a suitable site for the hotel and finally found one in an abandoned lot at the corner of Elgin and Laurier. However, obtaining the land was complicated by the fact that it was owned by the federal government.
It seemed highly unlikely that this land could be obtained from the government, but through personal connections and various outright shenanigans Chester Pickering was able to get the property. Chester Pickering knew that then Prime Minister Mackenzie King longed to make Ottawa the most attractive capital in the world, so he was sure that the idea of cleaning up this run-down area would appeal to the Prime Minister.
And not only did Pickering get the land, he also got a low-cost tax assessment on it, in light of the fact that government had not been receiving any taxes on this federally owned property at all before. With all the conditions met, Jack Udd started building the hotel and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King even laid the cornerstone. The Lord Elgin was completed in 1941 in a classical French chateau style at a cost of about C$1,500,000.
All throughout Prime Minister Mackenzie King took a strong interest in the hotel and virtually designed the pillars in front of the hotel himself. He also insisted that the hotel be built of stone, not brick. Jack Udd agreed on a compromise and used stone at both ends and in the front, but he would put brick in the back.
The hotel is named after James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine (1811 to 1863) who became Governor General of Canada in 1847. He became the first Governor General to remove himself from the affairs of the legislature, which led to the essentially symbolic role that the Governor-General of Canada has today.
Ann also allowed me to have a look at some correspondence between Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the grandson of the original Lord Elgin, who donated two marble busts of his grandparents, Lord and Lady Elgin. The correspondence dates back to 1940 and talks about shipping the busts on warships during World War II from Scotland to Canada.
Ann also mentioned that during the summer a portion of the Changing of the Guards ceremony can be seen directly outside the hotel. And the starting line for the Ottawa International Marathon is located immediately in front of the Lord Elgin Hotel.
Being the nosy person that I am I wanted to get the real low-down on this property and Randy Battcock, Guest Services Manager at the Lord Elgin, agreed to take me on a tour through the property. Randy is an interesting individual himself, he hails from Newfoundland and worked for a local airline for 21 years. After running a guest house in Ottawa for 8 years he applied for the Guest Manager’s position and got the job the next day. It is obvious that Randy loves what he does.
During our tour through the building, Randy explained that the original building was H-shaped and that the back was filled in many years ago to enlarge the rooms. In some of the boardrooms on the higher levels you can still see the former street façade on the west side, now forming an inside wall.
Two 8-storey towers were added on the north and south side and they added 55 additional bedrooms, an inground pool and a restaurant. Another little known fact is that there is a 3 bedroom apartment on the 12th floor which to this day is the residence of the former manager of the hotel who spent 50 years managing the hotel and raised his children there. The apartment has the only patio in the building with a perfect view east towards the Rideau Canal.
Randy also enlightened me that of the four guest elevators, two are original and date all the way back to 1941. The fourth elevator used to be a smokestack for the furnace in the basement, but it was dismantled bit by bit to allow for the construction of an additional elevator. The building still has an original functioning mail chute where you can drop your letters from any floor and gravity will take them to the mailroom from where they will be sent out.
Although the Lord Elgin Hotel is one of the most renowned and venerable institutions in Ottawa, it has a cozy feel to it. During my stay it was hosting hundreds of people who were attending Winterlude, so you saw all these families with children dressed up in heavy winter garb walking through the hallways. I had several friendly chats with staff members, and in particular with one young bellman who was part of the Lord Elgin team in the 26th Annual Bedzz Race on Dow Lake.
The spot in front of the fireplace in the lobby was always taken by people relaxing, reading a paper, or conversing while warming up after a cold day. We noticed that the atmosphere was always relaxed and down-to-earth, never snobbish, as you might expect of a hotel of this stature. For us it was the perfect location for a weekend of exploration in Canada’s capital.
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