Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Sleeping Beauty Ballroom in the Heart of Old Toronto

the spectacular 20 foot windows of the Crystal Ballroom

In a thriving metropolis, an exquisite hotel ballroom lies unused and decayed like the palace of Sleeping Beauty. The huge room sits on the 19th floor of the King Edward Hotel on King Street East in downtown Toronto. The hotel was opened in 1903 and is an outstanding example of Edwardian Beaux Arts exuberance and style that is rich, but more restrained than the preceding Victorian style. Named the the Crystal Ballroom, it was added in 1922, two decades after the hotel was built, as the Jazz Age had begun. The style, which is derivative of the antique and classical, relates to styles is already established in the original hotel concept, however it is considerably subdued in expectation of the minimalist lines of Art Deco and Art Moderne.

For half a century, this room was the ultimate venue for weddings, receptions, grand parties and the most distinguished social events, but in the late 1970s, it seemed to go out of fashion with cotillions and debutante balls. A more casual lifestyle and less formality made it an anachronism. At that time, the King Eddy was very much down at the heels and in dire need of extensive renovation. It had ceased to be fashionable, and the rich and famous stayed at the Four Seasons in Yorkville, the Royal York, or the new Harbour Castle Hilton on the lake.

I had the pleasure of viewing the room for the highly successful Doors Open Toronto event on the weekend of May 29th & 30th, 2010. During this weekend, many of the city’s architectural wonders are opened to the public. The King Edward Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom was visited by large numbers, and queues stretched all the way around the hotel block. Upon arrival to the ballroom, one was struck by the immensity of the space, the incredible expanses of windows for any room, let alone one that is over a century old, the spectacular view and position, and the picturesque state of neglect in contrast to the rest of the impeccably restored luxury hotel. Musicians from Tafelmusic played in the generous room, and the combination of beautiful music and remarkable architecture made for a memorable experience.

The architectural embellishments of the Crystal Ballroom, including cornices, raised panels, pilasters, door pediments, and capitals, are blurred by decades of thick, oil based enamel. Many elements are broken or missing, and paint is peeling and flaking. Utilitarian wires and electrical cables are exposed and cross the fine architectural appointments. Nonetheless one can see that there is more than enough to make restoration worthwhile and successful. Most hotel ballrooms, even those in the greatest hotels, are windowless. This expansive room has incredible 20 ft windows with sweeping skyline views to the south, east and west. Immediately after viewing the room, visitors had the opportunity to view the currently used, much smaller Sovereign Ballroom on the second floor. With new carpets or parquet, replaced chandeliers, repaired plasterwork, and modern ventilation, the contrast between the restored and the unrestored is startling and gives an idea of how extraordinarily special and beautiful the restored Crystal Ballroom could be.

The King Edward Hotel is one of the unappreciated gems of Toronto architecture. Like the grand, turn of the last century Ritz Hotels in London, Madrid, and Montreal, or the Park Plaza in New York, the quality and fine architectural detailing demonstrate materials and the highly specialized skills of master carpenters, plasterers, tile setters, masons, glaziers, and decorative painters, that are prohibitively expensive today.

Without doubt, Doors Open Toronto brings an increased awareness of this Sleeping Beauty, and the lovers of heritage buildings look forward to the crown jewel of an architectural masterpiece being available to the public once again.

the bronze plaque placed at the entrance by the Ontario Heritage Foundation

the elegant entrance of the venerable King Edward Hotel in Toronto

the spectacular central vault of the 2nd floor Sovereign Ballroom

the gifted musicians from Tafelmusik added ambiance and charm to the elegant room

carved limestone architectural niche and coat of arms flanking front entrance of the King Edward Hotel

exterior of King Edward Hotel showing richly carved limestone Beaux Artes detailing, corner quoins, cornices, brackets, cartouches, and scrolls

gracefully curved corner of the facade of the King Edward Hotel

the wonderfully airy and spacious central skylit second floor arcade and lobby of the hotel

variation of an Ionic capital showing the extensive use of the beige "Perlato Sicilia" marble throughout the hotel; most of it is real marble, some is painted faux marbre, some is in scagliola

integrated ventilation grill designed as an architectural overdoor in the Crystal Ballroom

the stripped down, unrestored Crystal Ballroom of the King Edward Hotel in Toronto; note the exceptionally high windows

one of three ceiling medallions which mark the location where huge crystal chandeliers formerly hung in the Crystal Ballroom

the smaller, restored, currently used 2nd floor Sovereign Ballroom of the King Edward Hotel

detail of Crystal Ballroom wall panelling, pilasters, cornices and damage

detail of the capital of a pilaster in the Crystal Ballroom; note the layers of enamel clogging fine details of wood and plasterwork

Georgian inspired overdoor scrolls of the 1922 Crystal Ballroom

text and photos copyright of Square with Flair, 2010


  1. Beautiful article!

    Like some fading beauty, what a treat to read about the Ballroom and see beautiful pictures - and such a treat for one who couldn't attend.

    Let's hope the Management at the King Eddy have second thoughts about this wonderful room!

  2. Wonderful! I also visited the ballroom a couple of years ago when it was first open for Doors Open! It is fabulous and your post does it justice. It is such a shame that it will probably be never renovated, however it should be preserved one way or another.

  3. Hi David,
    Thanks for stopping by. The hotel representatives I spoke with on Sunday seem to think that the ballroom will be renovated in the near future. City space is so valuable, I believe the time might be soon. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

  4. What a beautiful post. To think that this
    remarkable treasure has been hidden in our
    midst! One can almost hear echoes of a
    glorious past. Perhaps your words will
    inspire its reincarnation. I hope so.

  5. Can you imagine what a sight it must have been? To look up and see those 20' high windows ablaze and the shadows and couples gliding past?

    Why have evenings like that fallen out of fashion?

  6. Just heard that they are turning part of the Hotel into Condo's. Maybe this will be part of the project?