past pieces of toronto: the four seasons motor hotel

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on March 24, 2012, with some additions made on March 7, 2013.

Vintage Ad #2,201: Toronto's Only Downtown Motor Hotel

When Isadore “Issy” Sharp decided to build his first Four Seasons hotel at Jarvis and Carlton Streets, everyone thought he had lost his mind. Once a street lined with the homes of wealthy Torontonians, by the end of the 1950s it had a reputation as a hangout for derelicts, drug dealers and prostitutes. “How could you think of building a motel or hotel on Jarvis?” he was told. “People will think it’s a flophouse!”
Sharp ignored those comments. Once opened, nobody mistook the hotel at 415 Jarvis Street for a flophouse. As the Globe and Mail noted years later, the Four Seasons Motel Hotel was “an elegant, relaxed place for a drink or a night’s stay.”

Sharp, who worked at his father’s construction firm, had gathered an impressive group of backers, including clothier Edmund Creed and Shoppers Drug Mart founder Murray Koffler. He contracted architect Peter Dickinson, whose work included the Queen Elizabeth Building and the O’Keefe Centre, to design the inn. The result was a modernist hotel built around a central outdoor courtyard and swimming pool. Nearly all of the rooms faced into the courtyard and featured novel amenities such as remote-controlled televisions and free shampoo. After considering banners like “Thunderbird,” Creed mentioned his favourite hotel in Munich, whose name translated as “four seasons.” With a new breed of quality motels like Holiday Inn providing travellers with welcoming accommodations, Sharp settled on the Four Seasons Motor Hotel as the final name.

For the Motor Hotel’s grand opening in March 1961, Koffler suggested a cocktail party fundraiser for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Guests were greeted by tall, orange-tinted ice sculptures of musical instruments. According to the Globe and Mail, one bystander wondered “If I licked it, would it taste like orange ice?”

The opening gala also benefitted the Art Gallery of Toronto (forerunner of the AGO), which provided an early signal of Four Seasons’ commitment to displaying fine art. Shows ranged from single-artist spotlights to an exhibition to benefit a nuclear disarmament campaign. The Motor Hotel’s garden and parking lot served as the original home of the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, where it stayed until 1967, when Koffler and his wife suggested the recently-opened Nathan Phillips Square as a larger venue.

Like later Four Seasons properties around Toronto, a steady parade of celebrities flowed through the Motor Hotel. Many made their way to the corner table in the restaurant where Elwood Glover gently interviewed them for his Luncheon Date radio and TV program until the mid-1970s. Clips from the CBC Archives reveal a series of sets specially constructed for the show, and an era where guests smoked like chimneys.The show also offered two million viewers an opportunity to watch Stompin' Tom Connors get hitched in November 1973. The trimmings on that occasion included a butter sculpture of "Bud the Spud" and a wedding cake shaped like Prince Edward Island.

The same day the Motor Hotel opened, North York council approved a rezoning request from Four Seasons for land it purchased at Eglinton Avenue East and Leslie Street. The opening of Inn on the Park in 1963 began the company’s move into the luxury accommodation market. The Motor Hotel’s prominence dropped within Four Seasons until it was sold to Ottawa businessman Jules Loeb in 1977. Soon after taking over, Loeb renamed the property the Hampton Court Hotel and added a 200-seat dinner theatre space, the Studio Cabaret. The hotel operated until 1989, and was demolished soon after to make way for a new residential building.

Additional material from Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp with Alan Phillips (Toronto: Penguin, 2009), and the March 14, 1961, March 21, 1961, October 7, 1977, and May 27, 1989 editions of the Globe and Mail.Advertisement from the March 22, 1961 edition of the Globe and Mail.


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