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. This is an expanded version of a piece originally published on March 24, 2012.

Globe and Mail, March 22, 1961. Click on image for larger version.

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. “This isn’t the kind of job that could pay the fees you’d charge,” Sharp told Dickinson, “but maybe it will be a lot of fun.” 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. Suites included extra sofa beds and enough space to hold small business meetings. Every floor was equipped with a reception lobby to give an airier feel. The Globe and Mail praised Dickinson’s manipulation of light, observing that “it enlarges the good-sized rooms and gives an illusion of vast space in hallways, which have large glass areas.”

Four Seasons Motor Hotel, Jarvis Street, looking north from Carlton Street, between 1961 and 1975. Photo by Dorothea Skinner. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 169.

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?”

Artist Alla Bjorkman, exhibiting her ceramics at the Four Seasons Motor Hotel. Photo by Norman James, originally published in the June 19, 1963 edition of the Toronto Star. The headline for the accompanying story? “This Artist is a Pipe Smoker.” Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0004606f.

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.

Four Seasons Hotels Limited Annual Report ’69.

Four Seasons’ 1969 annual report provided a snapshot of the hotel:

It provides a refreshing change in a tightly packed area of Metropolitan Toronto. Its convenient location – only one block from Maple Leaf Gardens – makes the hotel a favourite, whether it be for a holiday or business stay or simply a cocktail after work.

The main dining room is rated among the city’s finest and as one of its most distinctive. It combines an intimate candlelight decor with impeccable service, excellent cuisine and the finest in vintage wines. A summertime feature has proven extremely popular. A menu has been developed providing specialty foods from exotic corners of the world, served on the hotel patio at lunchtime within sight of the flowering gardens and the hotel swimming pool and accompanied by appropriate musical entertainment.

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 once posted on the CBC Archives site revealed 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, and, though renovations were made in the mid-1970s, by 1976 the property was leased out. That year’s annual report noted that:

It was felt that our future in Toronto would be best served by the type of hotel planned for the company’s site on Avenue Road to be known as the Four Seasons Yorkville. The Jarvis St. location and facilities were not consistent with the other new Four Seasons Hotels throughout Canada and accordingly, while we still retain an interest in the operation, it was prudent at this time, to enter into the lease arrangement.

Four Seasons Hotels Limited, 1975 Annual Report. Some of these images had been used in the annual reports for several years.

After the site was sold to Ottawa businessman Jules Loeb in April 1977, it was renamed the Hampton Court Hotel. A 200-seat dinner theatre space, the Studio Cabaret, was added. The hotel operated until 1989, and was demolished soon after to make way for a new residential building.

Sources: Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp with Alan Phillips (Toronto: Penguin, 2009); the 1969 and 1976 annual reports of Four Seasons Hotels Limited; and the March 14, 1961, March 21, 1961, October 7, 1977, and May 27, 1989 editions of the Globe and Mail.

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