Toronto’s oldest continually operating hotel has undergone another reinvention.
In 2005, the Zeidler family turned the Gladstone Hotel into a multi-purpose event space, hosting art festivals, book launches, gallery shows, live music and dance parties. Festivals such as Come Up To My Room, which saw artists and designers taking over individual rooms, would sprawl across multiple floors.
So when Streetcar Developments and Dream Unlimited acquired the 132-year-old Queen West landmark for an undisclosed sum last year, many wondered if the real estate firms would maintain the venue’s reputation as an arts venue.
When the Gladstone reopened under its original name – Gladstone House – in September, we got an answer: local art covers the hotel’s ceilings and walls but many of the rooms that once hosted art openings and parties have been converted to spaces that are strictly for guests to enjoy.
While the ground-floor cafe is open to the public, the main ballroom is now a private event space. The Melody Bar is still under renovation, but when it reopens it will become the hotel’s primary venue for local artists, authors, bands, karaoke lovers and drag queens. In other words, if you want to see what the newly renovated upper floors of the Gladstone look like now, you’ll most likely have to book a room.
But Toronto artists are all over the hotel’s walls.
When the Gladstone House changed hands, resident curator Lee Petrie stayed on board. Her task: Commission and acquire local art work to fill guest rooms and shared spaces. Works by 50 artists can be seen around the hotel. Many of the pieces are on long-term loan and will be up for at least five years. Other art spaces are more temporary, so if the hotel partners with a festival (like DesignTO), work on display in the lobby and bistro, as well as the hotel’s windows, can be activated as part of the event.
Additionally, there is a new art studio space in the basement that will host two resident artists over three-to-four-month periods throughout the year – for free. Petrie is working with local organizations to find artists in need of studio spaces. The artists will also lead workshops for guests and community members. More details on the residencies will be announced later.
Shortly after the hotel reopened, Petrie took NOW on a tour of the artwork and renovations.
Walking into the new lobby, the first thing you notice is how open it feels. It’s been repainted white and the right-side check-in counter that once spanned the length of the room is gone, replaced by an antique fireplace mantle and a lounge. The check-in has been moved to a small counter at the far left side near the stairs.
The ceiling is now covered in more than 13,000 individual characters hand-painted over three weeks by Legends League artist and designer Bryan Espiritu. Entitled Love & Above, the piece is ideally suited for a lobby – if you don’t feel like screen time while you wait for a room or a ride, you can stare up the ceiling and try to pick out individual words written in Espiritu’s own private alphabet.
The Gladstone House Bistro + Bar looks similar to the pre-renovation era, though it’s undergone a refresh. The most tricked-out new details are the illuminated bar top and hanging light sculpture. On the day of our visit, a handful of guests were quietly working away in the space on laptops. The front room of the bistro is surrounded in original exposed brick – a detail the new owners wanted to emphasize throughout the entire hotel.
The Gladstone is home to one of the only working hand-operated elevators in Toronto. To freshen it up, the hotel’s new owners encased it in dichroic glass, which includes an ultra-thin film of metal and oxides that give it a psychedelic rainbow effect. The glass was originally developed by NASA to filter out UV rays and protect astronauts from eye-searing sunlight while in space. It also happens to be ideally suited for selfies.
While many boutique hotel renovations tend to go full-on modern, Gladstone House is emphasizing the building’s history in the shared guest spaces on the second, third and fourth floors. The fourth-floor library has an old-school sitting room feel, but nods to the hotel’s recent past. Guests are free to borrow the books on the shelves and books that had their launches at the hotel are framed on the wall – including a copy of Prince’s posthumous memoir The Beautiful Ones.
In the library, two chairs that date back to 1910 have been salvaged and refurbished to connect past and present in subtle ways.
There are 55 guest rooms in the hotel, including 16 new rooms on the second floor above the ballroom. For sound-proofing reasons, the floor has been elevated and there are three steps up to that area, which was previously used for event staging and preparations.
Meanwhile, 41 of the rooms in the hotel contain original artwork to create unique experiences. Sinks have been relocated into the main room to allow for more space in the more open-concept bathrooms. Exposed brick is visible above the beds, though in rooms without brick the new owners have placed a brick veneer for uniformity.
Based on the most used words in the English language, Ric Santon’s painting You Me Here There resembles a misty window. The words appear scrawled, suggesting something about the transient nature of the guest’s experience.
In another room, Cole Swanson’s Terra Nimbus series of hand-rendered mineral colours is site-specific, and references hand-foraged mineral colours from Toronto’s High Park and the Cheltenham Badlands. The work adorns the walls and framed images above the bed to echo the “filtration, purification, grinding and binding of natural colours” that has resulted in the look of the hotel today.
Morris Wazney’s curving bookshelf sculpture, Bending Over Backwards, adds a surreal touch for guests who are lucky enough to stay in this room. The fictitious books have titles that are designed to spark the viewer’s imagination, creating a relatable experience.
The common area on the third floor has been converted into a billiards room that is decorated with archival photography and documentation from the earliest days of the hotel. The Gladstone was originally a “rail hotel” way out west of the city’s core, and pictures looking east and west from the recognizable Dufferin bridge allow viewers to see what the area looked like in the late 1800s.
Brampton artist Kal Honey has given the hotel some iconic branding in the form of this neon sculpture of its exterior. Created by local LED fabricators, the neon rainbow portrait of the hotel is viewable in the mirrored hallway that leads guests to the washrooms in the basement.
Based on guest feedback, Gladstone House has transformed three basement spaces into fitness studios, each of which contain original murals. The ceilings in the rooms are quite low, so the colourful works by Mediah (above), Jieun June Kim (below) and Justin Broadbent add a bit of dynamism. They’ll also make your gym selfies pop.