It was a night of glitz and glamour, as guests attending the first inaugural event at the restored Crystal Ballroom of the King Edward Hotel were transported nearly 100 years into the past to the roaring '20s, when the prestigious 17th floor venue first opened to awe-struck Torontonians. In a room filled with bowties, feathered caps, silk gloves, and shimmering dresses, an exuberant crowd witnessed the official ribbon-cutting ceremony to re-introduce Toronto's long-lost ballroom at the top of the city.
Omni Hotels & Resorts, owners of the King Edward Hotel, recently undertook a $6.5 million retrofit of the legendary space, which had sat empty and abandoned atop the luxury hotel since its closure in 1979. Almost 40 years later, the Crystal Ballroom, once host to the likes of the British Prime Minister, the Prince of Wales, Duke Ellington, and Elizabeth Taylor, has re-opened with all the elegance and prestige of its former self.
The ballroom was part of an expansion to the original 1903-built King Edward Hotel that rendered the hotel the largest in Canada at that time and one of the most prestigious. Constructed in 1922, the expansion was led by Buffalo-based firm Esenwein & Johnson, and featured the grandiose Crystal Ballroom, a double height space occupying the 17th and 18th storeys of the building. Named after its shimmering chandeliers adorned with crystals, the space hosted state dinners, concerts, and celebratory events in its heyday, becoming a destination for many of Toronto's elite. But its events were not simply reserved for the lavish and opulent; back in the 1940s, fly fishing classes were offered in the room, as it was the only space large enough to accommodate the sport, and the ballroom once played host to 700 doctors, nurses, and technicians who crowded in to view a live news broadcast in 1955 declaring that the Polio vaccine had proved effective.
But as the building aged, so too did its appeal, and the ballroom was officially shuttered in 1979 due to its failure to conform to current building codes. The ballroom was not forgotten, however, as it provided the backdrop for many photoshoots for everything from weddings to promotional shots for the cast of Schitt's Creek, and even for Toronto's beloved unofficial representative, Drake. It was also opened to the public during several Doors Open events.
Omni purchased the hotel in 2013 and immediately got to work on an extensive $40-million makeover of the landmark building. Headed by Moncur Design Associates Inc, the renovation overhauled and modernized all of the rooms, the main lobby and common areas, the restaurant and bar, and the other event spaces in the building. A notable omission from the renovations, which wrapped up in 2015, was the Crystal Ballroom, which continued to sit disused on its perch in the sky.
"For many, many years, it was a fact that to renew this room, you had to bring it back to code," explains Christophe Le Chatton, general manager of the hotel. "You had to put in a sprinkler system, exhaust system, a new kitchen, wiring...even the steel support foundations of the ballroom needed to be updated. There were so many reasons not to do it, and nobody did it."
But Le Chatton explained that it took an owner who happened to be a hotelier and not just someone with deep pockets to see the value of the room, and to post up the money to undertake the feat. "It was a bit more than we expected to spend, but we did it, and we got it done."
The experience of the space befits its reputation as an elegant and awe-inspiring venue. Guests enter onto the 17th floor into a large one-storey reception hall, featuring dark marble floors and panelled walls, with new shimmering light fixtures adorning the columns.
Then, one rounds the corner into an anteroom below the balcony, before the grandiose space of the ballroom opens up before them. Striking contemporary light fixtures illuminate the gold-painted mouldings on the walls, while floor-to-ceiling windows provide panoramic views over the city to the east.
Above the entrance to the room, a balcony provides a commanding view over the space, where a band was belting out jazz tunes before the opening ceremony. A kitchen is also located on the 17th floor, providing direct access into the ballroom.
Luckily, most of the original heritage fabric was remaining in the room when construction crews moved in. Omni once again partnered with Moncur to undertake the restoration. The intent of the designers was to restore everything that could be salvaged, while upgrading all of the building systems, and adding a contemporary touch to the space. The light fixtures and flooring are all new, along with many of the furniture elements, but each was chosen to fit in with the crystal motif and evoke the former grandeur of the Crystal Ballroom.
"We didn’t want to take away the details, even the imperfections, we didn’t want to take those away," stated Le Chatton. "[All of the detailing] is original, but needed to be restored. Some of them were missing, some were broken…it was a labour of love."
The 6,500-square-foot venue is once again open for public booking, and Le Chatton is eager to put the Crystal Ballroom back on the map. "Ideally for me, I want this place to become a destination for Torontonians," he explained. "I want this place to become...something that will create memories for years to come. That's what it used to be. I want to perpetuate the legacy of the predecessors...and I want to keep the tradition of this hotel as one of the luxurious places in the city."
It appears as though Omni has succeeded in regaining the old-world charm of the Crystal Ballroom, and has readied the space for a promising future. While the hotel celebrates its feat, Torontonians can rejoice that one of the city's grandest heritage spaces has been resurrected and can once again be enjoyed by generations to come.
Let us know what you think about the restoration of the Crystal Ballroom, by checking out the associated Forum thread for the King Edward Hotel, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.
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