A Traditional Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa
A delightful afternoon sipping tea at the luxurious Chateau Laurier, and learning about the history of this prestigious hotelVia Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
The Fairmont Chateau Laurier celebrated its 100th birthday in the year 2012. I had the good fortune to be there as the preparations for the celebrations were being made. High tea in the afternoon is a tradition at the Chateau. I had the pleasure of having tea with Deneen Perrin, Director of Public Relations for the hotel. Deneen is an attractive and charming lady , but was a very busy one, right in the middle of preparations for not just one event, but a whole year of celebrations noting this significant birthday of the hotel. It may sound like a wonderful opportunity to learn the secrets hidden in the hotel’s history. However, Deneen is a lady whose foremost quality has to be discretion – honest and open but above all discreet. Famous people often do not want their whereabouts or the secrets of their private lives divulged. Over the past century this hotel has hosted many of the world’s rich and famous: royalty, world leaders, stars of the stage, screen and radio, political leaders from across the country working here in Canada’s government, tourists from all over the globe, as well as people like myself, visiting our nation’s capital, wishing to experience Fairmont Chateau Laurier’s elegant hospitality.
The haunting sound of a piano playing softly, drew me from the lobby to the door of Zoe’s Lounge. When I say “haunting” I don’t say it lightly. When I walked through the door, I found the delightful music was emanating from a shiny black grand piano – but no one was playing it! Was this Zoe’s piano? Zoe’s Lounge was named for the wife of Sir Wilfred Laurier. Zoe had been a piano teacher in her early years, so piano music had always been part of their lives. Was the piano there awaiting her spirit’s return? The haunting music provided a soothing background to the afternoon tea in Zoe’s Lounge.
After we were comfortably seated at a table near the window, we began to peruse the menu. This Centennial menu was issued on April 26th, the one-hundredth anniversary of the original date planned for the opening of the hotel. The menu offered two choices for the afternoon, either the Traditional Tea or the special Centennial Tea designed especially for this 100 year anniversary. Both choices offered a delectable assortment of traditional tea fare: dainty sandwiches – cucumber and water cress, smoked salmon, dainty salads and pate, scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry jam, or crumpets and then an assortment of tempting pastries or sweets, all following the style and service of traditional teas that became popular with the upper-crust European ladies of the late eighteenth century. This was the tradition picked up by The Chateau Laurier a century ago. If a young guest is present there is also the Little Prince and Princess Tea on the menu, with choices to tempt the younger palate.
Alex, the waiter in charge of brewing the tea, arrived with a wagon containing assorted teas, all blends made especially for Fairmont, from which we could chose. I chose the new Fairmont Centennial Tea Blend. As we sipped our tea and enjoyed the tasty food, all presented on two triple-tiered servers, we discussed the celebration events planned for the anniversary of the hotel. An innovative idea has been the hunt for memorabilia or relics of hotel days-gone-by. Objects in the possession of former guests, employees, their families or whoever may have come into possession of relics, have been collected to make up an exhibit of authentic relics, things that help piece together the history of the hotel. To facilitate the return or loan of items whose history of departure from the hotel may have been a bit clouded, an Amnesty Day cake and coffee event was held in February. People were encouraged to share stories or the pictures they might have of the hotel and its guests. Unfortunately I was at the hotel before the celebration, so did not see the collection. I’m sure it would be fascinating to spend some time looking it over.
The hotel was the brainchild of Charles Melville Hays, the General Manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway of Canada. He foresaw the need for a series of deluxe hotels in all the major cities across the country, hoping to promote passenger use of the railroads, as they stretched across the country. His primary dream was to build a really elegant hotel at the heart of the nation’s capital. He had bought into Prime Minister Laurier’s vision of Ottawa as the “Washington of the North.” The result of Hays dream of a magnificent hotel was the Chateau Laurier, a hotel with the grandeur of a French chateau. Even after more than 100 years, the Chateau Laurier is still the epitome of the style and elegance he sought to achieve. Charles Hays did not live to attend the opening of the hotel. Unfortunately he and some of his family were sailing home from Europe, on the ill-fated Titanic, to attend the official opening of the hotel. Only his wife and daughter survived the tragedy. When I asked, “Is the hotel haunted?” I was told that some thought the only spirit in the place was that of the man whose heart had been wrapped up in producing this regal structure. They say he may still be here enjoying the fulfillment of his dreams.
Instead of the original date, April 25th, the official opening was postponed until June 1, 1912, out of respect for the Hays family. It was planned that Sir Wilfred Laurier would be the guest of honor at the opening. A bust of the Prime Minister has been sculpted to sit in the lobby of the hotel. Some workmen dropped the bust, and the nose was broken only moments before Laurier came for a private viewing. An attempt was made to repair the damage, but it was still evident when Laurier saw it. He came close to refusing to attend the opening as he felt that the bust reflected badly on him. Somehow the man was appeased and the nose was properly repaired. A picture of Sir Wilfred Laurier and his wife, Zoe arriving in a carriage for the opening, hangs on the wall of historic pictures, just down the hall from where the bust permanently resides in its place of honor in the lobby.
As Deneen and I sipped our tea and consumed the goodies, we discussed some of the events and the memorable guests who have called the chateau home. Two Prime Ministers have lived there during their tenure in office – Pierre Elliot Trudeau and R. B. Bennett. These walls have been silent observers as political deals were consummated. (I discovered that the rumor that there was a tunnel between the hotel and Parliament Hill isn’t quite accurate. It goes across the street to what was once the Rail Station and is now the Convention Building. It is used for utilitarian purposes, not as a private escape route for politicians.) The famed Canadian photographer, Yousuf Karsh operated his photographic studio in the hotel for many years. He and his wife lived there for 18 years. As a result many of his world-famous photographs were taken of hotel guests who made use of his services while here. Karsh gifted the hotel with a number of his pictures and his wife added to the collection. Some of them hang in the reading room, just off the lobby. Others are in the Karsh Suite, once home to the photographer and his wife Estrellita. The most published photograph of Winston Churchill was one taken by Karsh, in Ottawa, after the photographer grabbed the cigar out of Churchill’s mouth!
A couple of interesting facts came to light during my conversation with Deneen. CBC radio broadcast from the seventh floor of the hotel for eighty years. Another tidbit is that when the hotel was first opened in 1912, you could get a room for $2 per night! The hotel originally had 306 rooms and was one of the leading hotels to include indoor plumbing. By 1929 more rooms were needed, so an addition was built which added 240 rooms and a state of the art spa. The original building went from an “L” to the “U” shape we see today.
The afternoon passed quickly as there were so many fascinating things to discuss about the hotel and its anniversary! At the end of our tea, the fancy food had been nearly all been eaten and I had to hurry off to make use of the remainder of today’s sunshine to follow the story of Ottawa’s Tulip Festival.
Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George
Photo of Tea Tray courtesy of Ursula Maxwell Lewis
Last updated December 11, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster