At first glance, many visitors to Toronto will be fooled into thinking this city with roots growing from the early 1700s, is a modern oasis. Truth is, a lot of this metropolis’ history can be easily overlooked, hidden under and in between glossy, contemporary, structures. Who would’ve thought, one of the best ways to see the nation’s past unfurl is from the comfort of a luxurious hotel room? The location where One King West Hotel and Residence sits is only the beginning of this building’s and city’s forgotten history.
If the Beaux-Arts combined with Renaissance architecture isn’t enough to tip guests off about what’s in store, stepping through the hotel’s revolving doors will reveal a Pandora’s box of Toronto treasures. From the illuminating cathedral windows and Corinthian columns in the Grand Banking Hall to the original oak paneling and fireplaces in the boardrooms, much of Toronto’s history can be unearthed in between a massage and dinner. But let’s start with the address, the spark to this location’s illuminating saga in the late 1800s.
The Great Fire of Toronto
One King West Hotel originally planted its roots in Toronto as a neighborhood department store, though Toronto was much more humble back then and didn’t have an eight-floor Hudson Bay. The General Manager of One King West, Steve O’Brien describes Mitchies and Company as a mercantile store, basically, a place where you can do business and sales, fitting for the location with shipments and business made convenient by the city’s coordinates.
See, Toronto was always a booming business center, especially at this corner of King and Yonge sitting just outside of what Torontonians call the Financial District. So it was no surprise that when ownership shifted in 1879, the building would be transformed into a 5-story Dominion Bank, home of the head office.
Even when the building was struck by tragedy it was historic. The Great Fire of Toronto in 1904 trumped the 1849 Cathedral Fire consuming much of downtown Toronto. What makes these two fires different is the size of the city. In 1904 the city had developed at a familiar pace for Toronto, fast. And a bigger city meant much more properties to destroy – over one hundred to be more specific, in a blaze that could be seen from beyond the border that would take the Dominion Bank at One King West with it.
Banks have a way of bouncing back though, and this case was no different. In 1914 Dominion Bank founder James Austen partnered with architects Frank Darling of Darling and Pearson and the bank was rebuilt into a bustling twelve-story financial center, busy with local and international clientele, the majority of them deep in the business world just a few blocks away. And while this bank became a staple in the city, changes weren’t always so welcomed in Toronto.
The Talk of the Town
The building itself drew quite the attention from locals. The height was an issue since the original design included thirteen stories and, ironically, many thought that thirteen stories would ruin the Toronto skyline completely.
Construction wasn’t exactly quiet either. Upon asking Steve about the type of attention it drew, he painted a picture – with his words of course. He asked to imagine a forty-ton vault with four-inch thick solid steel being pulled up Yonge Street by twelve horses and eight men. We can conjure up the idea of onlookers and passersby being in awe at the event in our heads in any city, past or present, but what we might forget to consider, is the damage a giant vault being hauled up a street would cause. From the sounds of it, the city was left with some repairs.
The street commotion wasn’t the only thing that had people talking about the vault, in a letter written to staff after the bank was in operation, security was being warned of the threat of robbers, and they were required to sleep inside the vault to protect what was inside. Apparently, bank robberies were an issue, even in what is arguably be the nicest country on the planet, but this location was great for protecting against any threats. Steve explains that during construction, the building was placed on stilts, meaning any intruder trying to make the infamous underground retrieval would be caught straight away.
When a 1955 merger transformed Dominion Bank into Toronto Dominion Bank (what we now know casually as TD Bank), many of the major bank operations were relocated to the Toronto-Dominion Centre, just a block away from One King West, which continued to operate as a local branch.
Why the change? Even now, the city’s buildings seem to be growing higher and higher, and in 1960, in true Toronto fashion, Toronto-Dominion Bank hired designer Mies van der Rohe to create a building for the bank that would be truly eye-catching. The city was modernizing, and the plan was to make the main TD Building a part of the action, in sleek black and glass. Today, the building has grown into a six-tower cluster, sitting comfortably apart of the Toronto skyline, but when the branch finally closed for business decades later, just like Toronto-Dominion, there was much more in store for One King West.
In 1999, One King West would land into the hands of Harry Stinson, known for the Dominion Club, who would only take this building higher – literally. In addition to completely renovating the building for residential use, designers kept up with Toronto’s growing skyline with the addition of ‘The Sliver’. While slivers by definition will have most people thinking of something quite modest, the name is more-so attributed to the building’s sleek narrow design, and towers fifty-one stories high. This one-hundred million dollar expansion on top of the former bank took One King West from being the largest residential building of the past to the “largest freestanding structure in Canada” fitting of the 21st century.
When asked if this sky-high addition caused a stir in 2006, especially after the negative attention it received in its early stages, Steve mentioned receiving no negative feedback during its construction.
“They were already surrounded by buildings this tall anyway,” he said, energy beaming through the phone-waves.
While there wasn’t much of stir within this community at this point, O’Brien accounted that designers were the ones less keen on making the dream a reality. It took Stanford Downey Architects to step up to the plate to make this iconic building history.
“No one would touch it, except for these guys,” Steve remembered. The idea may have seemed too complicated, too grandiose, or simply too high to some, but Stanford Downey took on the challenge.
There are obviously some things to that happen when you’re constructing a building this tall. Skyscrapers sway, especially in extreme weather, and the taller the building, the more troublesome this becomes, reminiscent of stacking building blocks way too high where a little bit of force will have it reaching for support. Fortunately, there was an answer to counteract all this, even with the building’s modelesque profile. By loading dampers with one thousand gallons of water each on the roof, any swaying would be counteracted out by the moving liquid inside during high winds, which would in turn balance out the push of the sways.
The addition of The Sliver, made possible by purchasing and combining the property at 5 King W, allowed One King West Hotel to blend its history with the modern world, but those in charge didn’t want to take away from the building’s long past. It was clear what they had was special; and even though Steve recalls it taking a while to claim the official heritage building status, or to build up a hotel reputation altogether, those involved made sure stories of the building still shone through.
Even in a city as bustling as Toronto, you might miss the relics that shine, One King West Hotel doesn’t make it easy to with the original Toronto Dominion Bank Sign still engraved into the building. The architecture might give the right hint to some, but this sign is what really sets the tone for any visit to the building. Everything else from here on out will follow this theme and is what now attracts everything from weddings to celebrity events to this location.
“You’re probably too young to remember this, but back in the day we actually had to go the teller to get our banking done,” Steve sets up, reminding his colleagues of a simpler time. Well, those teller wickets aren’t just for stories of eons past, he went on to explain the building uses two of them in their appropriately named Tellers Bar and Lounge and instead of taking deposits, it’s used to take on good times. These two teller wickets take the place of cruiser tables so guests can enjoy Wine Wednesdays, Mojito Mondays and live music accompanied by a piece of local history.
To keep the theme moving, original teller tables are also placed at the entrance of the opulent Grand Banking Room. Steve described having to enter the room through these teller tables that create a small walkway and demands attention like the building and city they sit in, setting the tone for the grandness of any event held there. They’ve also reimagined teller tables in the hall by installing a one-hundred-foot bar, the country’s only, designed after the original tables. The Grand Banking Room is in-fact grand, based on more than these teller features alone. Designers have created a feeling of historic luxury for guests entering the event space, fully restoring its eye-catching features, one of which does more than represent Toronto, but the country as a whole.
Sitting above the detailed columns and intricate crown molding, intertwined within the prolific golden ceiling, is Canada as we knew it when the Dominion Bank was built. Not that guests would see an actual country or even a map, but something that tells you a little more detail about its past. Emblems of Canadian provinces are worked into the ceiling art, depicting the country as it were before it came to be the Canada we now know. For those who like to show off their knowledge to out of towners, this would be the time to point out that Newfoundland and Labrador are missing from this homage since they didn’t join the confederation as a province until later years.
Even with all of this jam-packed into one building, getting the historic recognition it deserved actually took quite some time. Either officials were in disbelief that a Toronto building had been holding on to so much of the city’s history, or approving these facts took longer than it needed, but whatever the case, even with the original sign literally attached to the building, Steve remembers that it was a long process. He also remembers that it was a process to get any recognition as a hotel at all. Just who were ignoring the inviting, sparkle of the chandeliers in a place called the Grand Banking Room?
It can be hard to have your attention fixed on anything else besides relaxation or sightseeing when checking into a hotel, but the guests and residences of One King West Hotel all relish in the history beyond the building itself, by giving tenants and visitors a chance to really immerse themselves in some of Toronto’s history. Steve discussed just how much Toronto is deeply integrated into the hotel and agrees it is a major part of the overall experience,
“Every guestroom floor has a plaquette of different historical facts, not just on One King West but Toronto,” he said.
The staff who commented on the building didn’t have any haunting stories of the underworld to mention, but Steve’s story included a woman who had been at the bank when it was in operation and had been photographed in a vintage picture now placed in the hotel. Sure enough, the woman visited the location years later and pointed out to Steve that it was her who was in the photo. And if he ever had a pressing question about the dress she was wearing in the black and white souvenir, she confirmed it was a green dress. This is just one case of nostalgia that occurs in this building, some staff, tenants, and visitors still remember the building as it was when going to the teller to withdraw money was all the rage; they’re sure to mention their presence in the building before it was titled One King West.
An American Storyteller
As for the vault? Fans of heist movies or historical bad-persons can still see the vault today by descending down a grandiose marble staircase near the One King West hotel lobby, perfect for harnessing your inner James Bond (or Bond girl). Now used as a lavish event venue, the largest vault in Canada itself makes a great argument for standing out from the rest of the hotspots lining the entertainment district just some blocks away and attracts more than the usual wedding reception or corporate holiday party.
A visit to see the grandness of the vault may not even be necessary; Hollywood has jumped on the chance to shoot varying films here that would put favorite stars like Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell right into the center of Canadian history. It’s not rare to walk down a Toronto street, look up and see yellow NYC taxi cabs and think you’ve somehow ended up in Manhattan. Visitors and locals often witness the chameleon-like abilities of the city, easily transforming into a variety of locations, making it a sought-after set for a variety of film and television productions, and the One King West Hotel is the perfect backdrop for a number of titles.
“We’ve accommodated everything from futuristic movies, to vault scenes, to historical movies,” explains O’Brien. While the vault may steal a lot of the building’s attention, the exterior is far from overlooked. “Max Payne was an exterior shoot. There was a helicopter right outside the window!”
It’s clear the One King West hotel building has been swept into Hollywood’s whirlwind, being featured in a variety of productions, including being styled into Wayne’s Manor, fitting for the premiere of the Dark Knight in 2012. Funny enough, this isn’t the only DC hero to blossom from the building’s design, Joe Shuster, Toronto born co-creator of Superman, drew inspiration from the location of the building during its early stages.
Toronto was the first big city I ever visited and as a wide-eyed little boy holding my dad’s hand while standing on the corners [of] King and Yonge looking skyforward, how could I not think of Superman ‘leaping tall buildings in a single bound’ all those years ago.
Shuster’s quote, commemorating this iconic area of the past and present, sits proudly on the celebration page of the One King West’s centennial celebration. Now Torontonians can also boast that Superman’s Metropolis was indeed inspired by this city.
Mothers often tell their children to never forget their roots, and One King West doesn’t. Adorned in luxury though still holding on to the intrigue of the past, and visitors are more than receptive. After going from hanging promotional banners off a railing on the shell of The Silver before the launch, Stephan can beam about One King West Hotel being one of the top locations in the city, and he does so, with a lot of heart.
“The city of Toronto was built around this building. It was the center of the city. It all started from this area,” he explains, with some of the biggest banks in the country sitting at this intersection when Dominion was operational. “We embrace the history, and so do the guests.”