For me a city becomes vibrant and exciting when its institutions and facilities become accessible to a diverse audience that cuts across ethnic groups and social classes. Things get even more interesting when foreign travelers become part of this mindset and set out to discover the city through the eyes of a local. When this kind of fruitful cross-pollination occurs, you have achieved a perfect setting for “immersion tourism”, for those travelers who really want to get to know a city from the inside out.
The Gladstone Hotel is a perfect example of this spirit. It is a historic hotel located in Toronto’s Parkdale community and dates back to 1889 when female entrepreneur Susanna Robinson built and managed the property together with her 13 children. The Gladstone Hotel, constructed in the solid Richardsonian Romanesque style, has since been a landmark on Toronto’s West side, originally serving travelers that would come into town on one of the three different railway lines located just steps from the Gladstone. The old train stations are long since gone, and after 40 years of disrepair the Gladstone Hotel has been restored to its deserved role as one of Toronto’s foremost tourism and cultural attractions.
The key person behind this undertaking is Christina Zeidler, daughter of celebrated Canadian architect Eberhard Zeidler, creator of Toronto’s Eaton Centre, Toronto’s Ontario Place and Vancouver’s famous Canada Place. Christina’s older sister Margie turned an old factory building at 401 Richmond Street into a beautifully revitalized space for artists, multi-media companies and non-profit organizations. A concern for urban planning and innovative social entrepreneurship runs in the Zeidler family. The Zeidler partnership restored the hotel along historically accurate lines and turned it into a masterpiece of urban revitalization. Christina refers to her hotel not as an “arts hotel” or a “boutique hotel”, but rather as a “unique hotel”. And unique it is.
The Gladstone Hotel has 37 artist-designed rooms, all uniquely themed and different. I had a chance to see a few of them and not one of the design elements repeats in any of the rooms. The designs range from Victorian revival to stark minimalism that focuses on the basics. I also had a peek at the luxurious third floor Corner Suite, also called “The Best Room”. This suite features a kitchenette, an upscale bath and a gorgeous view. One floor up is the two-level Tower Suite, also referred to as the Rock Star Suite, also with a kitchenette and a sitting area on the lower level and a stunning bedroom located inside a turret on the top level of the hotel, offering a phenomenal 360 degree view of Toronto.
The second floor of the hotel offers multi-use spaces that provide a unique backdrop for receptions, exhibitions and conferences. A beautiful Victorian balcony adds to the uniqueness of this location. Ten rooms are available as meeting spaces with reasonable rental rates and nine of these rooms are available as affordable short-term studio work spaces for artists.
The main floor of the Gladstone houses the Melody Bar which features a late 1940s Deco design and provides nightly entertainment including live music, open mic nights and karaoke. The Gladstone Hotel is also one of the venues for the Toronto Jazz Festival, one of the many music and arts events that are being held at this historic hotel. The Ballroom Café on the west side of the building is a great spot to enjoy coffee or a light lunch sitting at a table in front of the tall picture windows where you can see the world pass by on Queen Street. Weekends also feature a tasty brunch menu. The Ballroom itself is the Gladstone’s largest event space and can be rented for special events. One of the most unique architectural features at the Gladstone Hotel is the hand-operated elevator, one of the last such devices operating in Toronto, which adds a crowning touch to the historic feel of this unique property.
But Christina hasn’t always been involved in the hotel management business. She is actually an artist and film-maker by profession. Christina gave me a DVD with samples of some of her short films and Christina’s off-beat creativity comes to light quickly in the flickering, gritty, often hand-coloured images of her short films. Her film clips reveal a playful, irreverent yet sensitive personality that is underscored by some of her soulful narration in these pieces. A eulogy about her dog Mica reveals a touching sense of vulnerability and affection. As an artist, Christina believes in a hands-on philosophy of “do it yourself” and her love of the arts manifests itself in the heavy focus on artistic offerings at the Gladstone.
The surrounding Parkdale neighbourhood is a key ingredient in the success of the Gladstone Hotel. Traditionally one of Toronto’s poorer neighbourhoods, it has historically faced a variety of problems including drug dealing and prostitution. Today Parkdale is a neighbourhood in transition that is undergoing gentrification and an increasing influx of artists and creative entrepreneurs. At the same time some of the historic problems are still being dealt with. At the Gladstone Hotel this environment is not whitewashed, hidden or swept under the rug. Christina says “Let’s bring in the people. The Gladstone is authentic, we are not trying to be someplace else”.
Christina celebrates this neighbourhood and the Gladstone Hotel today is not only a hip accommodation option for international travelers looking for something different, it is also a hangout for some of the grittier local characters who just like to come by and enjoy an afternoon beer. The Gladstone has managed to integrate artsy types, an upscale clientele interested in the Gladstone’s vibrant cultural offerings, foreign tourists with a penchant for a unique ambience, and residents from the neighbourhood, looking for a comfortable, welcoming place to relax and connect. The concept of community figures large in Christina’s vision and this social experiment of opening your doors to everyone is evident the minute you set foot into the Gladstone.
Although the hotel has been beautifully renovated, I was struck by how relaxed and casual it was. Hoping she wouldn’t take this the wrong way, I told Christina that this easy-going atmosphere reminded me of one of my favourite hostels in Chicago, which is located in a beautiful old building in the historic Lincoln Park neighbourhood and welcomes open-minded travelers from all over the world. These are places where everyone can feel welcome, regardless of where they come from or what they look like. To me the Gladstone Hotel conveys this feeling of inclusiveness and the fact that Christina has successfully integrated regulars from the local Parkdale neighbourhood emphasizes this open-door policy.
Community involvement and activism are familiar concepts to Christina Zeidler. One of her many day jobs prior to being the Gladstone’s Development Manager was to teach film-making at an urban day camp called “Playground” where young at-risk youth could learn to create their own music, make CDs, documentaries, or take still images. The participants in the program were extremely enthusiastic since it is every urban teenage boy’s dream to make his own hip-hop album.
Christina Zeidler’s sensitivities were sharpened by her friendship with Jane Jacobs, an American-born Canadian writer, activist and urban pioneer, who passed away earlier this year. Jane Jacob’s seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (published in 1961), criticizes the urban renewal policies of the 1950s in the United States. Jane was a friend of the Zeidler family and obviously left a big impact on Christina whose eyes light up when she talks of her. Christina informs me that Jane was a key participant in saving Greenwich Village in New York City from the wrecking ball when authorities had planned to demolish vast parts of this historic neighbourhood to make way for a new expressway.
Christina also knows a thing or two about travel, having visited places in Africa and South America. She fondly recalls her time in Nairobi when she stayed in a family-owned hotel and got to know many of the locals. She struck up a friendship with a local nurse and through their interactions learned a lot about daily life in Kenya. She explored many of international places on a shoestring and is no stranger to riding on local transportation, one sure way of connecting with the locals. Christina also talked to me about the European concept of the “pension”, small privately-owned accommodation establishments that are informal and welcoming. She has definitely brought this element of coziness and welcoming openness to the Gladstone Hotel.
Christina shares another favourite travel memory with me: she remembers a movie theatre in Oregon where for you can get a movie for $1, a pizza and a beer. The term she uses is for this establishment is “public business”, a business that is connected to street life and brings the community together. In this context she also talks about Queen Street West which is rapidly revitalizing and an example of organically growing positive urban development and revitalization. The Gladstone Hotel is right in the middle, and in many ways at the forefront, of this urban revival.
Strangely enough, my conversation with Christina Zeidler was less an interview than a true meeting of the minds. Many times we kept bantering back and forth about Toronto and the fact that we both love this city. Christina’s eyes light up when she talks about topics dear to her heart. A genuine enthusiasm for her work with the Gladstone Hotel is palpable. She has a variety of unconventional tourism ideas to bring Toronto closer to her guests. For one she is working with the Toronto Transit Commission to sell public transit day passes to her hotel visitors. She is also looking into linking up with a local bicycle rental place to allow Gladstone hotel guests to explore the city on two wheels. It goes without saying that Christina herself is an avid biker. And another innovative idea is to invite local artists for hands-on crafts workshops that hotel guests can participate in.
What a wonderful idea to get tourists involved in the city’s creative culture…
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Susanne Pacher is the publisher of Travel and Transitions (http://www.travelandtransitions.com), a popular web portal for unconventional travel & cross-cultural connections. Check out our brand new section featuring FREE ebooks about travel.