HOTEL CELEBRATES 50TH BIRTHDAY
Landmark has opened its doors to politicians and pachyderms
Rosaire Guérard was hired as an electrician by the Queen Elizabeth Hotel two weeks before the first guests checked in 50 years ago this weekend.
Guérard, who doesn’t look anywhere near his 71 years, is one of three staffers still on duty who were there when the hotel opened its doors on March 15, 1958.
“I was working at a dance hall in Belmont Park, about to get married and I needed a permanent job,” Guérard said.
“I’ve been here ever since. I love my job, I love the clients. They’re more my boss than anyone else.”
Among the more memorable moments of his five decades at the hotel, he recalls herding live elephants on loan from Granby Zoo for a 1990 Beaver Club dinner into an upstairs ballroom via a freight elevator.
“They pissed all over the service elevator,” Guérard said.
“They didn’t want to go down the elevator shaft. That was something else.
“The other memorable time was the October Crisis in 1970, when the Quebec government went into hiding in the hotel. I had to record Premier (Robert) Bourassa’s television address and no one from the outside world was supposed to know he was in the hotel.”
When Guérard began working at the Queen Elizabeth, it was owned by Canadian National Railways and managed by the Hilton chain. The 1,039-room convention hotel was built above rail yards that funnelled trains in and out of Central Station.
Now part of the Fairmont chain, the Queen Elizabeth kicks off an official round of 50th-anniversary celebrations next month. To mark the anniversary, it will support a writer-in-residence – yet to be named. Chefs have created an anniversary chocolate truffle, a special tea blend and a new signature martini to complement the hotel’s al- ready famous three-ounce birdbath martinis. An exhibit of photographs featuring highlights of the hotel’s 50-year history will also be mounted.
Designed by CN’s chief architect, George Drummond, as “a hotel for all the world and a landmark to match the scope of a great city,” it did not disappoint.
It stands on 160 concrete pylons that cushion any vibrations from the trains that still rumble underneath. It was one of the first hotels in North America with escalators, centralized air conditioning and direct-dial telephones in each room. Its vast reception lobby is longer than a regulation football field.
“It is unfair to look at the hotel as a piece of architecture on its own,” heritage activist Dinu Bumbaru said.
“It is part of a gigantic complex. But it is significant because it was the cornerstone of a major urban Place Ville Marie renewal project, which filled an open trench.”
Few remember the bitter controversy over naming the hotel. Quebec nationalists wanted it called Château Maisonneuve in honour of Montreal’s founder, Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve. CN’s president, Donald Gordon, stubbornly in- sisted it be named for the queen, who had unexpectedly come to the throne in 1952 while the hotel was still on the drawing boards.
“The frustration of FrenchCanadian nationalists at his in- transigence was evident,” Paul André Linteau wrote in his History of Montreal Since Confederation.
“Petitions were circulated, hundreds of thousands opposed to the name Queen Elizabeth signed, including Mayor Jean Drapeau and various city councillors. But nothing happened. Gordon wouldn’t budge. His insensitivity to the aspirations of French-speaking Montrealers left everyone with a bad taste.”
To add insult to injury, CN flew in a planeload of Hollywood celebrities for the gala opening in April: The most famous was Leo Carillo, otherwise known as Pancho in the popular 1950s television series The Cisco Kid. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, a big band from the era, was imported to play for the occasion.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro, not the queen, was the first head of state to check into the hotel, in 1959. Queen Elizabeth has dropped in for a visit four times.
But perhaps the most celebrated guests were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who staged their Bed Peace demonstration in Suite 1742 for one week in 1969, during which Lennon wrote his anthem Give Peace a Chance.
Rosaire Guérard, 71, landed work as an electrician at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1958, two weeks before the first guests signed the register. He’s been there ever since. “I love my job, I love the clients,” Guérard says.
The 1,039-room Queen E was built on what is now René Lévesque Blvd. Below it, trains roll in and out of Central Station.
The Queen Elizabeth Hotel rises over Canadian National tracks leaving Central Station, before Place Ville Marie was constructed.
In June 1959, Queen Elizabeth II was shown a model of the Place Ville Marie project, which was under construction on the then-named Dorchester Blvd., opposite the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.