“It’s just that, you know, some places are like people. Some ‘shine’ and some don’t. I guess you could say the Overlook Hotel here has somethin’ almost like ‘shining.’ ”
As a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining, I couldn’t help recalling this quote as I stood in front of the hotel that, according to rumours, inspired Stephen King’s book of the same name. (It’s also rumoured that he wrote The Shining in the hotel, though not in room 237.)
The Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews by-the-Sea in New Brunswick is a four-storey Tudor Revival hotel built in 1914 after the original wooden structure was destroyed in a fire. No doubt Shining fans have sought out this hotel, but I was here for a different reason: I was on a summer holiday with my in-laws. My father-in-law used to be a bellhop at The Algonquin Resort back in the 1960s when it was still owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Compelled by nostalgia’s mesmerizing pull, he was carried into the hotel’s lobby — and so were we. Inside, he pointed out where things used to be, how the rooms have changed, where he used to stand and wait for bags. As we walked around the exterior of the immense building, he suddenly stopped.
The Prince of Wales wing was new. So, too, was the addition of another wing with balcony suites. The historic Algonquin Resort had expanded. From a distance, the additions (done in the early 1990s and again in 2012) were a seamless continuation of the original look. If my father-in-law had not stopped to point out the changes, I would never have been the wiser.
Standing in front of this 20th-century architectural treasure, I was transported back to the 1920s, when the wealthy spent their summers here, creating a moving sea of bowler hats, bobbed haircuts, and Model Ts. Aside from a few modern touches, the illusion, aided by the seamless renovation, was convincing.
Though my father-in-law was after nostalgia, I began to muse on the Algonquin’s effect on St. Andrews by-the-Sea residents. For locals, perhaps the hotel was just a symbol of the economic benefits from tourism. Staring up at the windows where Sir John A. Macdonald, Theodore Roosevelt, and Charles and Diana once looked out, I imagined that for residents, the hotel’s appearance was no longer as impressive, its powers to transport viewers to another era faded with time. These two different perspectives — the tourist’s and the resident’s — are both always at play, simultaneously valid. This phenomenon is, of course, not unique to The Algonquin. Ottawa’s Château Laurier, also a former CP hotel, presents a similar dichotomy. Most who choose to stay at the Château do so because, I believe, they want to travel back in time. The architecture, the decor, and other touches such as high-tea service, perpetuate this fantasy.
This illusion would be disrupted by any major renovations — say, for example, the glass-and-steel addition proposed by Toronto-based Architects Alliance this past June. Like the designs before it, this latest proposal was similarly criticized.
Last month a new vision was unveiled:
The proposal uses the word “evolution,” a word reflecting the infusion of modernity. For those staying there, evolution might be a good thing when it comes to upgraded plumbing or Wi-Fi; it’s less certain the average visitor wants evolution in the form of a bold new look that disrupts the illusion of the early 20th century. The same is likely true for those Ottawans who don’t work or live around the ByWard Market, who travel in from the ’burbs to bathe in the heritage of the Parliamentary Precinct. For this group, preservation of the illusion is paramount.
For those who do work and live in the area, like the citizens of St. Andrews by-the-Sea, the Château has likely receded into the background. After all, the Wellington strip is a mishmash of architectural styles: Gothic Revival, the Chicago School, Brutalism, Modernism … no one style is sacred. For this group of people, they’re not interested in preserving the illusion, and so a glass-and-steel structure is nothing to be concerned about.
When Peter Clewes of Architects Alliance spoke to Maclean’s after the unveiling of the first proposal, he believed the criticism over the design was a question of “looking back rather than looking forward.” He also noted that, in his estimation, there was a “fear of change” because people tend to think the past was better.
I don’t think people “fear” changes to the Château Laurier; that’s an oversimplification. Rather, I think for tourists — whether from outside Ottawa or within — it’s a desire for a place where we can still experience nostalgia, a place where we can escape into fantasy or enjoy the illusion of another time and place, even if checkout is by 11.
I can’t help thinking that had the renovations taken place around the time Stephen King visited and had The Algonquin Resort taken a modernist approach to its additions, the famed author of horror would not have been carried away in the illusion of a place that contained such a breadth of history. And he would not have imagined his Overlook Hotel: a place where “a lot of things happened … and not all of ‘em was good.”