One family’s financial involvement in a single piece of property, spanning three centuries, is perhaps unique in Toronto’s history. It wasn’t a Park Lot, however, but a business block in downtown Toronto, at one time the site of the city’s best hotel.
The original owner of the south half of Park Lot 26, which comprised the properties on the east and west of Dovercourt Road, south of modern College Street, was William Chewett. He transferred his grant to John Denison, because his residence and his business interests were in another section of the city.
William and his heirs, for over 140 years, either owned outright, or else held mortgages on the property on the south-east corner of King and York Streets. Town Lot 8, the eventual site of the hotel, was granted to Isabella Chewett in 1798, “in consideration of W. Chewitt’s family having been one of the first exposed to the great inconveniences of this new settlement”.
William Chewett (1752–1849) was born in London, England and emigrated to Canada in 1771. After serving as an engineer during the defence of Quebec in 1775–76, in 1791 he was named deputy surveyor general of Upper Canada, and later, joint surveyor general, along with Thomas Ridout. His was the first survey of a sizeable part of the province of Ontario, and his maps were among the first to give exact information of Ontario topography. During the War of 1812 he was colonel in command of the 3rd West York Militia, and sustained severe wounds during the American attack on York.
William’s 1791 marriage to Isabella McDonell produced three children who reached adulthood: Sarah Ann, wife of William Fitzgerald, Alexander (1801–1872), who became a judge of the Essex County Court, and James Grant (1793–1862).
James Grant Chewett followed several professions. Like his father, he was a surveyor, working in the surveyor-general’s department for 30 years, and eventually becoming deputy surveyor-general on his father’s retirement, and also a commander of the 3rd West York Militia. An architect, he designed the first Chewett building (completed by John Howard in 1835), Upper Canada College, which opened in 1829, and the 1832 parliament buildings. Over the years, he served as a director of the Bank of Upper Canada, president of the Bank of Toronto, and chairman of the Canada Permanent Building and Savings Society (later, the Canada Mortgage Corporation). He was also an incorporator of Toronto’s first insurance company, British-America Fire and Life Assurance. He and his wife Martha Robison had 3 children: William Cameron (1828–1897), Alexander (1831–1895), and Mary Elizabeth (b.1839) who married Henry Torrence.
In 1851, William Cameron Chewett and another student received the first medical degrees granted by the University of Toronto. Instead of practicing medicine, however, he became a partner in Maclear & Company, a publisher of prestige which, by the 1860s, was producing the Upper Canada Law Journal and the Canadian almanac, and had established a reputation for fine lithography (The company eventually became Copp Clark). Over the years, he maintained a connection with the Chewett investment on King Street, and became directly involved in the 1880s. William and his wife Maria Susan Ranney had six children: Mary Geraldine (b.1858) who married William Sims, William Glenelg (1859–1879), Ethel Katherine (1861–1926), unmarried, James Henry (1867–1917), Albert Ranney (1877–1926), Laura who married R.A. Sims. James and Albert both moved to England.
The first building on the York-King site, known as the Chewett Building after owner William Chewett, was designed and built by John C. Howard, and completed in 1835. It was Toronto’s first business block. Besides private apartments, offices and stores, it housed the British Coffee House, said to be a popular meeting place for citizens and politicians prior to the 1837 Rebellion of Upper Canada. This may be the reason it was ordered closed early in 1837. In 1838, the building was seized by the government and used first as army barracks, and later as officers’ quarters. After 1842, the building was returned to Chewett, whose tenant ran a boarding house and hotel, as well as a club which eventually became the Toronto Club. For a while, the first floor was used as a dancing academy, and balls were held in the old coffee house.
Nineteenth century King Street was the city’s elegant thoroughfare. By mid-century Government House (known as Elmsley House), Upper Canada College, and Sir William Cawthra’s imposing mansion all stood within three blocks of the Chewett property, and later, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church—the only building still standing. Toronto’s first legitimate theatre, the Lyceum, was almost next door. Furthermore, the Grand Trunk Railway and its station were being built adjacent to the ferry wharves a few blocks south, and both were within easy walking distance for arriving travellers—altogether, an ideal location for a superior hotel.
In 1855 Charles and Marcus Rossin purchased the property for $60,000 with a mortgage of $40,000 from the estate of William Chewett, tore down the Chewett Building, and raised the Rossin House Hotel. The design by a Mr. Otis of Buffalo, selected by competition, had a renaissance façade of five storeys, with the main entrance on York Street, and ground floor rented shops. The major public rooms were on the second floor, reached by a grand staircase. The builder, William Kauffman, insisted that cast iron be used on details such as the balconies, shop-front piers, and the cornice at York and King; and he incorporated other provisions for fire prevention and control.
It was a beautiful and stylish building, whose guests included Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra; but under proprietor A.C. Joslin, the hotel failed. The Rossins took over management and were beginning to build the business, until a disastrous fire on November 14, 1862, partially destroyed the structure. Although Kauffman’s walls were left mostly intact, the hotel was a total loss, the Rossins gave up, and the building reverted to the Chewetts.
A joint stock Rossin House Hotel Company was formed in the fall of 1864 to raise money to rebuild. The list of charter stockholders was impressive, and included Hon. John Ross, Hon. George Brown MPP, John MacDonald MPP, Hon. W. McMaster MLC, and Hon. William Howland. By retaining as much as possible of the original walls, the $96,000 estimate for rebuilding was a little more than one third of its original cost. A loan of $40,000 was obtained from the J.G. Chewett estate to begin construction.
The May 1865 advertisement for a lessee provides some specific physical detail: 202 feet of frontage on King Street, 156 on York, with a 3/4-acre coverage. The main entrance was on York Street, with a ladies’ entrance on King. There were 140 bedrooms, with gas lighting throughout. Among the amenities were two reading rooms on either side of the York Street entrance, a dining room of 90 x 38 feet, with 18-foot ceilings; a ladies’ drawing room of 40 x 22 feet, with 14-foot ceilings; billiard and bar rooms, and baths. Services included a bakery, an ice house, and stables. The number of floors is unspecified.
The plan was to lease an empty building, with the lessee providing the furniture. Since no one could be found on these terms, the Rossin House Hotel Company borrowed $40,000 to buy furniture; and in 1867 concluded a lease with George P. Shears, who agreed to pay the company $25,000 as his share of the furniture. Within two years, Shears insisted on a fifth floor being added to the building, and agreed to furnish it. Unfortunately, business declined, and Shears, having paid $27,000 for the new furnishings, was unable to pay anything towards his earlier debt. There were lean years, and often only the rents from the small ground floor shops kept the deficit fairly low. By 1872, the debt against the Rossin House Hotel Company was $52,000, with the Chewetts still holding mortgages against the property.
As the shareholders were soon to discover, moreover, running a first class hotel requires money for regular refurbishing and renovation, as well as for repairs. To accommodate a business tenant, in 1865 the ladies’ entrance was altered to provide a glass partition for a millinery showroom adjoining the entrance passage. Improvements in 1867 included providing 230 walnut hat rails “varnished and fixed with 6 hooks to each”, and a gasolier in the “Bridal room”. Each of the lessees completely renovated and replaced furniture; and for the first two renovations, the Rossin House Hotel Company borrowed to cover the costs. The 60 grates with marble mantles and the gasoliers of 1873, had by 1890 become radiators with marble tops, and electric lights. Under Mark H. Irish, who succeeded Shears in 1877, 50 new bedroom suites were added, cabinet baths were installed in every bedroom, floors were re-covered with over 6,000 feet of new carpet, passenger and baggage elevators were installed, and all outside rooms received storm windows. The new lending library for guests was considered an innovation.
The Rossin House Hotel was justly proud of its reputation as a popular first class hotel that attracted such guests as Princes Leopold and Alfred, younger sons of Queen Victoria, as well as boxer John L. Sullivan, and star entertainer Lillian Russell. Joseph Gung’l [sic] composed “The Rossin House Mazurka and Gallop” which was published as sheet music.
But the debt kept mounting. A legal wrangle stemming from a secret arrangement between Shears and a silent partner, E.D. Crossman, was settled in 1878 with a loss of $10,000. Mr. Irish’s renovations had cost the Company $25,000, which improved the asset, but not the revenue. Compounding the problem, from 1876 to 1881, the hotel operation lost $11,825.
Two events in 1882, likely orchestrated by William Cameron Chewett, precipitated the collapse of the public joint stock company. In January 1882, the Rossin House Hotel Company’s Act of Incorporation was amended to allow the borrowing of money up to 3/4 of the assessed value of the land, and to add to the capital stock to the maximum of $200,000. In May, the Company borrowed $80,000 with a 15-year mortgage. As Chewett explained in a special Director’s Report of November 1882, the object of the increase in capital stock was to purchase the furniture from Mr. Irish, and run the hotel, as well as to pay down the mortgage debts. The other shareholders, refusing to be “inn-keepers”, sold their shares to Chewett. Through a series of stock transfers between Chewett and his wife and children over the next year, by the November 1883 Annual General Meeting of the Rossin House Hotel Company, five members of the Chewett family were its only shareholders. All debts outstanding to the Chewetts were cancelled by declaring a dividend of 50% per share of capital stock.
Under the family’s ownership, an extensive redecoration was undertaken in 1885, coinciding with the renewal of Irish’s lease. Each of the 187 bedrooms had a Hartford woven spring mattress, water closets (toilets) vented to the roof, and “a large coil of rope for fire protection”. The public rooms were opulent, in French grey “with frescoing and decor in crushed strawberry, terra cotta, pale blue and light bronze”, while the corridor floors were of alternating strips of black birch and white maple. A new 100-seat dining room, separated from the existing one by folding doors, increased the capacity to 450 diners.
By 1888, Irish had been replaced as lessee by Abner and Alexander Nelson; and with the inevitable redecoration, by 1890, the dining room had a high wainscotting of “pressed leather effect”, with “trophies of arms” of antique metal on the wall panels between the windows, which were now stained glass. On a quieter note, the drawing room was First French Empire, in cream and gold, with Axminster carpets.
Business continued as usual, under the original name of the Rossin House Hotel Company, but by 1899, most of the board members/shareholders were living in England. The 1900 AGM was held at Revely Lodge, Bushey Heath, Hertshire. The final Chairman’s Report to the Shareholders was 1910.
The last lessee of the hotel property was Samuel H. Thompson. By 1909, the hotel had once again been completely refurbished, with long distance telephones added to every room, and the name had been changed to the Prince George Hotel. The sale of the property in 1928 to the Prince George Hotel Company, with a mortgage of $625,000, was an unsuccessful venture—the Prince George Hotel Company declared bankruptcy in 1933, and the property reverted to the Chewetts.
By the end of the war, the Chewett family’s business interests were no longer in Canada. Their long involvement with the York-King site ended in 1946, when the hotel and property were sold. The former grand hotel was demolished in 1969, and replaced by an office tower.
It all began with the British Coffee House, and continued with the Rossin House Hotel, which for over 50 years set the standard for hotel excellence in Toronto because of the Chewetts and their resources—a single family’s long contribution to Toronto’s business community.
Acknowledgement: Genealogical information and preliminary research by Diana Park.
“The Joint Stock Minute Book of the Rossin House Hotel Company”. (Note: this book contains many interleaved Director’s Reports, as well as numerous unidentified newspaper clippings pasted to various pages.), “Stock Transfer Book of the RHHC”, Miscellaneous papers of the RHHC. Location: Ontario Archives, Rossin House fonds F268
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