Resort-style relaxation by the Don Valley.
The story goes that, around 1961, Murray Koffler was driving by Leslie and Eglinton when he noticed a “for sale” sign on the lot at the northeast corner. Koffler, the founder of Shoppers Drug Mart, made a U-turn. Though he earned a traffic ticket for his illegal manoeuvre, he knew he had to race off to meet his partners in Four Seasons Hotels, Eddie Creed and Isadore Sharp.
Sharp later recalled what happened next:
We drove out and walked around, looking it over: sixteen acres of field and scrubland adjoining a park. It rose gently to a small hill, a great site for a hotel. But it had drawbacks: Close behind it ran a noisy railway track, while across the street was a garbage dump. The only building in sight was IBM headquarters.
The site’s previous owner had bought the property to build a television station that failed to gain a licence. The partners had mixed views: Koffler thought it was geographically central for all of Metro Toronto, while Creed thought it was out in the middle of nowhere. Despite its downsides, Sharp was convinced the site was perfect for Four Seasons’ second hotel. He envisioned a resort within the city—a 200-room hotel with courtyard and pools, surrounded by parkland.
To design the hotel, which would be dubbed Inn on the Park, Sharp went to Peter Dickinson, whose firm had worked on the Four Seasons Motor Hotel on Jarvis Street. Dickinson worked on sketches while hospitalized for cancer. Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Dickinson designed a complex with plenty of 30- and 60-degree angles that provided flexibility for any future expansions. When Dickinson died in October 1961, work passed on to his associate Peter Webb, and it became the first project for the new firm of Webb Zerafa Menkes (now WZMH). From Dickinson’s hospital-bed sketches emerged a complex with a six-storey section flanked by a pair of two-storey wings, two pools, gardens, a courtyard, and a heliport.
Inn on the Park’s groundbreaking in January 1962 was one of many occurring across Metro during this period. Where Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips had claimed the region was underserved by hotels a few years earlier, some observers worried too many were being built at once. Over 1,000 new rooms would be built in Metro throughout 1962 and 1963. Among the new hotels were the Canadiana Motor Inn (Kennedy Road and Highway 401), the Constellation (Dixon Road near the airport), the Executive Motor Hotel (King Street near Bathurst) and the Valhalla Inn (along Highway 427). Unlike earlier suburban motels, these new “motor hotels” offered a full range of services, fancy dining, and evening entertainment to keep businessmen and families amused.
For their nighttime customers, Inn on the Park had a hurdle to overcome: North York’s ban on cocktail lounges. Through the work of partner Fred Eisen, North York held a vote on liquor in March 1963, two months before the hotel would open. It passed.
A fundraising gala for the Ontario Heart Foundation (OHF) marked the four-million-dollar hotel’s official opening on May 2, 1963. OHF president Martin L. Wills was flown in by helicopter and met by the 48th Highlanders Pipe Band, who led him to the dedication ceremony. North York reeve Norman Goodhead praised the Four Seasons team. “This is an example of young Canadians willing to take a risk in the future of their own country,” he observed. “What they have done compares in beauty with anything I have seen on the Riviera.”
OHF executive director Murray Robertson was used as a guinea pig for one of Inn on the Park’s innovations: an on-site health club. Run by pioneering Canadian fitness guru Lloyd Percival, the Fitness Institute was designed to meet the needs of businessmen. Robertson was viewed as the typical client: a man in his mid-40s who was overweight, a heavy smoker, a liquid luncher, and rare exerciser. Asked about the effects of the conditioning program, Robertson noted, “I have more pep and feel physically younger than I did 15 years ago.” Another client, lawyer John A. Tory (father of the current mayoral candidate) observed, “[M]y work energy has improved amazingly. I have never felt so good.” The Fitness Institute was also frequented by top athletes ranging from Olympians to Maple Leafs Hall of Fame forward Dick Duff. For those not interested in the health club, the hotel offered walking maps and rented out bicycles.
Café Discotheque, one of Canada’s first discos, was another innovation. When it opened in May 1964, New York–based dance instructor Killer Joe Piro was brought in to show guests how to do the latest crazes. The disco didn’t amuse the Toronto Musicians’ Association (TMA), which launched a boycott against Four Seasons. “The use of recordings for dancing strikes at one of the most important sources of income for the professional musician,” claimed TMA secretary Gurney G. Titmarsh. “We do not presume to tell anyone how to run his business, but we’re vitally interested when he elects to ruin ours.” The row lasted until November 1965, when Four Seasons agreed to ban DJs from its premises. The company was leaning toward closing Café Discotheque anyway, as dancers drank less than expected. It was replaced by the Café de l’Auberge dinner club.
While the disco wasn’t a financial success, the rest of the hotel was, prompting two expansions. The first, opened in late 1965, added 200 rooms and a 1,000-seat convention centre. A 23-storey, 269-room tower opened in 1971. Among the early guests in the tower was Soviet Union premier Alexei Kosygin, whose visit in October 1971 resulted in large protests.
Tragedy struck on January 17, 1981. Around 2:20 a.m., a fire broke out in a second-floor meeting room in the tower. Though flames were mostly confined to the source, smoke billowed up the shafts into rooms. It took 30 minutes for proper instructions to reach guests. Six people were killed by carbon monoxide, including two children and a music producer. People who fled up to the roof threw snowballs to draw the attention of firefighters. Among those caught in the chaos was CHUM DJ John Donabie, who was trapped with his wife In a room on the 17th floor. They hung out a window in order to breathe. “The only reason we’re alive is because of that window,” he told the Sun. “If we looked back into the room we choked on the smoke.” The fire prompted changes to fire regulations, including transferring responsibility for hotel inspections from the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario to the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal.
Years later, observers like Paul Godfrey sensed that the fire began Inn on the Park’s long demise. Sharp later admitted that building the tower wrecked its resort-like atmosphere. The hotel was sold to Vancouver businessman Zul Somani for over $50 million in 1996, and was converted into a Holiday Inn. In its final days as the Don Valley Hotel, news articles depicted a ghostly inn that reminded reporters of The Shining. When Somani announced it would close in January 2005, Sharp felt its time was up. “These buildings weren’t built that well,” he told the Globe and Mail. “At that time, they were virtually built on a shoestring.” Somani admitted that “we were not able to meet industry standards because the product was getting so poor.”
The property was purchased by Rowntree Automotive, who intended to build a pair of car dealerships (Lexus on the Park and Toyota on the Park). There was an outcry among the heritage preservation community to preserve the site as an example of Dickinson’s modernist architecture, but demolition of the original hotel began before North York Community Council could vote on a heritage designation. Some elements, such as the ballroom, the Oak Room, and the Harvest Room, were retained. Plans to turn the tower into a seniors residence fell through, though condos were built next to it.
Additional material from Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp (Toronto: Viking, 2009); the May 20, 1964 edition of the Don Mills Mirror; the December 10, 1962, May 22, 1964, November 12, 1965, May 21, 1981, and October 27, 2004 editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 2, 2012 edition of the Grid; the April 30, 1963, June 16, 1966, October 30, 2004, and August 20, 2006 editions of the Toronto Star; and the January 18, 1981 edition of the Toronto Sun.