The who’s who of mid-1800s Toronto is feeling quite familiar to me. Names and relationships gel together a little more with every book and article. Reading old newspapers and tracking stories is kind of like catching up on 160-year-old gossip, or feeling acquainted with neighbours who have long since moved out.
But there was one name that kept popping up: Rossin House. It bugged me (possibly because a good friend wrote a book which featured a major character called the Rossin…but that’s a story for another time). More than that, though, pictures of Rossin House suggested something unique: a very different hotel from Toronto’s other inns and taverns. As inevitably happens, curiosity got the better of me and I started digging.
As it turns out, Rossin House was unlike anything Toronto had seen before. Through the first half of the nineteenth century, inns and taverns were pretty much the same thing. There was a place to drink, somewhere to eat, and beds to sleep in. Sure, the food could be questionable at best (pork for all three meals must eventually grow old) and the rooms overcrowded and vermin-ridden, but there was beer.
Of course, that grim picture was mostly to be found in the backwoods, early in the history of Upper Canada. Our own Half Way House is a good example of your standard, reputable inn. Taproom, parlour, dining room, bedrooms, and ballroom. Done—a fascinating mix of public and private space under one roof.
Rossin House heralded a new breed of palatial hotels. In 1855, Charles and Marcus Rossin purchased property on King St from the Chewett family and held a competition to design a new hotel. The lucky winner was one “Mr. Otis,” from Buffalo. According to an 1883 advertisement, the five-storey structure was “the largest hotel in Ontario, only two blocks from Union Station, corner King and York streets, best situation in Toronto…” and boasted approximately 220 rooms for travellers, plus numerous reading rooms, parlours, and dining hall. And of course, as we read in Mr. Alfred Sylvester’s Sketches of Toronto, there was “a very extensive bar-room with billiard table beneath.”
Interestingly, it also made extensive use of cast iron—a first for Toronto buildings—and used its ground floor as a space for shops.
Rossin House interests me because it marks a shift in the conceptualization of inns. Smaller inns like our Half Way House were important social hubs within the community—you didn’t necessarily need to be an overnight boarder to socialize in the taproom or parlour. They were public spaces, communal spaces. The term public house really gets to the heart of the matter.
Rossin House strikes me as more similar to our modern-day hotels. Considering the notion of public vs. private space, our hotels seem to have become increasingly private in nature. While one may certainly eat at a hotel restaurant without staying overnight, we don’t tend to socialize in hotels as we do in pubs. The main clientele of a modern hotel is not a cohort of local regulars dropping in for an evening of entertainment. Rather, the modern hotel’s main clientele is transitory: travellers from outside the community.
And indeed, at Rossin House, the focus was very much on the traveller. That same 1883 advertisement claimed that Rossin House’s many amenities made it “…specially attractive to the travelling public.” Likewise, Rossin House itself published its own “Travelers’ Guide for the City of Toronto.” Again, hotels were increasingly occupying a new space within the community; Rossin House was clearly trying to appeal to tourists and newcomers to the city. More specifically, though, Rossin House was trying to appeal to tourists with money to spare.
After all, its sheer size and grandeur represented an opulence that had been lacking in Toronto hostelry. Once regarded as one of the finest North American hotels outside of New York, Rossin House hosted Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra. In the 1850s, Toronto was coming into its own. Rossin House thus represented another ticked-off-box on the list of What Makes A Proper City: a really swank hotel.
Unfortunately, Rossin House suffered its share of problems: fire, changing ownership, debt (that newfangled Royal York Hotel snapped a lot of business), and eventually, demolition in 1969.
Like much of Toronto history, Rossin House has faded from sight. Thank goodness for old archives, photos, and curiosity!