The Royal Treatment: The Royal Hotel, Picton, Prince Edward County, Ontario
Picton’s historic Royal Hotel is restored as the centrepiece of its community.
PROJECT The Royal Hotel, Picton, Prince Edward County, Ontario
ARCHITECT Giannone Petricone Associates Inc. Architects
PHOTOS doublespace photography, unless otherwise noted
In 1881, the newly opened Royal Hotel was a striking presence in Picton, the centre of Loyalist-settled Prince Edward County near Kingston, Ontario. It included a grand staircase leading to spacious upper-level suites, a handsome dining room, and a popular tavern. The whole was topped by an elaborate octagonal cupola.
Over the next century, the hotel went through ups and downs—becoming the hot spot for balls and birthdays among the area’s gentry when an air training facility was built in 1939, then declining when the county’s canning industry faltered in the 1950s and the military base closed in the mid-1960s. By the turn of the 21st century, it had become a boarding house with an unsavoury bar. In 2008, the building was shuttered, its arched windows boarded up.
Former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara, whose family runs a real estate development firm, had moved to a farm in Prince Edward County four years earlier. In 2013, after a nearby church was demolished, he decided to purchase The Royal to save it from a similar fate. The restoration process began in 2016, and took off in earnest when architects Giannone Petricone were brought on board and Greg Sorbara’s son-in-law, Sol Korngold, took charge of the project.
The building was in terrible condition. “It was crumbling in on itself,” says Korngold, recalling holes in the roof, mold growing up the walls, soggy carpets, and a swamped basement. The eastern brick wall collapsed during the construction process. The process of rebuilding it as a hotel, says Korngold, was like “making your way through the darkest jungle with a machete.” But Korngold and the architects were determined to save what they could—the handsome upper storeys of the façade, the western brick wall—and moreover, to restore the spirit of the place as a hotel and community hub.
The new Royal Hotel follows a similar formula to its predecessor (luxurious rooms for hotel guests, a restaurant at the back) but with modern updates. Instead of a doughnut-shaped plan with a central lightwell, it’s shaped as an L that occupies only a portion of its previous footprint, allowing all of the 28 rooms to enjoy natural light and views to the surrounding town. The front-of-house tavern has become an all-day counter bar; the open-plan ground floor includes a boutique with artisanal goods, a fireplace-warmed lounge, and a cozy games room. The basement has been underpinned to accommodate a Finnish spa for hotel guests and conference room for corporate retreats.
“For us, it’s not enough to have an approach of respect, integrity, and commitment to the original structure,” says architect Pina Petricone of Giannone Petricone, who collaborated with heritage specialists ERA on the project. “How do we enhance that structure? How do we not only restore and resuscitate these historic buildings, but take them to their next life?
Early in the design process, Petricone recalls, they brought the client photos of a crisp, folded tuxedo shirt, and a rumpled tweed button-up. The power of the place, they argued, would be analogous to creating a wardrobe that could accommodate both garments. It would need to respond to the building’s past history of formality and grandness, as well as the more laid-back identity of Prince Edward County today. They also wanted to add a touch of humour through details that referenced the hotel’s restoration from a derelict state.
The Royal’s Victorian origins are alluded to in embroidered motifs on upholstered walls, and tartans that adorn carpets and mosaic-tiled washrooms. Ceiling rosettes are reinterpreted as rippled features, nodding to the earlier waterlogged state of the building; Bocci lights with darkened patches hint at the appearance of plastic burned by hot bulbs. In the lobby, a rippling plaster wall surrounding the fireplace suggests a finish damaged by water, unfurling to reveal a strip of seersucker wallpaper, and a corduroy wall suggestive of an underlying wooden lathe. The elevator is surrounded by construction grade metal grating, a reference to the accordion-like gates of antique elevator cages.
Activity-wise, the twin hearts of the building are its counter bar—a buzzy spot open from morning to evening—and its restaurant. Both spaces evidence Giannone Petricone’s expertise with hospitality spaces, built up steadily over the decades since their renovation of Toronto’s Bar Italia in 1995. The counter bar has a vintage-Italian-meets-farmhouse feel, with chrome-tube bench seats, leather-wrapped columns shaped to suggest fine gloves, and white oak fins that transform from a valence to a display for jams and honey from local producers, including the Sorbara family farm.
Farm produce is also on the menu in the restaurant, which takes on the drama of a theatre: the brightly lit kitchen is framed by an opening that resembles a proscenium arch, with plated food materializing under spotlight-like pendants in the front pass. Heavy drapery to the sides appears like stage curtains, and allows the kitchen to be closed from view. In the centre of the room, a supersized rosette has the presence of a grand chandelier—a dramatic presence, created in part to mitigate the relatively modest floor-to-floor heights of the existing building. (“The way to deal with a low ceiling is to make some areas that are even lower, so that the main ceiling feels higher,” says Petricone.) The designers liken the dining room rosette to the underside of a mushroom, with dew drop-like Bocci 21 lamps floating underneath it.
A more-is-more approach risks becoming a cacophony of competing curiosities. But here, all is part of a coherent vision, built through many details and repeated motifs. The leather-wrapped columns from the main floor, for instance, are echoed in the shape of clay baseboard tiles, turned on end and used to clad basement walls; the same terracotta tone appears in the grout between off-white tiles in the circulation core. The basement includes tapered columns that suggest stems for the mushroom-like rosette above. In premier guest suites, fireplaces are framed by a finely veined marble with rough-cut channels that hint at the quarrying process; the same detail is used on the edge of the stone-top dining tables in the restaurant, where it suggests an imprint left by long-gone starched tablecloths.
Happily, Giannone Petricone not only had its own considerable experience to draw from, but also a passionate client with compatible tastes. While the architects were sourcing washbasins with duck-feet supports for the main floor washrooms (one of the hotel’s most Instagammed spaces), Korngold was ordering a leather punching bag to give the hotel’s gym an old-school feel. He amassed a stock of antique silver trays, purposefully left semi-tarnished, so that guests are greeted with a tea service in their room; common areas are accented with giant vintage clay vases filled with ceiling-height dried bouquets grown locally. “It was five and a half years of waking up at 3 am, and thinking: we need small towels for the spa! We need books for the games room!” recalls Korngold. (The latter resulted in a large, late-night order from Taschen; the games room also includes Korngold’s own guitar, which a guest was thoughtfully strumming during my tour.)
Unlike a Victorian parlour’s fragile cabinet of curiosities, the Royal “wants to feel relaxed—and the more you stay there, the more you discover,” says Petricone. “We’re operating in a place that has a lot of looseness, with many missing teeth in the street wall,” she continues. “This layering [of elements] is essential because it creates much-needed texture: now, new interventions can afford to be more minimal.”
Some of that contrast is created in the Royal Annex, a new-build also completed by Giannone Petricone on the site of the former stables. The barn-shaped building is clad in dark kebony; a zinc roof extends down the north façade to meet fire code regulations for building to the lot line. The geometric shape and dark materials create a backdrop to the hotel itself; the views from the terrace and pool between the two buildings are further screened by espaliered plane trees, part of a landscape design by Janet Rosenberg.
The project is still expanding in breadth and depth. The Sorbara family has acquired two nearby historic mansions for use as staff housing; Korngold jokingly refers to the creation of a “Royal Precinct.” And a planned art program will further the hotel’s connections with its locality. In the summer, the proprietors will display the intricately embroidered jacket of a local who used to room in the hotel when it was a boarding house, and has since passed away. It’s one of many initiatives planned to help make the hotel of its site, and a place that honours its past while looking towards the future. Says Petricone: “The project was to give back to Picton, and to ignite something in this town.”
CLIENT 247 Main Street Picton LP | ARCHITECT TEAM Pina Petricone (FRAIC), Ralph Giannone (FRAIC), Partners; Andria Vacca (MRAIC), Senior Associate; Joseph Villahermosa, Avinash Davidson, Victoria Chin, Cassandra Hryniw, Tracy Ho, Kevin Martin, Carolyn Fearman, Michael Rietta, Ulysses Valiente, Helena Skonieczna | STRUCTURAL/MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL EXP Global Inc. | CIVIL | LANDSCAPE Janet Rosenberg & Studio | INTERIORS Giannone Petricone Associates Inc. Architects | CONTRACTOR HADY Construction Associates (Building shell), Structure Corp. | HERITAGE ERA Architects Inc. | KITCHEN Trend Foodservice Design & Consulting | ACOUSTICS J.E. Coulter Associates Ltd. | FF&E PROCUREMENT P360 Concepts Inc | GRAPHIC DESIGN/SIGNAGE/BRANDING Blok Design | ARTWORK Tatar Art Projects | A/V The Terminators 2008 Inc. | IT TAS Consulting | CODE LRI | AREA 2,880 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION October 2022