4 min

Review: when climbing the walls is a good thing

One hundred fifteen years ago, the Gladstone Hotel opened its doors to the carpetbagger, the tippler and the shuffleboard player. With three train stations located nearby, the hotel was the last place to obtain hard liquor before reaching Hamilton; it wasn’t long before the Gladstone had to hire two doormen to hold back the crowds.

Today, it’s still a happening place. It’s a party space, a tavern and a location for all manner of artistic activity, from photography exhibitions and karaoke to book launches. With its new selection of artist-designed rooms for rent, you may want to do more than recommend the hotel to your out-of-town guests; you may want to book yourself in for a sleep-over of your own.

If you do, you’ll be in for an experience like no other. Spread across its upper three floors, the Gladstone currently offers 15 artist-designed rooms, several “artisan” rooms furnished with retro furniture and antiques and other rooms that double as short-term studio spaces and “no frills chic” hotel rooms. The artist-designed rooms are meant to be used and abused as any hotel room is, not as installation art to be viewed from the doorway. More are on the way (you can check them out at

The Gladdy occupies a big piece of the city’s history. Built in 1889 by architect George Miller, who also designed Massey Hall, the hotel was once at the city’s most westerly edge; it’s become the oldest continuously operating hotel in Toronto. Under the stewardship of its new owners, the Zeidler family, the building is being renovated and restored, very slowly, to illuminate its historical features and past glories.

Some of my own past, glorious or otherwise, resounds in this old landmark. Shunning the exceedingly grungy Drake Hotel in the mid-1980s, Parkdale artists and their cohorts congregated in the Gladstone’s large dark wood-panelled saloon. At the time an ornately framed reclining nude of dubious provenance hung over the long wooden bar. The room looks pretty much the same today, except that the painting, alas, is gone.

For a recent two-night stay, luck of the draw landed me in the fantasy worlds of Allyson Mitchell, Barr Gilmore and Michel Arcand, three of the several queer room designers, who also include Andrew Harwood, Cecilia Berkovic, Melissa Levin and Andrew Jones.

Much to my delight, reclining nudes of an altogether different sort can be found in the room titled Faux Naturelle by Allyson Mitchell, of fun-fur craft and Pretty, Porky And Pissed Off fame. Believing I’d just entered a television set for The Flintstones, I was momentarily at a loss as to whether I could throw my suitcase onto the retro velour-covered bed. The bed is bookended by swag lights, Bam Bam-resistant wooden furniture and rustic wood-and-stone wallpaperings. Maneuvering through the tiny room was difficult, working in it impossible. A low corner table with a hard three-legged stool stood in as a desk and the hotel’s wireless service blocked outgoing e-mail, so take a pass on this room if you intend to work. I soon gave up on any such notion and swan-dived onto the bed, which is what the artist, I think, had in mind for guests all along.

Front and centre of the bed is a large, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall scene of big-bottomed, big-bossomed, big-haired nymphs and satyrs frolicking in a woodland setting. Made entirely of fun fur and emanating a high-kitsch aesthetic, the piece, like the reclining nude in the bar 25 years ago, is so bad it’s good.

You cannot spend the night alone in this room, even if it’s to avoid being frightened to death upon waking in the middle of the night with all those women hovering over you, and so I didn’t. Highly recommended for debauchery and cavorting of your own.

Moving over to the room of design team Barr Gilmore and Michel Arcand was like arriving in the heaven of that Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial, all blue and white and bright light, with the promise of hunky men delivering tasty treats into your open mouth. Bright blue walls, carpets and bed-cover are combined with white fixtures, drapery and furniture – the effect is one of elegance and simplicity. Then you start to see the outlines, white on blue, of a woman’s figure on the bed, panties and bra on the carpet, a chandelier on the wall behind her, a stuffed deer’s head on another wall and, finally, a cowboy in a casual lean against the wall at the foot of the bed.

At this point you may start to wonder what the story is: a lover’s tryst perhaps? It unfolds further as you enter the bright red bathroom and see the figure of a showering woman on a Plexiglas door that covers the shower stall (a delightful design feature that slides to cover the toilet when you enter the shower). A ménage à trois? The coup de grace is the handgun outlined on a second carpet, which was, deliberately or not, folded and stored on a shelf.

The mystery, murder or otherwise, became even more fun when a pal’s birthday party, held in the amazing hotel tower room, rolled in for some late-night porn DVD watching before heading out for burgers. A gaggle of girls reclined on the evidence and pronounced the room divine. But once I was back in the room at 2:30am and wanted to sleep, the loud thumping from the bar band two floors below made it impossible. Recommended for first dates with the potential of being all-nighters and where a little rhythmic bump and grind bass adds to the ambiance.

All the artist-designed rooms are furnished with flat screen TVs, cable, Internet access, telephone, individual climate control and private bathrooms. Seventeen additional artist-designed rooms and six artisan rooms are being built now, with the grand opening of the hotel set for early December. For now, you can rent rooms for a “construction” rate of $125; after the opening, the rooms will be $150 to $165. Be warned: For now, much of the building is still under construction, including the staircase and the Toronto’s last hand-operated elevator, making getting to your room a dusty and exhausting climb. There are other glitches the hotel needs to work out, like too much bright light pouring into the rooms through windows on top of each door, the blocked e-mail access and bar band noise. But this baby is going to be a beauty once December rolls around so give yourself an early Xmas gift and book a night in Andrew Harwood’s Biker Bedroom or Melissa Levin’s jigsaw Puzzle Room.