‘Magical’: Half a Century of Painting the Château Laurier

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

October 2, 2019

 As Ottawans make progress in preventing an eyesore addition to the capital’s iconic Château Laurier hotel, artist Shirley Van Dusen (yes, relation) ponders the beauty of a favourite subject.

       Reading about the fight to preserve the architectural integrity of Ottawa’s Château Laurier the other day brought back childhood memories of the hotel: Sliding down the brass banisters; taking the bus from Aylmer with friends to use the Art Deco swimming pool for 75 cents. Mostly, I remember my grandfather — who lived across the street from us and whose career spanned a job in Chicago as the body man (nicknamed “Canadian Frank”) for the juke box king who supplied speakeasies across the Midwest during Prohibition to his retirement as a tax bureaucrat for the Department of National Revenue — donning his pinstripe suit and fedora and slipping his silver whiskey flask into his back pocket every Friday and driving, with his surly dog Buster, to the Canadian Grill for a lunch of prime rib. It was a place for occasions.

        One of the people who knows the Château Laurier best — at least from the outside — is my mother, artist Shirley Van Dusen, who has painted it more times than Édouard Manet painted Berthe Morisot, and he was a little obsessed. She knows it as both a focal point (above) and supporting player — in scenes of the Canal dotted with boats in summer and skaters in winter, flanked on the left by the Victorian Gothic East Block and the right by the French Gothic Château; the Hill from Hull with the Château perched across the Rideau locks like a sentry; and the hulking backdrop of the limestone hotel looming over so many Byward Market paintings.

        To an artist, that integral presence — the skyline-defining, postcard-perfect landmark and tourist beacon — is about more than sheer bulk.

        “It’s the light,” says my mother, who is still painting at 93. “Depending on the time of day, the time of year and the weather, the building reflects light beautifully. At sunset, it just comes to life.” Painting the Château before dusk on some nights, catching the intense pinks and oranges, could take “a touch of rose madder or alizarin crimson in the ivory to get that look of the stones set alight,” she explains to a daughter who couldn’t draw a bath with a pantograph. “It doesn’t have a bad side.”

        The century-old hotel has seen so much history, personal and political, public and private — from the parade of legends through the late Yousuf Karsh’s studio in suite 660 to the “Night of the Long Knives” in suite 418 on November 4, 1981, when a group of premiers agreed to patriate the Constitution without Québec, to countless conventions, negotiations and assignations — that the Château is one of those buildings that carries a mystique bigger than its blueprint.

         Defenders of its heritage — including Maureen McTeer, respected Ottawa lawyer and wife of former prime minister Joe Clark, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau Tom Axworthy and nearly 1,000 others — have mobilized as Friends of the Château Laurier to prevail upon Larco Investments to abandon its baffling intractability on proposed addition that has been compared to a radiator, a prison block and a brutalist accordion. They won a reprieve last week — with the help of Heritage Ottawa — as the city’s committee of adjustment rejected a proposed variance to the design.

         Having spent hours staring at and squinting at and sighting the angles of the existing, iconic Château, my mother applauds the effort to maintain it as a sight worth painting.

          “There’s a romance to the Château. It’s seen so many weddings and balls, so much history. To slap that thing on it isn’t just ugly, it’s insulting.”

            Asked what, after so much time pondering the existing structure, her word-association response to the prompt “Château Laurier” is, she responds, “Magical.”

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, a writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.