Review – The Grand Old Lady: A History of Hotel London

The Grand Old Lady: A History of Hotel London by Vanessa Brown
The London and Middlesex Historical Society, 2015, 378 pages.

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For 45 years, the south-west corner of Wellington and Dundas was dominated by the large red brick building known as Hotel London. Built in 1927, the hotel was the place in London Ontario to have your company Christmas party or your sorority’s end of year ball, or your high-end wedding; it dominated the social scene of this small, wealthy city. The hotel was unceremoniously sold and demolished in 1972, and a shopping mall and bank headquarters built in its place.

I was only 10 in 1972, and barely remember the place. If I was ever in it, I certainly don’t recall. But I do have memories of its end, and the palpable sadness and regret for the end of an era that the hotel’s demise and closure seemed to generate at the time. Vanessa Brown’s book, about London’s most famous hotel, tells the story of both the building and the people who worked there, and how its destruction was the beginning of the slow decline of London’s downtown.

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The first part of the book is a brief history of the hotel, told in short, quick chapters. These provide a cursory account of the hotel’s existence, without much fanfare.
The rest of the book is made up of interviews with people who had a connection to the hotel, people who either worked there (or their parents did) or local historians who can shed some light on other aspects of the hotel’s history. Clearly, this is the part of the project that the author relished. The enthusiasm and delight of the interviewees to tell their part of a bigger story comes across loud and clear, and the author’s interest in those stories is palpable. Some interviews are wonderful; they really give a vivid picture of a time and place, such as the new bride from Chatham who came to Hotel London for her wedding night, and was pleasantly surprised at the room upgrade that the newlyweds were given, free of charge. Or the immigrant busboy who learned English while on working the elevator. Some interviews are a bit rambling, and harder to follow. The author can be commended for trying, at least, to let the interviewees have their say, exactly as they said it, but it makes for some challenging reading at times.

What is of particular interest in this book is its pictures; there are some real gems here. Some are from official sources, such as the local paper, and some are from ordinary people, but they are a wonderful addition to the story of the hotel, and the city.

This book is a good, informal picture of a part of London’s history, and will be of particular interest to anyone who was connected to the hotel. For the rest of us, Brown’s book will shed some light on a time and a place that most of us have forgotten existed.

Ruth McGregor is a mild-mannered hair stylist by day and a voracious reader and reviewer of books by night.

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