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Toronto's Gladstone Hotel embraces a slow rebirth

In the era of extreme makeovers and quickie renovations, the Gladstone Hotel fix-up stands as a refreshing reminder of the value of taking one's time.

After buying the aging rail hotel in 2001, the Zeidler family figured out a way to maintain the property's iconic Queen West status while giving it a polish. Famed Toronto architect Eb Zeidler took on the historical restoration of the Victorian building, his daughter Christina morphing the role of project manager into art director. And interior decorator sibling Kate -- if you read Canadian shelter magazines you've seen her chic, tasteful interiors -- decorated one of the artist-designed suites that distinguish this hotel.

With less self-consciousness than its neighbour The Drake Hotel, The Gladstone's rebirth has unfolded slowly and thoughtfully.

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Ambience

Face-lifted, but still casual. This is the place thirtysomething Queen West scenesters will force their out-of-town parents to stay -- and not just because they live in cramped apartments. As it turns out, fiftysomething couples and the young Toronto art crowd seem to get along just fine.

Clientele

Everyone from Wallpaper magazine-reading urbanites to architecture buffs and art aficionados. Despite an air of high-mindedness connected to the hotel's restorative endeavours, management has managed to keep things unpretentious.

Rooms

The hotel's website apologizes that "guest rooms are smaller than today's standard hotel rooms," but having stayed in rooms -- Ian Shraeger I'm talking to you -- in which I had to step on the bed to get to the bathroom, room 404 was a cedar-lined dream.

I stayed in one of the 37 artist-designed rooms (there are 51 rooms in total) called The Canadiana Room, and I'd revisit it despite my curiosity about other clever takes on the hotel template. Designed by Jenny Francis and The Big Stuff partners Charlene and Grant Gilmur (who did all the upholstering), this is a room to be emulated at home, from its whitewashed antler chandelier to custom-made forest wallpaper. Look carefully, and you'll find dog-eared Canuck paperbacks lined up under a CN Rail-decorated light box.

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Like all rooms, this one had a cool 20-inch flat-screen television with DVD player, cable, high-speed Internet access and a double bed with crisp white duvet that was so hard to leave in the morning I was grateful for a late checkout time.

Either charming or too granola, depending on your point of view, the hotel bath products are all-natural handmade bars of soap, shampoo and body lotion by Honey Pie Hives and herbals of Prince Edward County. If you prefer your shampoo liquid, bring your own.

Other artist-designed rooms include Cecilia Berkovic's Teen Queen (room 305), with its TeenBeat tears covering the walls and old-school chenille bedspread.

For a lake-view splurge, move into the third-floor Corner Suite designed by Kate Zeidler in her trademark posh style; or the two-storey Tower Suite -- also dubbed the "honeymoon/rockstar suite" -- and sleep in a funkified turret.

But if you don't get a kick out of reading an artist's statement and biography as you choose a room, this is not the hotel for you.

Service

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Minimal, but solid. I especially liked the elevator escort who showed us to our rooms via the creaky restored iron-gate elevator.

Food and drink

Coffee and muffins were available in the Art Bar in the morning when I stayed over last month, but as of this week, the Melody Bar will be serving dinner from 5 p.m. A bar snacks menu is also planned.

Things to do

There's enough going on that you could spend hours indoors. The hotel's lobby and hallways are always filled with a bona-fide art show. This month, events include the Speakeasy Comic Book Show and the DIY Toronto Photography Marathon Photography Exhibit. But pick up a schedule at the front desk and you might find yourself taking a drawing class, hitting a free book launch or poetry reading or, as the Gladstone is now famous for, belting out Neil Diamond at the Melody Bar's regular karaoke nights.

Once you make it out the door, the Gladstone is a perfect starting point for a Queen West art gallery hop, from Katherine Mulherin to Clint Roenisch to the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Bottom line

If you're looking for the anti-chain-hotel Toronto experience, this should be your next stop. If indulging your left brain while on holiday is not your idea of swell, skip it.

Hotel vitals

Essentials: 1214 Queen St. W.; 416-531-4635; gladstonehotel.com.

Rates and rooms: 51 rooms include 37 that are artist-designed, starting at $165 a night. "Gimme More" rooms and suites start at $185.

Top draw: The anti-generic cool of the artist-designed rooms -- it's like staying in a different hotel each visit.

Needs work: The front desk will arrange restaurant and grocery delivery, but it needs a clever room-service menu to match the curtains.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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