May 12, 2014 marked the 100-year anniversary of the groundbreaking ceremony on the site that would become one of Canada’s most famous places to lodge and entertain… The Royal Connaught Hotel.
So it seems only fitting that the “Grand Old Lady”, as she’s often referred to, celebrates another milestone this month when the glass doors to the iconic lobby open once again for the first time in 10 years.
Hamilton builders Rudi Spallacci and Ted Valeri have revived the ‘old gal’ and breathed new life into her empty walls, which have sat vacant and slowly deteriorating since 2004. Phase I of The Residences of Royal Connaught will offer 122 new condominium suites in the original 13-storey landmark building with occupancy expected for 2016.
The land that the Royal Connaught sits on seems always destined to be a location for people from all walks of life to pass through. Interestingly enough, a travelling circus used to perform on the property until plans were put in place to build the Anglo-American Hotel on the site in 1856.
Things weren’t as prosperous and progressive in Hamilton during that time so a large hotel of that size was not needed. In 1861 the Anglo-American was converted into the Wesleyan Ladies’ College, a church-sponsored, all-female educational school distinct from other public institutions. Spearheading this was the first principal, Mary Electa Adams (how amazing of a name is that!) a womens’ education reformer who established a high academic reputation for the school. She spent seven years teaching at Wesleyan, but by the time Mary left, the institution was falling into disrepair and facing financial hardship.
The school eventually closed in 1898, but quickly transformed into another hotel known as “The Waldorf” which operated until 1914 when it was demolished.
This is where a 37-year old man named Harry Louis Frost came in to the picture and changed the face of Hamilton with his “million-dollar castle” that has now for a second time endeared and initiated the re-birth of a City.
Here we are, a century later with plans underway to offer a place to live for anyone who wishes to call the Royal Connaught their permanent home… and that includes the ghosts too!
LOST SOULS & SEARCHING SPIRITS…
I had previously mentioned the travelling circus that used to perform on the site of the Royal Connaught. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the theme behind one of the most fondly-remembered dance clubs in Hamilton at the time. It was also the most talked-about.
The Circus Roof, located on the penthouse floor of the hotel, was likely one of the most unique venues in all of Hamilton. One can only imagine the lush parties that were celebrated up there with the most perfect, shimmering backdrop… a clear, unobstructed view of the entire City at night.
But therein lay the problem. It was also the perfect place for sad, desperate souls to find a means to an end as they took to the ledge on the rooftop and slowly shuffled their feet to the edge, taking that one final step into a fall of dreadful proportions. Unfortunately, this happened one too many times and became a good enough reason for the Connaught to close down the Circus Roof for good in the 1970’s.
Could tragedies such as these be some of the reasons why the Royal Connaught Hotel has gained a reputation of being haunted? It’s most likely a contributing cause to the lore, but there is one ghost that stands out among the rest at the Connaught: the apparition of a female spirit who has simply become known as the “Woman in White”.
Not much is known about this ethereal spectre, but the Woman in White appeared to both staff and guests alike on more than one occasion. One of the maids at the Connaught recalls seeing the wispy apparition of a woman dressed in a flowing white gown, gliding down the hallway ever so gracefully, her feet never even touching the ground.
There are also stories of guests who report seeing a floating woman, again, all dressed in white, moving from room to room, vanishing into adjacent walls down the hallway.
Originally, there was no pool at the Royal Connaught Hotel, so guests were allowed to use the recreational facilities at the nearby Holiday Inn. It wasn’t until later that the hotel started construction to turn one of the old ballrooms into a luxurious swimming pool. When the pool was complete, it was a great place to swim, relax and chat with fellow guests.
One guest was relaxing poolside when he witnessed a woman dressed in an all-white gown, standing at the very edge of the pool. She lifted one foot up, took a step forward, and continued to walk along the surface of the water for several feet, only to fizzle out like the snowy static on a TV screen. She just vanished into thin air.
WOULD YOU LIKE SOME SPIRITS WITH YOUR DINNER?
“My dad says the tunnels looked so old and decrepit that he would have easily believed them to be 100 years old.”
My father, Steve Lechniak, worked as a bus boy for the hotel from 1968-1969 when he was just 17 – 18 years old. He recalls having to go into the eerie tunnels that ran underneath the old hotel, shuffling empty beer and liquor bottles to the adjoining pub on John Street. Room Service was a job where you had to be 21 years of age or older and my father was technically underage, but Saturday nights were so busy at the Connaught that they needed all the extra help they could get. My dad says the tunnels looked so old and decrepit that he would have easily believed them to be 100 years old.
My dad also jokes about the time when he was assigned room service delivery to the famous band Sly and the Family Stone (most famous for their songs, “Everyday People” and “Dance to the Music.”) When the suite door opened, he was met with an opulent cloud of smoke, an abundance of libations, and a friendly offer to come hang out with them inside. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether or not he accepted that invitation.
My mother, Cathy Lechniak (or ‘H-H Mum’ as she’s known to fans!) is a psychic medium and recalls encountering spirits of a different kind at the Royal Connaught Hotel.
The first of two strange experiences happened in 1974 when she was meeting some friends after school at Fran’s Diner, which was located inside the hotel. She excused herself from the table for a moment and proceeded to walk into the lobby toward the hallway to the washrooms. She remembers being startled by a man who had quickly bumped into her. The problem was she wasn’t so sure it was a man. It appeared to her as a dark, shadowy figure that almost had a misty edge and semi-translucent body. It startled her enough that she needed to gain composure, but by the time she did, the figure had disappeared into thin air.
There have been reports of a shadowy-grey figure being spotted inside some of the ballrooms, constantly repeating the same routine over and over again, as if stuck in rewind for perpetuity.
It wasn’t until writing this article that I learned that my parents had their first real formal date at The Royal Connaught Hotel. I sat down with them recently and asked them to tell me more about their evening at the Connaught.
It was 1975, almost a year since my mother had her ghostly experience in that lobby. My dad, aiming to charm the heck ‘outta my mum, decided he would take her to a romantic dinner in the formal dining on the main level of the Connaught, which at the time was called The Golden Horseshoe Dining Room.
My parents remember that when you sat down the hosts would light a candle at your table and immediately serve you with a complimentary (and elaborate!) relish tray filled with olives, pearl onions, pickles, melba toast, marinated cauliflower, green onions, radishes (my parents wouldn’t stop going on about the relish tray).
Up next was the house speciality that the Connaught was famous for, ‘Chateaubriand for 2’ prepared on an open-flamed grill. And for dessert, Cherries Jubilee flambéed tableside on a cooking cart. After discussing the food for probably a good 20 minutes, my parents continued to tell me about an unusual incident that happened to my mum that very evening.
She excused herself from the table to go freshen up and made her way toward the lobby. But something forced her to stop dead in her tracks. She looked up and saw the apparition of an elegantly-dressed woman in her 30’s, standing on the first landing of the grand staircase. Her dress was an antique-white colour, floor length, high-collared and adorned with layers of lace. She had a clutch attached to her wrist with a short silver chain. Her hair was pulled back in a loose chiffon bun that was held in place by a strikingly elaborate comb studded with beads, feathers and lace. After taking in all the clothing details, my mother looked directly at her face and realized that the woman’s eyes were locked in on her!
Realizing that my mother could see her, she glanced down with a gentle look of concern, looked my mum directly in the eye, and calmly asked, “Can you help me find him please? I can’t find him,” she said.
My mother replied by telling her “I will in a moment” and continued to walk towards the washroom. Upon return, the woman had vanished.
It was in that moment that she saw a distinguished looking gentleman wearing a vintage, dark tailored suit and top hat and sporting rather large, furry sideburns. He was sitting on the edge of his seat waiting in nervous anticipation, frantically looking around for someone.
“I can’t seem to find her,” he said to my mum, and then vanished into thin air as well. Who was he talking about? The same woman who my mother saw on the stairs?
Could she be the famous lady in white? And if so, why was she standing there hopelessly longing for her lost gentleman? And was the man sitting on the chair connected to her? Perhaps he was the one she was searching for?
We may never know who this Woman in White is, but then again, we may soon find out, now that the building is being brought back to life.
Stay Spooky Hamilton!