The Pigott Building – once the tallest structure in the British Commonwealth – is officially an Art Deco Gothic Revival hybrid.
But you can just call it fancy. With that beautiful wedding-cake top, this vintage New York-style 18-storey skyscraper of limestone and steel and marble and bronze is the fanciest building we’ve got.
And at this time of year, surely such a structure deserves a fancy Christmas tree.
Thanks to long-time Pigott resident Marcel Guité, it has big one. All burgundy and gold, loaded down with angels and stars and moons and bows and shiny balls, hundreds of decorations in all.
Sadly, you can’t see it from the street. But we will find it in our hearts to feel happy for the people who live in the 110 condo units of the Pigott/ Sun Life complex at James and Main.
Many were awed
The Sun Life building went up in 1905. The Pigott was completed in 1929, and for its opening some 50,000 people traipsed through in awe.
We’ve lost some fine buildings in Hamilton, and these were under threat as well. But the two became one fine condo complex and Guité and his partner Robert Moodie have been there pretty much from the beginning, some 20 years ago.
"I love the architecture," Guité says. "I feel proud when I walk down the street and look up at it."
It’s a long way from the two-room cabin in Lac Saint-Jean where he was born nearly 60 years ago. His father was an iron worker, employed on a dam project there.
But the family had to go where the work was, and soon they arrived in Hamilton – a city that needed riggers. Father helped build the Skyway.
Christmas was the catalogue
The family lived at several addresses in the east end. The first one Guité remembers was on McAnulty Boulevard, just across the tracks from Centre Mall. There were six kids, and life was lean.
"Christmas was the Eaton’s catalogue," he says. "All us kids sat around in the living room and tried to choose something. You picked out three things, and you got one."
Items would be circled – dolls, trucks, building blocks. Sometimes, choices got crossed out. Kids are entitled to change their mind. "We had that catalogue out every night," Guité says. "By the time Christmas came, it was pretty well torn apart."
They always had a real tree until they moved to a house on London Street. Then, for some reason, Mother bought a little artificial one. "It was the ugliest thing," Guité says. "I hated it."
After that, in his early teens, he started looking after the tree. And the outdoor decorations too. "We had 12 big plastic bells that I used to put out front. When I was older, I realized how gaudy they were.
Salon gets the treatment too
"Sometimes now I drive down streets like Barton and Cannon and I see the same kind of stuff. The people don’t have much money, but they’re trying to do what I did. I put out whatever I could to make it look like Christmas."
Guité runs Marcel’s Hair Salon on King William. Partner Moodie used to do the windows at Eatons in Hamilton. These days, he decorates for The Bay at Yonge and Queen in Toronto. So these two know style.
Guité does his salon for Christmas and holds nothing back. Same at the condo. Most years, he and Moodie have a dozen slim-line trees around their home, decorated floor to ceiling. However, they’re into heavy renovations right now. So there is just one small tree this Christmas, with a Wizard of Oz theme.
But in the lobby of the Pigott there is that most extravagant tree. Guité’s been doing it for a decade, ever since he got fed up with the boring one that used to be just plopped in place.
Condo board on side
He convinced the condo board to buy a proper tree, and pay for some decorations. But many are from Guité’s vast personal Christmas collection.
He needs three ladders to trim the tree. He starts in about eight o’clock on a morning in late November. By six that night, it is done.
People do love it. "Bottles of wine arrive at my door, and baked goods too," Guité says. Some neighbours tell him their routine now is to have family over, then proceed to the lobby for Christmas photos.
Resident Ruth Mitchell, 86, doesn’t have a tree anymore. Instead, she says, on Christmas Day she and husband Don "will come down here and have a glass of rosé in front of Marcel’s tree."
It’s a 12-foot-high gift that glitters and Guité loves giving it, year after year.Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.