Nfld. & Labrador

Meet the architect whose wings take her to exotic spots and whose roots are in Newfoundland

Alison McNeil's resumé boasts projects in Prague, Beijing ... and a new project in the Battery in St. John's.

'[Architecture] was kind of in my blood and I kind of drew before I wrote'

Alison McNeil, 47, moved from Trepassey to St. John's when she was 14 and her career has taken her all around the world. (Roth and Ramberg/Submitted)

An architect originally from Trepassey who has designed hotels in India, Italy, Bora Bora, Whistler and cities across the world credits her jet-setting career to an early love of doodling — one that was fuelled by her parents.

"[Architecture] was kind of in my blood and I kind of drew before I wrote," says Alison McNeil, a Toronto-based principal interior at Dialog Design, which boasts offices across Canada and the U.S. 

"There's drawings all over the backs of encyclopedias at my mom's house, of me drawing plans for houses and playgrounds and different things — cities even, because I was watching Sesame Street and was drawing New York thinking that I was from New York back in those days."

She may not have designed anything in that neighbourhood populated by Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird and others, but her resumé is still full with projects spanning the globe, including right here in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Dialog, and McNeil specifically, designed the Emera Innovation Exchange at Memorial University’s Signal Hill Campus. (Submitted by Dialog)

McNeil, 47, was the lead designer for the revamp of Memorial University's Signal Hill campus at the former Battery Hotel — a project that was special to her for several reasons. 

"Being from Trepassey, you would have to stay in a hotel when you went to town and go shopping for school clothes," McNeil told CBC in an interview. 

"So one of the ones you'd pick would be the Battery because it had a swimming pool, of course ... and it has a great view, [and] it also had a piano in it," 

When Memorial's Signal Hill campus opened in September, McNeil was delighted to see particular people take in the makeover. 

"It was the first project that I ever got to have, you know, my family go to," she said. 

The Signal Hill campus features several 'collision spaces' where people from different departments can interact. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Family support and influence

McNeil got her start in the field with a work term in St. John's, after earning her master's degree in architecture from Dalhousie University. 

"I kind of knew that I would have to go away," she said, noting there wasn't an interior design or architecture program offered at MUN. 

"No matter what, I had to go beyond the shores of Newfoundland and my dad was very much so … supportive of that from a very young age."

McNeil with her parents, Nell and Loyola McNeil, at a family gathering in Trepassey. (Submitted)

Before her parents married, McNeil's father worked as a radio operator in Labrador, a lifestyle that saw him read a lot of books. 

"Because you can imagine that's a pretty solitary life ... He read a lot of architecture books and he kind of fell in love with Frank Lloyd Wright," said McNeil, recalling her dad's admiration for the famous American architect and interior designer.

McNeil moved with her family to St. John's when she was about 14. She recalls her dad taking her to open houses in Toronto when they would travel.

"The places that he thought [an] architect would want to go, which was kind of naive, you know, but it was amazing," McNeil said, laughing.

Other early work took her to Miami, where an old adage — one that people from Newfoundland and Labrador know all too well — proved true. 

"I stayed with a relative whose grandmother was from Newfoundland and, you know, we're everywhere," she said. 

Inspiration, details and redesign

The Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto holds a special place in McNeil's heart — and resumé.

McNeil's recent redesign of parts of the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto include a lounge called d|bar. (Even Bergstra)

She finished designing it for the first time in 2012, and recently completed a renovation of the lobby, bar and spa, after a new owner took over the property. 

Specifically, it was bought by Shahid Khan, who owns the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and the London-based Fulham Football Club, for $225 million. 

"He wanted to make his own kind of mark on the hotel and he asked us to kind of relook at the hotel because he thought it had such great bones that the only person to redo it would be the person who originally designed it. So that's nice!" said McNeil, who described Khan as "amazing."

The redesigned spa, a project led by McNeil, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. (Evan Dion)

She has spearheaded several other designs for Four Seasons' properties — she's working on one in Whistler, and another in Mumbai — in addition to the Waldorf Astoria in Beijing and the Emblem Hotel in Prague.

Officially, her job title lists her as "a national interior design leader focused on luxury hospitality, retail, and corporate workplace projects.​"

'You're kind of entering this fantasy world'

Details are key to every project, McNeil said, but so is creating an atmosphere.

"[I like] exploring different places and trying my best to interpret the place and turn it into an environment," she said. 

"Particularly with hotels one of the things you have to do [is] give them what they believe they experience should be in their mind … you're kind of entering this fantasy world when you book a hotel."

McNeil led the design of the JW Marriott Edmonton. (Submitted by Dialog)

McNeil said her personal favourite place to stay is the Park Hyatt in Shanghai, but she draws inspiration from lots of different places, including her own neighbourhood.

"I think that downtown Toronto, what's happening over the past 10 years, is pretty inspiring," she said. 

McNeil designed suites like this in the Emblem Hotel in Prague. (Submitted by Dialog Design)

McNeil, who has worked at Dialog for 15 years, said her work kept her travelling so much that it's only in recent years she's been able to stop and enjoy the local view.

"It was kind of amazing to kind of walk down there and see what happened to the [Toronto] waterfront and actually walk around it and I'd only ever seen it from a from a cab from my house to the airport," she said.

Home is where the heart is

McNeil only travels now about 20 per cent of the time, but she does get to St. John's more often, which she considers a perk.

And while McNeil has been to glamorous locations across the world, designing sophisticated hotels and other projects, home still holds a lot of appeal. 

So much so, that she and her husband recently bought some land in Newfoundland, although she wants to keep the exact location just between them for now — some place to call their own when they come back to visit. 

This is a sketch of McNeil's dream home that she hopes to one day build in N.L. (Alison McNeil)

"I would like a cliff, some ocean and maybe a beach," McNeil said. 

"Growing up on the water, I think all of us are kind of obsessed with getting back to it — at some point in their lives."

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