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Empty for a decade, historic Smiths Falls hotel gets new lease on life

The historic Hotel Rideau in downtown Smiths Falls, Ont., has sat empty for the past decade. Now, plans are in place to give the 116-year-old landmark a new life.

Built in 1901, former Hotel Rideau could reopen as mixed-use condo next year

Ken Shelley, left, and Tim Cinnamon, right, are redeveloping the 116-year-old Hotel Rideau in downtown Smiths Falls, Ont. The hotel has sat empty for about a decade. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Dawn Quinn looks back fondly on the coke floats and sodas she served up as a teenager at the Hotel Rideau.

"We made the best banana splits going. And the most wonderful delicious milkshakes," said Quinn, a Smiths Falls, Ont., town councillor who as a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s worked at the downtown landmark.

"It was a fun, fun place to be."

Pigeons aside, for the past decade no one's been doing much of anything inside the 116-year-old Beckwith Street building. The heritage property has sat empty for about a decade, after its last incarnation, a bar, shut down.

Now, however, a local development firm is hoping to bring new life to the hotel — once described in early 20th century newspaper articles as "one of the best hotels in eastern Ontario."

The Hotel Rideau in Smiths Falls, Ont., was built in 1901 and is now being converted into office space and residential units. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)
A postcard, possibly from the 1930s, shows the Hotel Rideau in Smiths Falls and its portico before it fell into disrepair. (Smiths Falls Heritage House Museum)

'It's just been so neglected'

Last year, North Gower's Parkview Homes bought the Hotel Rideau from the previous investor. They pitched a plan to convert the crumbling structure into a mixed-use condominium with 25 residential units and a pair of commercial suites — while also preserving as many heritage features as possible.

Residents of the town, about 80 kilometres south of Ottawa, are "so thrilled" that there seems to finally be a plan in place, said Lorraine Allen, who like Quinn also sits on Smiths Falls' town council.

"It's just been so neglected and has sat empty for so long. And for those of us that saw it in its former [state] — it's even more sad," said Allen.

"People were worried about it getting worse and worse. Because you can have neglectful things happen. Buildings get [torn down] because they're not cared for. And it really worried a lot of us."

When Dawn Quinn was a teenager, she worked at the Candy Kitchen restaurant inside the former Hotel Rideau. She's now a Smiths Falls town councillor and runs an antique shop a few blocks away. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Last chance

Tim Cinnamon, the lead developer on the project, gave CBC News a tour of the former hotel this week.

Cinnamon said Parkview Homes is bound by heritage rules to keep the ornate balconies and bay windows that once made the hotel rooms so inviting. They'll also be restoring the three-story portico that once gave shelter to guests arriving by horse-and-buggy.

I think it's pretty clear — this was its last chance.Tim Cinnamon, Parkview Homes

According to the planning rationale submitted to the town, Parkview Homes will be getting rid of the "unsightly" concrete steps and the curving second-floor facade installed long after the first bricks were laid to make room for the portico.

Ultimately, said Cinnamon, the hotel's exterior will closely resemble what it looked like in 1901. 

"There's so much history [here]. It's not hard to feel it when you walk through the building," said Cinnamon. "This was a great building at one time — and it will be again."

Certain elements can't be preserved, however: the grand staircase that connected all three floors of the hotel, for instance, was simply too far gone to be saved, Cinnamon said. (The building will instead have a new set of stairs, he added, as well as a modern elevator.)

An entire wall had also caved in by the time Parkview Homes had taken over, Cinnamon said, and some of the supporting beams had suffered major cracks.

"It just showed us that the building probably had a lifespan of two to three years before it would've incurred structural damage and couldn't be replaced," he said.

"I think it's pretty clear — this was its last chance."

The Hotel Rideau's interior demolition work is mostly complete and Tim Cinnamon hopes tenants will be able to begin moving in next year. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)
This second-floor stained glass window will be relocated to the main floor and be put on display for visitors to look at, said Cinnamon. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)
These arching first-floor windows will be preserved as part of Parkview Homes' renovation of the 116-year-old Hotel Rideau, but the concrete steps and curving yellow facade — both of which were added much later — will be dismantled. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Downtown resurgence?

There's a hope locally that the Hotel Rideau renovation project will contribute to the ongoing resurgence in Smiths Falls, which has faced uncertain times since the Hershey chocolate plant — one of the town's biggest employers — closed in December 2008.

"The municipal heritage committee believes that if this is done well, and it's done with some restoration strategies that other buildings could use, it might just do that — it might just stimulate growth in the downtown," said Allen, who sits on that committee and also represents town council on the downtown business improvement area.

That would be the ideal scenario for Brian Paquette, who opened Café Whim this past May on William Street, one block up from the Rideau Hotel.

Paquette said he foresees offering catering services to the hotel, while the cafe would draw in new customers thanks to more people living in the town's core.

"We're hoping it's going to increase foot traffic, increase the quality of the downtown, reinvigorate it and revitalize it," said Paquette.

This photo of the Hotel Rideau, taken during the early years of the 20th century, shows the town's first motorized bus parked in front of the Beckwith Street building. (Smiths Falls Public Library)

A new first impression

With most of the demolition work complete, the developers are now collecting names of interested tenants and hope to have the first residents — which they expect will be mostly seniors and young professionals — move in next year.

The proposal is now going through the zoning application process at Smiths Falls council. Ken Shelley, Parkview Homes' vice-president of asset management, said there's no sign of major obstacles at the municipal level.

The portico will be added later, said Cinnamon, after the town tears up Beckwith Street as part of a separate downtown revitalization project. They're also hoping to exhibit artifacts from the hotel's glory days in the new building, although Cinnamon said that's proving difficult as many items had already been auctioned off when they took ownership.

As for Quinn, she said she expected that reopening the Hotel Rideau would not only give local residents a sense of pride, but attract visitors to the town of about 9,000 people on the Rideau Canal.

"That first impression is what counts. As they drive along our main street [they'll see] there's this beautiful old building, all restored," she said.

"You know, that catches people's eyes, and makes people think: wow, isn't this a lovely town."

Ken Shelley, left, and Tim Cinnamon, right, stand outside the Hotel Rideau in downtown Smiths Falls. The pink-and-blue hotel sign was added sometime after the hotel was first built and will be removed as part of the renovations. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)