In 1980, medical writer Estrellita Karsh and her husband Yousuf Karsh, the renowned portrait photographer, decided to do what few had done before—live at the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa.
The Karshes had close ties to the property as the Chateau hosted Yousuf’s first solo exhibition in 1938 and he’d moved his studio there in 1972.
When they approached hotel general manager Franco Anglesio, he wasn’t sure what accommodations to suggest. He finally brought them to Suite 358, overlooking Confederation Square. It was being used as a storeroom and the walls had hideous blue wallpaper that Anglesio wasn’t sure could be removed. On that point, however, Estrellita would not budge. “I said, ‘Mr. Anglesio, if I have to lick it off with my tongue, I’m getting that blue paper off the walls,’ ” she recalls. Fortunately, a steamer did the trick.
Estrellita saw the suite’s solid bones, including the original icebox and leather checkerboard floor in the galley kitchen. She still calls the bathroom’s multi-jetted shower the “sexy shower,” noting it looks like “something that Rube Goldberg might have done, in his more insane moments.”
After the couple moved in, the world’s rich and famous came to visit: Bryan Adams, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, various governors general and U.S. ambassador Jim Blanchard often dropped by.
When the Karshes lived in Suite 358, the only photographs on the walls were family pictures. But today, some of Yousuf’s most iconic images— including photographs of Ernest Hemingway, Barbara Ann Scott and Pablo Picasso—hang in the suite.
Even though they moved out in late 1997 and Yousuf passed away in 2002, Estrellita, now 83, returns to the hotel frequently from her home in Boston.
“What one really remembers are the warmth and the love and the closeness in the hotel,” she says. “It was a family. It was wonderful.”
Winston Churchill portrait
Just before taking this photo, Yousuf Karsh took away Churchill’s cigar. The glowering portrait, reprinted around the world, made his career. “It thrust him into international prominence,” says Estrellita Karsh. “Before the time he photographed Churchill, he was just a hard-working guy.”
Zoe’s Lounge is serving a special Centennial Tea menu throughout the summer.
As part of Doors Open Ottawa, a city-wide architecture festival (June 2–3), you can tour the Chateau with a guide in period costume.
Eat through history
From June through November, each month’s table d’hôte menu will focus on dishes from a different period in the hotel’s past.
Get a deal
From June 1 to December 15, the hotel is offering anniversary accommodation packages.
How the Grand Railway Hotels Changed Tourism in Canada
Canada’s grand railway hotels helped pave the way for the country’s tourism industry, when they were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, see first-hand how this history has been preserved at three existing hotels: Banff Springs in Banff National Park, Château Laurier in Ottawa and Royal York in Toronto.