Homes and Design

GREAT SPACE: As the Château Laurier celebrates its 100th birthday, Ottawa Magazine visits the storied Karsh Suite

In 1980, photographer Yousuf Karsh and his wife, Estrellita, moved into a suite in the Château Laurier. They would live at the glamorous address for 18 years. Today the Karsh Suite pays homage to the icon  By Janet Uren

Yousuf Karsh and his second wife, Estrellita — a native of Chicago — lived in the Fairmont Château Laurier from 1980 to 1998. “To everybody else, the Château is a place probably where you come and go, where you say ‘Good morning’ to the bellboy and you leave,” Mrs. Karsh said in an interview in 2007. “But we lived here, and the Château family became our family.” Taken by Karsh, this portrait of the couple now hangs in the foyer of the hotel’s signature Karsh Suite.

THE ARMENIAN-BORN PHOTOGRAPHER Yousuf Karsh was a household name by 1980, when he sold his house on the Big Rideau and moved into the Château Laurier. He and his second wife — the American-born Estrellita — remained there for the next 18 years. Today their former rooms — living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and dressing room — comprise one of the hotel’s Signature Suites, where guests the likes of Nelson Mandela have stayed during visits to Canada. The mark of Yousuf Karsh remains in the form of nine richly shadowed and finely textured portraits of the rich, talented, and powerful men and women who were once the distinguished subjects of Karsh’s work.

Karsh built a reputation in Ottawa in the 1930s as the photographer of choice for society debutantes. During the Second World War, however, he caught the eye of the world when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill paused for a moment in talks with Canadian leaders to glare into Karsh’s lens. The resulting photograph has since become an icon of the times. When the Karshes left Ottawa for Boston in 1998, the hotel renamed the couple’s rooms “The Karsh Suite” in honour of this extraordinary artist and his charming wife. Yousuf Karsh died in Boston in 2002.

After the Karshes left Ottawa for Boston, the suite was redecorated in light colours of the kind Estrellita had also favoured. Of the hotel’s four Signature Suites, this is the lightest and airiest in design. The view has changed significantly since 1998. The large living room windows, now overlooking a relatively new condominium at 700 Sussex, would have shown the old Daly Building when the Karshes lived here.

 

Some years after moving into the hotel, the Karshes pulled up the living room carpets and discovered a parquet floor (above, left) of warm-coloured oak, original to the 1930 wing of the hotel. They made sure it was uncovered for all to see and enjoy. Over the fireplace, with marble surround, hangs the 1943 portrait of playwright George Bernard Shaw. Canadian figure skating champion Barbara Ann Scott (above, right) sat for Karsh as a teen in 1946. Photography by Doublespace Photography.


In the hallway leading to the bedroom hangs a stunning portrait of Karen Kain, Canada’s prima ballerina in her day (above, left). This is one of nine Karsh images in the suite, which were a gift to the hotel from the widowed Estrellita Karsh in 2007. To the left of the frame hangs the self-portrait (seen in the post intro) of Karsh and his wife. In the dressing room (above, right), a gold-framed mirror captures a portrait of Estrellita created by her virtuoso husband. Photography by Doublespace Photography.

 

Estrellita Karsh liked the traditional marble and porcelain of their lavish bathroom, and some pieces have been restored. The shower, lined with fine grey marble, is an art deco marvel, with elaborate taps and rows of pipes that surround the bather and spray water from all sides. The suite includes a kitchen (above, right). The huge ice box — long ago converted to electricity — is original to the room, and it was installed in 1930. The leather floor, with its alternating checks of blue and ochre, is also original. Other elements of the kitchen have been modernized, but these relics remain to remind visitors that the Fairmont Château Laurier has a long, long history. Photography by Doublespace Photography.

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