By Scott Taylor
As a young student at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, I would frequently trudge past the stately old mansion on University Avenue as I transited between campuses. Squashed in between towering skyscrapers, bedecked with a canvas canopy entrance and guarded by two field cannons one could not help but think that the Royal Canadian Military Institute was an out of place throwback to a previous era, smack in the middle of a modern Canadian city.
It was a decade later as the publisher of the newly founded Esprit de Corps magazine that I would first climb the carpeted stairs and enter into the hallowed halls of the RCMI. Being a lifetime student of military history, I found the RCMI to be a veritable treasure trove of books, artifacts, weapons and artwork. It was a combination of a fine gentleman’s club – complete with overstuffed leather chairs and fireplaces and a miniature war museum. The two-storey library with a collection of over 15,000 titles on military related subjects was an invaluable research resource. I became a non-resident member and the RCMI became a regular port-of-call during my numerous business trips to Toronto.
In the late 1990’s we hosted book launches at the RCMI as it could not be a more perfect setting combining military and academia. Thus it was with more than passing interest that I followed the bold plans and developments which led to the recent complete renovation and resurrection of this venerable old Institute.
The origins of the RCMI date back to 1878 and the short-lived organization known as the Militia Institute. This has been the brainchild of Sir William Otter, then a Lieutenant-Colonel who went on to earn fame and promotion in the South African war, retiring as a General with a knighthood. When the Militia Institute dissolved, Otter persisted in continuing its ideals by founding the Canadian Military Institute in 1890. It was not until 1946 that the distinguished prefix “Royal” was granted by King George VI. Throughout its 125 year history the RCMI has remained a collective think tank for Toronto based military officers and academics studying developments on the modern battlefield.
During the 1990’s, the RCMI was the spawning ground for a group named known as Reserves 2000 which remains a robust advocacy voice for increased effectiveness of Canada’s citizen soldiers. However, by 2008 the RCMI was fast approaching a critical crossroad. With club membership hovering around 1500, the RCMI was operating in the black, but only by a narrow margin. The mansion remained stately, but it was in need of millions of dollars’ worth of reconstruction – millions of dollars which the RCMI did not have. The refitting that was required was neither cosmetic, nor optional: the RCMI was rife with termites.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and two long-time RCMI members hatched a bold plan to ‘destroy the Institute, in order to save the Institute’. Jointly, Honourary Colonels Peter Hunter and Jeff Dorfman proposed selling the property to a developer in order to construct a major condominium tower. The mansion sat atop prime real estate in Toronto’s downtown core and as a result RCMI could demand fair value in return. Tribute was the selected developer and the premise was to tear down all but the front façade, dig a solid foundation and erect a 42-storey skyscraper. While the construction was underway, RCMI members were allowed to use the facilities at the nearby Albany club, and such Institute activities such as speaker nights and dinner events were also conducted there. However, there is always an inherent risk in even partially suspending an Institute’s operations, and people being creatures of habit would be apt to make a new habit during any lengthy suspension of their usual routine. In the end, that gamble paid off as the Hunter Dorfman Institute has now resulted in an unqualified success story. Sadly, Hunter passed away in June 2009 shortly after he got the ball rolling on this project, and Dorfman never got to see the final product as he too passed September 2, 2014.
While the new and improved RCMI is already very much open for business, the official grand re-opening ceremony is not scheduled until later this summer. “We are still finding our way,” explained RCMI President Gil Taylor, “our plan is to run the operations to smooth out any kinks before the official opening.” Under the terms of the contract with Tribute, in exchange for the property, RCMI owns the bottom six floors of the new building. The total value of this is estimated at between $15-16 million, and the intention as to keep as much of the original mansion’s ambience as possible.
I toured the new premises on Monday, March 2 and I must admit the designers and contractors have done a fantastic job of blending the old and the new. Working our way down from the top, the 6th floor contains very impressive accommodations. There are a total of 9 rooms and suites, and all of them would be equal to the best 5-star hotels. The old mansion had a total of 6 rooms available to members, but these were primitive small nooks, with single beds and antiquated washbasins. Even at the discounted member prices, not many guests stayed at the old RCMI. However, I fear that once word gets out about the new facility, there will be a lengthy waiting list for overnight stays. The fifth floor contains a state of the art fitness centre, with a wide array of equipment and an excellent view out onto University Avenue. Below the gym is the RCMI’s piece du resistance – its world-renowned library.
On the third floor is the long bar – complete with the cockpit seat taken from the Red Baron’s downed Fokker Triplane, the short bar and the main dining room. The second floor contains meeting rooms, the administrative offices and a lounge replete with a full array of military miniatures in display cases. The ground floor entrance is primarily for reception/security but even the main foyer contains displays of historical military memorabilia.
In its past incarnation, the RCMI was one of the last bastions of a strictly enforced proper dress code. Even breakfast guests required jacket and tie, and if without, would be provided such items from a collection stored at the reception area. “Things are a little more casual now,” explained President Taylor, “We have to bend a little with the times.” Hotel guests heading to breakfast for instance may get away with a polo shirt and dress slacks. “Jeans are still strictly forbidden,” clarified Taylor. As for the risk of losing membership during the suspension, it would appear that the lure of the excellent new facility has nullified that. The RCMI – despite not being ‘officially’ re-opened already has more members than when they entered into the reconstruction process.
Of course an Institute is far more than just bricks and mortar and the RCMI remains focussed on its primary objective of stimulating educated debate on Canadian defence issues. In addition to hosting speaker events, the RCMI publishes its own periodical called SitRep, and the produce op-ed pieces for the mainstream media.