When Pina Petricone, co-founder of Toronto design firm Giannone Petricone Associates, first visited the then-shuttered Royal Hotel in Picton, Ontario, back in 2013, she was intrigued by the strange green carpeting in one of the rooms. Upon closer inspection, she realized that it was actually moss.
Opened in 1879 as an upscale destination for rail travellers, the Royal later deteriorated into a seedy tavern before closing up shop altogether in 2008, and the roof began leaking not long after. The hotel that Petricone walked into was decrepit, but it also boasted that rare dignity that comes from having lived a long and complicated life. “There was something incredibly sublime about the building in that state,” she says.
Guests at the revamped Royal Hotel, which officially reopened this past spring, will be relieved to hear that the moss is gone — and the roof has been replaced, along with everything behind the heritage-designated top two storeys of the front facade. This upper portion of the shell was faithfully reconstructed, a selection of its beyond-repair bricks substituted with imported lookalikes from the Netherlands. The eastern wall, which started to subside partway through construction, has been completely replaced.
Glowing in the sunlight, a hefty brushed-bronze door frame now sits to one side of the reimagined first storey’s new fenestration. Petricone, whose firm designed the 28-room hotel’s rebirth (working alongside ERA Architects as the project’s heritage consultants), dubs this golden doorway “The Portal,” as though it might transport visitors through space and time — and, in a way, it does.
Despite its radical transformation, the Royal Hotel still preserves some sense of the elegant decay that Petricone found so captivating almost 10 years ago. Rippling rosettes in the ceiling are one of many nods to the original building’s Victorian architecture, but also to the water damage that eventually destroyed it. Similarly, the lobby’s gracefully furled fireplace surround was inspired by plaster delamination. “We essentially disassembled the building, abstracted its parts, and then reinstated them like installations,” Petricone says.
With each new layer it introduced, Giannone Petricone documented another chapter of the building’s history to make peace with its past — not just the former glory days, but also the hard times that followed them. “We wanted that contrast between the real and the genteel,” Petricone explains. The result of this refreshing honesty is a destination that feels completely at ease in its own skin.
Petricone underscores her firm’s approach when she describes the new hotel in terms of its implicit dress code. “Instead of pressed white button-ups, the contemporary traveller might have a suitcase full of wrinkled gingham shirts,” she says. Look closely and you’ll spot subtle wrinkles all throughout the project: The leather panels that wrap around a lobby partition pinch together to create puckered slot seams, while patterning on the guest room fireplace surrounds — some clad in grooved marble, others in fluted concrete to evoke a chic still-under-construction site — simulate lived-in creases.
Petricone, an Italian, calls this style of laid-back elegance “sprezzatura.” But if you’re a Picton local, you might just call it life in “the County” (a popular nickname for the broader Prince Edward County municipality).
A growing agricultural hub, this Southern Ontario region about two and a half hours east of Toronto has gained popularity with tourists over the past decade (and during the pandemic in particular) as a place to enjoy excellent wine, beer and farm-to-table cuisine in a relaxed setting filled with quaint main street shops selling antiques and butter tarts. Lake Ontario and the rolling dunes of the nearby Sandbanks Provincial Park add to the rural escape’s picturesque appeal.
Former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara and his wife, Kate, were seduced by this locale long before its current boom, converting a Picton barn into a weekend home back in 2004, then putting its surrounding 240 hectares to use to launch Edwin County Farms with their children. Along the way, Sorbara gained a deep appreciation for the region’s heritage architecture. Frustrated by the demolition of a historic Picton church, he set his sights on purchasing another important part of the community’s urban fabric: the Royal Hotel. “This was always a kind of legacy project about really giving back to the County,” explains Petricone. Next came the hard part: bringing the former institution back to life.
Despite being based in Toronto at the time, Sorbara’s son-in-law, Sol Korngold, was intrigued enough by the project to put Giannone Petricone’s name forward for the job, encouraged by its work on both the Terroni empire of restaurants and the boutique hotel the firm had designed in Italy. “Food and beverage is such a big part of what we wanted to do here, and I knew that they had the experience and the aesthetic,” he says.
But it wasn’t until Korngold attended a lecture by Zita Cobb (of Fogo Island Inn fame) that he began to appreciate the true impact the revamped Royal Hotel could have on Picton. At the end of the lecture, Cobb drew his business card in a raffle that sent him home with a side table made in the Fogo Island Workshops. “As I’m walking up Bay Street with this table headed back to my software job, I wondered, ‘Is the universe trying to tell me something?’ ” Korngold says.
As the lead in the Royal’s redevelopment from that point onward — and now its general manager — Korngold has followed Cobb’s example of engaging local artisans as a testament to the County’s rich creative bounty: Spindly side tables and other custom pieces by Prince Edward County designer–maker Katrina Tompkins fill the Royal’s library, socks made from local alpaca wool are sold in its lobby gift shop, small-batch jams line the café counter and house lager from Midtown Brewing is on tap at the bar.
In line with its team’s community-minded ambitions, the Royal Hotel has quickly reclaimed its former title as a true Picton hot spot — “Not just a special occasion place,” Korngold notes, “but somewhere that you can come every day.” The hotel’s four drinking and dining destinations were all designed with both guests and County residents in mind. The lobby’s casual Counter Bar is complemented by the nearby Parlour, where a custom armoire opens up at nighttime to reveal liquor bottles or glassware for tastings hosted by local wineries.
But it’s the main dining room that features the hotel’s crown jewel: a ceiling feature composed of radiating wooden fins that mimic the underside of a mushroom cap. “It’s turning a Victorian rosette into something more linked to the County,” Petricone says. “We’re distancing the building from its original Loyalist settler, British heritage.” An open kitchen (which sits above a larger production kitchen in the basement) resides behind a marble-clad serving pass that puts an entire row of spotlights on the restaurant’s cuisine, much of it featuring ingredients from Edwin County Farms.
In the summertime, this dining room spills out onto a pergola-topped terrace landscaped by Janet Rosenberg & Studio with a colonnade-like border of trees and other naturalized plantings. This in turn steps down to a swimming pool serviced by the Trailer Bar, which operates out of an old RV.
In the background of all this activity is the Royal Annex. Adapted from an existing building that sat on the site of the Royal’s former stables, the barn-like auxiliary structure now houses admin offices, a storefront space for retail pop-ups and five dog-friendly upstairs rental suites. While the rest of the Royal’s guest rooms skew Victorian-mod, these are more Scandinavian influenced — think herringbone bathroom tiles instead of the tartan-inspired mosaics in the main building. Yet pinned above each bed is a classic hit of quaint County charm: a quilted map of the region made by Haptic Lab.
For many of its visitors — which have included no shortage of city slickers arriving to use the hotel’s basement boardroom for corporate team-building (the subterranean level also includes a spa complete with a Finnish sauna) — the Royal Hotel has helped to put Picton on the map in a big way. But the true beauty of the property is how eager it is to let guests know that the community around it has been here for ages, planting crops and waiting patiently for harvest season.
In Prince Edward County, Giannone Petricone Associates reimagines a small-town landmark to court tourists and locals alike.