Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 18, 2024
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December 12, 2023
Volume 193 No. 50

In Conversation: Greg Sorbara, Peter Lockyer, and Sol Korngold at the Royal

In October, The Royal hosted another of its In Conversation With events, this time featuring Greg Sorbara, the hotel’s owner, the historian Peter Lockyer, and General Manager Sol Korngold, speaking together in the Barlow Room with an audience of about 40 people.

It all started with the magnificent 1875 red brick Presbyterian church on Main Street at the Cenotaph. It had been sitting on the market. For years. Former Ontario Liberal Finance Minister and County farmer Greg Sorbara made an offer of $375k.

“It was crazy, but I’ve got six kids, all of whom are talented, and I thought, we could buy this and imagine it into something that would reflect the County, maybe a theatre.”

The owner would accept nothing less than 400k. Mr. Sorbara walked away.

That was in August 2010.

“Maybe three weeks later, a wrecking ball and crew were tearing down the church, with no permit.”

The owner thought the land would be worth more without the heritage building.

The Heritage Trust of Canada rated that debacle one of the top ten heritage losses of the year. It led, however, to the creation of Picton’s Heritage Conservation District in 2013.

A few weeks after this catastrophe, Mr. Sorbara, still stinging, noticed the Royal Hotel. It had been boarded up since 2008, when the last of its contents were auctioned, and the once glorious landmark started down the long, lonely road to demolition.

He walked the entire length of the block of Main Street on which it sits. And walked it again.

“We can’t lose another building,” he thought.

Amidst the wreckage of the recession of 2008, the building’s owner, Peter Sage, had lost his financing. He was about to put it up for sale.

“I started to wonder, how to refurbish it, to bring it back to life. I was pretty naïve, looking back. I thought it would take a year or two. A new coat of paint, you know.

“Well, we made an offer. And we were — I know, unaccountably — still not deterred when on the inspection tour we were told we were not allowed in without masks because of the mold, which had created a strange green design on the walls.”

The tenants were pigeons and racoons. Holes in the roof meant that water had destroyed much of the old wood. The grand staircase up the center of the three-storey building was in shambles.

But. “The idea of rebuilding the hotel had captured the imagination of the entire family and we got on with it. We had a lot of support from Peter Sage, a specialist in restorations, and we are a development family.”

“Of course, given that,” he pauses, “it’s embarrassing to admit that we had not really noticed that the title search revealed an easement through the back yard and out the laneway, attached to an old building that was there.”

That was something that, given the coming and going around a hotel, the developers found they just could not live with.

When Mr. Sorbara approached the owner to ask him to give up the easement, he offered to sell.

“Such a stroke of good luck,” laughs the affable Mr. Sorbara.

The building, it turned out, was the hotel’s former stables, the foundation entirely of wood. It has been transformed into the Annex, with five guest rooms upstairs and the Barlow Room below, which serves as everything from art gallery to yoga studio to lecture hall.

Not all episodes were so lucky. The sinking of the east wall was a major setback. “Sol [Korngold, Mr. Sorbara’s son-in-law] called me, from here, and said, ‘the east wall has sunk. Maybe ten inches’, he said. ‘Or maybe two feet’.”

“That set us back well over a year, maybe 15 months,” says Mr. Sorbara.

But it was all worth it. “We used the opportunity to strengthen the foundation on all the walls. It renewed our determination to create something that would last. If it took us ten years, well, this hotel had been around 140 years. And now will be around for another 140.”

Those 140 years were colourful — and almost always challenging. Audience members recalled parents warning them as teenagers, “You stay away from that Royal hotel!” By the 1960s and 1970s it was a rundown tavern and flop house for temporary farm workers, men hired on for the planting and harvest seasons.

The Royal started out as a modest version of a grand railway hotel, like Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier. In the 1830s, railways and canals together opened large reaches of Upper Canada to settlers. Tracks arrived in Picton in 1879, and the Royal Hotel opened its doors in 1881, on the sunny side of Picton Main Street.

The hotel’s fortunes rose and fell with the local economy. During the heady Barley Days of 1860-90, County farmers shipped their cargo across the lake to brewers in New York State. The trade was as dangerous as it was lucrative.

“So dangerous,” notes Peter Lockyer emphatically. “Ships would try to extend the season as long as possible. Into November, when the weather and the lake turned treacherous.” Hundreds of shipwrecks were the result. “A ship loaded with barley, if it started to take on water, the barley would just absorb it until it sunk.”

Barley gave way to the canning factories. PEC became known as the Garden County of Canada. The farming life thrived all the way to the late 1950s.  But when Heinz chose Leamington for its Ketchup factory in the 1960s, the County, and the Royal Hotel, entered a long downward slide. By 1969, when Camp Picton closed, the local economy was in tatters.

If in the 1950s the hotel was still the place to go for a fancy dinner out, it was soon to embark on the decades of disrepute, with separate men’s and ladies’ entrances.  “You couldn’t see anything for the smoke,” recalls Mr. Lockyer about his teen years. “The bar was downstairs and smelled of old chicken. It specialized in serving the under aged.”

One gentleman in the audience recalled being taken for a drink at the hotel as a young man in the mid-1960s. He made the mistake of reaching for the plate of sandwiches on the table. They were green with mold, only there to suggest food was being served alongside the liquor. The same plate would sit for days in case the police came in.

“Like the Royal, the shutters had closed on the County as well,” notes Mr. Lockyer. The decline lasted until the winemakers came along in the 1990s. That was the first wave of the relative prosperity the County now enjoys, and a new era of vibrant tourism. The Royal is keeping time, once again, with this new affluence.

He may have come from “away,” but Mr. Sorbara and his wife, Katie, have deep roots in the County. Two of their six children are farmers at the family-owned Edwin County Farms, “up at 5:30 in the morning,” says Mr. Sorbara proudly, “and often working late into the night.” The farm supplies The Royal, as well as markets and restaurants throughout the County.

When asked what he would do differently, Mr. Sorbara smiles.  “What happened here is way, way, way beyond anything we imagined. I was thinking, you know, a relatively modest hotel with a good dining room. I kept saying, do we really need a swimming pool?”

Ginger Sorbara’s Room 13 Pigeons, part of the series 247 Main Street.

This text is from the Volume 193 No. 50 edition of The Picton Gazette
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