It seems hard to imagine that today, there are approximately 14,000 hotel and motel rooms available for visitors in the city of Niagara Falls. Because of our famous location, the city's hotel industry has a long and intriguing history. One such hotel that might not be as widely known as its more famous neighbours is the Hotel Lafayette.
Situated immediately north of the world famous Clifton House, the Hotel Lafayette opened in 1896 and was situated directly facing the American and Horseshoe Falls. Constructed of red brick, the hotel had four floors. Spacious verandas that ran across the front of the hotel offered guests a comprehensive view of both the gorge and river rapids.
Perhaps the biggest claim to fame for the Lafayette was its rooftop observatory, which was a regular stopover for horse-drawn carriages and, later, tour cars. Reached by elevator, it was immensely popular for its unimpeded panoramic view of both of the falls, the river, the gorge and the cataracts. It was also the first and only hotel for a long period of time to boast a rooftop garden.
The hotel originally had 50 rooms that were "fitted with every modern convenience," such as electric lights, bells, elevator service, hot and cold water, phone service and private baths. The hotel also had a dining room and lounge, magnificent parlours, a writing room and even a dark room where visitors could develop their own photographs that they took of the falls. All of these amenities could be enjoyed for as little as $1 a day.
The hotel was owned by Harry Williams who was described in 1907 as "a royal host and all-around good fellow." The hotel also boasted a museum and bazaar, which contained a fine collection of interesting exhibits relating to Niagara Falls. As well, guests could purchase small mementos of their visit at reasonable prices.
The Hotel Lafayette was one of the few hotels that operated in the city all year long. It is said that the hotel got plenty of winter business during the prohibition years from Americans who travelled hundreds of miles to buy liquor at Victoria Avenue and Simcoe Street.
On the last day of December 1932, the second Clifton House caught fire and burned for 24 hours. Although the Lafayette caught fire several times during this blaze, it was saved by the courageous efforts of local firefighters. At the same time that Harry Oakes purchased the former Clifton Hotel site in 1933, he also purchased the Lafayette Hotel from Harry Williams. The hotel was promptly closed and eventually demolished in 1934. That same year, Harry Oakes donated both parcels of land to the Niagara Parks Commission, and the Oakes Garden Theatre now stands on this very location to be enjoyed by all for many years to come.
Cathy Roy is the information resources and connections librarian: local history for Niagara Falls Public Library
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