BUSINESS WATCH

Low profile and the height of luxury

Hungarian-born George Vari’s Toronto apartment features walls crammed with canvases by Monet, Picasso and Chagall

Peter C. Newman February 19 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

Low profile and the height of luxury

Hungarian-born George Vari’s Toronto apartment features walls crammed with canvases by Monet, Picasso and Chagall

Peter C. Newman February 19 1990

Low profile and the height of luxury

Hungarian-born George Vari’s Toronto apartment features walls crammed with canvases by Monet, Picasso and Chagall

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

Next month, just steps away from the exclusive strip of Toronto’s Bloor Street, just across from the Royal Ontario Museum, a hotel will open that expects to set new standards for luxury among the city’s many top-end hostelries. Aimed at travelling chief executive officers, each room will feature fax machines, computer modem adaptors and a personalized telephone answering service as well as marble showers and cherry-wood commodes.

The $46-million structure, Canada’s first unit in the Montvale, N.J.-based Inter-Continental chain, with 103 hotels in 47 countries, will have 213 rooms, with an overall art deco theme. Most of its best suites will face an interior garden, insulated from the noise of bustling Bloor Street’s traffic.

The venture is the most visible Canadian project of George Vari, a Hungarian-born civil engineer who has maintained a resolutely low profile since arriving here in 1957. Probably the world’s most prolific hotel builder, he has erected 43 hotels, in North America, Europe, Africa and Latin America. His largest project was Moscow’s 1,840-room Cosmos Hotel, designed for the 1980 Olympics. In addition to the new Inter-Continental, his other Toronto ventures have included a luxury retirement residence (the Balmoral Club on Avenue Road, just up the hill from the Inter-Continental) and North York’s Novotel Hotel. Vari invests in most of his own structures—he owns 70 per cent of the new Toronto Inter-Continental— and is involved in every phase of every project. “I do the engineering, the dealing with plumbers and concrete pourers, in fact everything except day-to-day management,” Vari told me during a recent interview. “While I put up my own money as an initial catalyst, I usually sell the hotel within a year or two, because basically I’m a builder.” Vari personally supervises every post-construction detail right down to picking the dishes, glasses and cutlery for inhouse restaurants and the towels and soap for each room.

He is as much an interior decorator as a builder, especially when it comes to his own residences. Vari maintains a floor-size Paris apartment in the wealthy area around the Eiffel Tower. “My windows,” he says, “are just a hundred yards from the tower, and I have a roof garden overlooking the Seine.” He also has a villa on the French Riviera, a residence in the heart of the Swiss Alps and a flat in London’s posh Grosvenor Square district. In Canada, he has a luxury midtown Toronto condominium plus a brand-new country retreat near Cobourg, Ont.

“I love to renovate and decorate,” he says. “It usually takes my wife, Helen, and me at least two years to finish one place and, as soon as we do, we move on to the next one. But I do it strictly for myself, never for resale or speculation.”

His Toronto apartment, which may well be the least pretentious of his abodes because most of his art treasures remain in Europe, still features walls crammed with canvases by Monet, Picasso, Chagall, Dufy, Utrillo. Most of the furniture dates back to 16th-to-18th-century France, including some Louis XV pieces. The total effect is that of a tum-of-the-century highsociety salon, where the best and the brightest

gather to discuss recent cultural trends and the latest political perfidies.

Vari’s name seldom gets into the newspapers, but he is a familiar Establishment figure on both sides of the Atlantic and boasts the distinction of being a member of the Order of Canada as well as a Knight of the French Legion of Honor. The Varis throw some of Toronto’s best private parties and seem to know everybody. The hotel builder is especially close to Jeanne Sauvé and introduced the former governor general’s son, Jean-François, to his bride, the Countess Dianne de Mailly Nell. Vari’s friendship with the Mulroneys started when he found out that he and Mila’s father had been students at the same university.

The son of a wealthy Budapest lawyer, Vari was educated at a private school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and at Budapest’s Polytechnical University, where he received a doctorate in economics and a degree in civil engineering. He worked on the restoration of Budapest’s Royal Palace before escaping from Hungary after the failed 1956 revolution. Eventually, he fled to Montreal, and he has never forgotten his first day in Canada. “I was penniless in an army barrack where Hungarian refugees were kept,” he recalls, “and was told that if I went to 1042 St. Catherine St., a private church charity would give me $5.1 only had enough money for one bus ticket; it was cold like hell, and I just had a raincoat. When I arrived, it turned out to be a shoe store. They just laughed at me when I asked for the money and directed me to the real address, which was 1042 St. Catherine St. East, not West, so I had to go across the whole city. It was the worst walk of my life, but I got the five bucks.”

Vari quickly moved into the local construction scene and was in charge of building six pavilions for Expo 67. His reputation for erecting highrise structures led to a 1969 offer to build the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, at 58 storeys still Europe’s tallest building. Ten years later, Vari took over a Paris-based construction company called Sefri, moving out to tackle projects in England, Iran, Nigeria, Brazil, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco and Venezuela. That company is currently planning a series of hotels in Hungary totalling 1,000 rooms.

His family’s private philanthropies include sponsoring student and professor exchanges between Canada and France. His wife, Helen, is president of the French chapter of the World Monuments Fund currently restoring Paris’s Hôtel des Invalides, a 17th-century complex, which contains Napoleon’s tomb.

What’s remarkable about George Vari, who has gained the credentials to count himself a world citizen, is his fierce Canadianism. He became a citizen in 1962 and regards himself as an unpaid ambassador. He promotes this country every chance he gets. “I will never deny my origins,” says he, “but Canada is the country that gave me the freedom to do what I wanted, and even if I continue to make my career internationally, I want to take my last breath here—because I am and feel very Canadian.”