A Bank On (Almost) Every Corner

By Marta O’Brien, originally published March 22, 2010

Former Dominion Bank, Yonge & Gerrard, capital

Hard to believe, but there was a time when the only way to do any banking was to visit a bank and deal with a teller or other staff. It was critical for every bank to have numerous branches throughout the city. Some still exist, and others have been converted to non-bank uses. These often well-designed small buildings remain an important part of our streetscape.

Well-known architect John Lyle designed many banks across Canada. The former Dominion Bank at Bloor & Sherbourne (1911) is one of many still standing and is typical of designs for that bank: red brick with light-coloured limestone trim. An exception to that pattern was Lyle’s 1929 branch at Yonge & Gerrard: it was designed in stone to complement Eaton’s flagship store at College & Yonge. Here, Lyle indulged his penchant for Canadian iconography by using aboriginal patterns for the cornices, Canadian flora and fauna for decorative elements, and Queen Victoria and King Louis XIV representing our British and French heritage. The result is remarkable.

Former Bank of Toronto, Bathurst & King

A great example of the Edwardian style branches designed for street corners throughout the city is on King Street West at Bathurst. Although now a restaurant, it still has “Bank of Toronto” carved in stone above the entrance. This 1902 building has the classical details typical of Edwardian architecture: a pedimented entrance, exaggerated keystones, and classical mouldings. I especially like the varying pediments above the ground storey windows. Chadwick & Beckett designed this delightful structure. They were primarily residential architects, but executed a few small banks and other commercial buldings.

One of my favourite bank branches in the city is the Royal Bank at Danforth and Pape (1925, Bond and Smith). Make sure you have your shades on if it’s a sunny day because the white glazed terra cotta facade positively gleams.

Former United Empire Bank, Yonge St.

There’s a charming, beautifully-proportioned former bank building on Yonge Street right across from the train station that’s now a liquor store. The bank was designed in 1907 by another primarily residential architect (arguably the most famous in his day) – Eden Smith. Originally the United Empire Bank, it was soon absorbed by the Union Bank. You’ve probably never heard of the Union Bank but they had 392 branches in Canada in 1923, two years before they were taken over by the Royal Bank. Recently this building has been an upscale kitchen store. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone removed the signage that obscures the arched ground floor windows?

One can’t talk about bank branch buildings in Toronto without including the two most prominent architectural examples: the two empty treasures across from the Eaton Centre. Both were built as branches for major banks in a busy commercial district. Important local architect E. J. Lennox designed 205 Yonge for the Bank of Toronto in 1905. The stone details are incredible; I can’t imagine ever seeing work like this again. It is an excellent example of Beaux-Arts Classicism, in which the elements of classical architecture were used in new ways for grand buildings. With its innovative aluminum-clad dome, this building is remembered by many Torontonians as the former home of the Toronto Historical Board (later Heritage Toronto) where public exhibits and lectures were hosted. Sadly, in 1998 Toronto City Council declared the property surplus and authorized its sale. A Heritage Easement registered on the title in accordance with the Ontario Heritage Act protects the entire building’s exterior, entrance area, and banking hall interiors. The current owner is an Irishman (hence the Irish flag often fluttering above the entrance).

205 Yonge details

The former Bank of Commerce branch at 199 Yonge has been empty for as long as I can remember. Architects Darling & Pearson stayed more true to ancient temple form than Lennox did. The result is imposing, yet surprisingly open with the many steps and windows. Architect Eden Smith had his office here from 1907 to 1915. Although once also owned by the City, it now belongs to Parasuco Jeans in Montreal.

It’s a testament to their fine built form and convenient locations that so many of our bank branches are still standing and in use either as banks or other commercial facilities. You may be buying a book or pizza slice in one of them.

Marta O’Brien is an architectural historian who enjoys sharing her photographs and knowledge of Toronto’s architectural history through continuing education courses at Ryerson University, George Brown College, and the University of Toronto. Through Citywalks, Marta develops and conducts walking tours featuring distinctive neighbourhoods and districts in Toronto. Marta is a member of the Heritage Toronto Board.

Photos by Marta O’Brien

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