Artistry in Brick

By Marta O’Brien, originally published August 21, 2008

Toronto’s colourful and distinct dichromatic brick buildings

I love discovering and photographing the wonderful brickwork seen on mid-Victorian era buildings in Toronto. Dichromatic (two-colour) brickwork is quite common.

Brickwork on the Chadwick Home, U of T campus

Although polychromy – the use of various colours in architecture – was seen all over nineteenth century Europe, at the time Toronto’s main architectural influence was Britain. Polychromy was promoted and popularized in Victorian England by architectural theorist John Ruskin. Inspired by the coloured stones and marbles of Italian architecture, Ruskin endorsed structural polychromy (producing colour by using different shades of bricks and stones) over the mere application of colour.

British architects produced numerous influential polychrome buildings. William Butterfield’s All Saints Church (Margaret Street, London) and George Edmund Street’s St. James the Less Church (Westminster, London) are outstanding examples of brickwork. Along with Ruskin and others, their work was part of the Gothic Revival in British architecture.

Toronto’s plentiful clay and shale made it a perfect city for brickmaking and brick architecture. The clays and shales used to manufacture brick in Toronto resulted from the movement of glaciers in Ontario thousands of years ago.

Some Toronto brickyards produced several colours of brick. The colour of a brick is determined by the chemical composition of the raw material (clay or shale) and by the firing conditions – the temperature, duration, and amount of oxygen in the kiln. Clay with a high limestone content and shorter firing time tends to burn into a buff brick (called “white” by the Victorians). Brickyards in Yorkville famously produced such bricks, including those for St. James Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall. Iron content, not surprisingly, produces red bricks. Manganese causes clay to fire into a brown brick. Buff and red bricks were most common in Toronto, resulting in dichromatic patterns.

As elsewhere in Canada, the Gothic Revival style of Victorian Britain lasted for years. Dichromatic brickwork was executed in commercial buildings, churches, industrial buildings, and schools – although the most elaborate patterns were in houses. From grand homes to modest workers’ cottages, Toronto’s architects, builders, and masons displayed their creativity in brick.

One of the best examples of dichromatic brickwork in our city is a former home on the University of Toronto campus. It was built in 1878 for lawyer E. M. Chadwick (see photographs). Like all the other houses on St. George Street between Bloor and College, it is no longer a private residence. After serving as the home of the university’s Varsity newspaper the house was incorporated into the Bahen Centre for Information Technology (2002, Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt Architects). At the same time the brickwork was cleaned – before then, the wonderful dichromatic bricks were only clearly visible on the front of the house.

The Chadwick House

The Chadwick house bursts with pride in the bricklayers’ art. Not only have dichromatic bricks been laid in varying patterns, but moulded (i.e., non-rectangular) bricks have been used above the second-floor windows.

Less exuberant than the Chadwick house, the Reeve house in Cabbagetown is a more typical example of residential dichromatic brickwork. The white bricks form string courses (horizontal bands) and window arches that emulate stone moulding (see photograph). This house was built in 1883 for barrister James Reeve.

The Reeve House

Dichromatic brickwork was displaced by other architectural ornament in the late 1800s. Architects and builders began to use terra cotta, patterned slate roof tiles, elaborately-carved woodwork, and eclectic building shapes to achieve visual impact.

Late twentieth-century Toronto saw a return of dichromatic brickwork. Post Modern architecture often related to local built form, and in 1980s Toronto several prominent buildings used dichromatic brick to echo the city’s historic structures. Examples include the George Brown College School of Hospitality (Adelaide Street East between Jarvis and Sherbourne) and the Market Square Condominiums (Front and Church). The elaborate Victorian patterns, however, did not return – the modern examples use dichromatic brick primarily for simple trim or as accent blocks.

Is there a dichromatic brick building that you’ve admired in Toronto?

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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