Grandeur At 49 Yonge Street

By Marta O’Brien, originally published December 8, 2008

Have you ever wondered about the grand building on the northeast corner of Yonge & Wellington streets? Now home to the Irish Embassy Pub, it began life as the Bank of British North America’s main Toronto branch.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

The first Bank of British North America building on this site – designed in 1845-46 by well-known Toronto architect John Howard – was ideally positioned between the import and wholesale activity of Front Street and the busy retail shops on King Street. It was part of the city’s first financial district and its Wellington Street neighbours included insurance companies and other banks. Of this group, only the facade of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District (1845-46, William Thomas) remains – rebuilt within the galleria of Brookfield (formerly BCE) Place.

In the late 1800s Toronto became Canada’s mercantile capital and experienced a building boom. Between 1871 and 1891 the number of factories in the city increased from over 500 to approximately 2,500. This heady prosperity may have prompted the bank to replace the Howard structure with a design in the hottest architectural style of the day: Second Empire. The new building by Toronto architect Henry Langley was completed in 1872-73.

Speaking of location, the bank’s main entrance was originally on Wellington but Yonge eventually emerged as the more important thoroughfare. The image-conscious bank had its entrance moved to its west façade in 1903. Presto! A prestigious Yonge Street address.

FROM PARIS TO TORONTO

The Second Empire style was named for the period Napoleon III ruled as France’s emperor (1852-1870). Changes in Paris during this time involved urban planning that included establishing the famous boulevards and parks in addition to new buildings. The Second Empire style incorporated aspects of Italian Renaissance (rich classicizing treatment of the façade, often with superimposed columns and sculptural decoration) and French Renaissance (the mansard roof named for architect François Mansart, who introduced it in 17th-century France).

This lavish architectural style spread to England, Europe, and North America. Architectural historian Claude Mignot has called it “a new international style.” Paris had hosted two of the first four international exhibitions (we’d call them world’s fairs or expos) which focussed attention on its new architecture. The École des Beaux-Arts (the place to study architecture in the 1800s) attracted students from throughout the Western world, and this also highlighted Paris buildings.

The grand Second Empire style was appropriate for public and institutional buildings. With its elaborate details and ornament, it’s not a style one would see during tough times. The style gives the Bank of British North America a sense of prosperity and dignity. This was important: long before government regulation and deposit insurance, banks used architecture to assure the public of their conservative values and stability. Toronto has no native building stone, so by importing sandstone from Cleveland the bank was also conspicuously demonstrating its wealth.

The Bank of British North America has a wonderfully ornate mansard roof. You can see the slate tiles, iron cresting, and classical details around the hooded dormer windows in the photograph. Iron cresting along the rooftop is a component of picturesque architecture that, according to architectural historian Alan Gowans, represents “a deliberate breaking of the building’s sharp outlines so that it will seem to trail off into infinite space, in the same way as its eclectic forms trail back into infinite time.”

The two-colour stone beautifully accentuates the building’s architectural features. All of the windows have round arches of the darker stone with exaggerated keystones, and there are contrasting stone pilasters with foliated capitals. The dark pilasters and string courses (horizontal bands) play an essential role in a characteristic of the Second Empire style – the grid-like division of the principal façades.

CHANGES OF USE

This fine building has suited many occupants. In 1918 the Bank of British North America was absorbed into the Bank of Montreal, and later this building became a CIBC branch. Some years and uses later the building was sold, and the blackened exterior cleaned to reveal the two shades of sandstone.

Pop into the building next time you’re at that corner. You can still see some of the banking hall details inside.

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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