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Historicist: The Tallest Building in the Commonwealth

Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
2008_05_23BankTower.jpg
Canadian Bank of Commerce Building. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 409
Now dwarfed by everything around it, the Canadian (Imperial) Bank of Commerce Building (25 King Street West) once dominated the Toronto skyline. For three decades, its 34-storeys and 141-metre height made it the tallest building in the Commonwealth. In the early 20th century, new construction methods and civic pride shuffled the “tallest” title from city to city with regularity. Yet the bank tower, one of the last major buildings constructed in Toronto before the onset of the Depression, held the title from December 1930 until 1962. Almost forgotten in the tangle of bank towers, its style—described by some as Romanesque and by others as Art Deco—recalls the glamourous age of high finance. Visitors can get a glimpse of this bygone era this weekend with Doors Open Toronto.


2008_05_23Airship_Toronto.jpgIn the late 1920s, Toronto underwent a building boom with the College Street Eaton’s store, an addition to the downtown Simpson’s location, Maple Leaf Gardens, the Royal York Hotel, and the Canada Life Building all popping up on various downtown corners in a matter of years. Yet Toronto still held “second city” status compared to Montreal, the financial and commercial capital of Canada.
Having become the largest Toronto-based bank by the 1920s through a series of mergers, the Bank of Commerce sought to challenge this reputation. The bank had outgrown its seven-storey headquarters, and began making plans in 1927 to construct a new building on the same lot at King and Jordan that the bank had occupied for forty years. Intending the new building as “a statement of confidence both in the stability of the bank and in the development of Canada,” the Bank of Commerce retained Darling and Pearson, one of Canada’s leading architectural firms, with New York firm York and Sawyer as consulting architects. In addition to having designed many of the banks branches across the country and the Summerhill CPR Station, Darling and Pearson had also recently rebuilt the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
With temporary bank headquarters established in the Ogilvie Building at Bay and Wellington, construction began in June 1929. After an enormous excavation of the entire lot, the building’s steel framework was erected. Then, with the cornerstone laid in late October 1929, limestone walls progressively crept skyward. Crowds of Curious passers-by stopped to gaze through the hoardings to watch then-still novel methods of skyscraper construction and the building’s progress. Upon its completion, the tower became the tallest in the Commonwealth by surpassing the 120-metre tall Royal York (which had stolen the mantle from Montreal’s Royal Bank in 1929 by apparently breaking Toronto’s height bylaw). Although the Bank of Commerce still paled in comparison to the 77-storey Chrysler Building (1930) or 102-storey Empire State Building (1931), it represented an important moment for a city struggling to define itself.
2008_05_23Ceiling.jpgThe new head office building opened on 13 January 1931 for the bank’s annual shareholder’s meeting. It was finished, as Victor Ross put it in the Bank of Commerce’s official history, “at least to the extent necessary to enable” the shareholders to meet and to inspect the fancy new digs. They would’ve met on the seventh floor where the board room’s large windows looked onto the red-tiled roof of the sixth floor, which also acted as a promenade. From there could’ve surveyed the rest of the impressive new building.
The first six storeys occupy the entire 149 ft by 168 ft lot and, at street level, house the main banking hall. Then, as was common for skyscraper construction of the day, the central tower progressively stepped back as it rose, with each storey featured a very similar floor plan to the others. Four basement storeys housed massive vaults “built of reinforced concrete lined with steel, on a base of solid rock.” According to Ross, they were strong enough “that the whole building might collapse on top of them without crushing them.” Built in a Romanesque architectural style adapted to modern needs (as Ross described it), the whole building was meant as a symbol of the bank’s strength and reputation. The main banking hall’s massive, column-less vaulted ceiling recall those of a cathedral. Sculpted heads representing Courage, Observation, Foresight, and Enterprise overlook the city from the thirty-second floor observation deck, which became popular with tourists and locals alike. Long before the CN Tower, the observation deck’s unobstructed views of the city, harbour, and surrounding countryside allowed citizens to gaze at their city in an entirely different way.
The economic stagnation of the Depression, and the interruption of the Second World War ensured the Canadian Bank of Commerce’s unchallenged reign as tallest in Canada and in the Commonwealth lasted over thirty years. The bank itself underwent hard times in the Great Depression, of course—with branch closures across the country—but survived to return to post-war prosperity. Eventually, the Bank of Commerce merged with the Imperial Bank when, in 1960, a tentative merger agreement was reputedly worked out between Imperial Chairman Stuart Mackersy and Commerce president Neil McKinnon in a mere ten minutes. With a new building boom across the country, the Bank of Commerce head office soon lost its claim as “tallest.”
2008_05_23FourFaces1.jpgIt was surpassed by Montreal’s CIBC Building in 1962, which was quickly surpassed by the Royal Bank’s Place Ville-Marie later that year when a penthouse was added to the design for that express purpose. Not to be outdone, Samuel Bronfman’s land development company and TD Bank announced in November 1962 that they would build an even taller complex of towers in Toronto.
With the construction of the Toronto-Dominion Centre and the Commerce Court complex, the corner of King and Bay was completely transformed into what we now characterize as the Financial District. While other historic buildings on the corner—the old Toronto Dominion Bank branch, and Cawthra House—were demolished to make way for the new symbols of progress and technical mastery, the now-Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce showed a rare flair for heritage preservation. When building the new 57-storey Commerce Court complex in 1968-1972, architect I.M. Pei (with Page and Steele) integrated the old tower into the design, making it one of the few remaining symbols of another era in high finance.
Photo of the R-100 Airship on August 11, 1930 from Wikimedia Commons; photo of the Commerce Court North ceiling by Curlycam; and photo of the sculpted faces by pixelsnap from the the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

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