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Historicist: The Lasting Legacy of Darling and Pearson

Frank Darling and John A. Pearson defined an era in Canadian architecture.

Toronto General Hospital under construction, ca. 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1205C.


When they were selected to design the Toronto General Hospital (built between 1909 and 1919), before submitting his Georgian Revival proposal, Darling toured leading North American hospitals with a surgeon in order to understand the needs of occupants. For these reasons, Darling had an impeccable reputation, O’Brien writes, “for handling complex projects that succeeded aesthetically and functionally.”

Sensitive to local conditions of each commission, Darling adapted his architectural style to suit a location. Sullivan argues that Pearson was not seeking to create a pan-Canadian or one-style-suits-all architecture. Rather, he felt that the wide range of climatic and geographic differences between east and west coast would “call for types of building, each the natural development of its own environment [and] believes that the building material of each district must dominate in a general way its architectural individuality.”

Darling and Pearson are perhaps best known for their banks. In an era when financial institutions used architecture to project their growing heft in the booming Canadian economy, Darling and Pearson’s designs struck the perfect balance between functionality and monumentality. They designed no fewer than 11 Canadian Bank of Commerce branches in Toronto alone—including the now-abandoned building at 197 Yonge (1905)—as well as dozens of others like the Metropolitan Bank at Dundas and Ossington (1903), the Standard Bank at King and Jordan (1909-1910), the Imperial Bank at Queen and Roncesvalles (1910), and the Bank of Montreal at Yonge and Queen (1909-1910). Across the country, the firm built grand, columned structures in Montreal and Vancouver and scaled-down versions in smaller communities like Sydney, North Battleford, and Medicine Hat.

Darling and Pearson evolved with the times, becoming two of the Toronto’s earliest skyscraper architects. Their Union Bank in Winnipeg (1903-1904) was the tallest building in the British Empire during its day, as was the 15-storey headquarters for the Canadian Pacific Railway at Yonge and King (1911-1912).

They keenly rose to the design and engineering challenges of this new mode of building. Sullivan recounts an anecdote of Pearson supervising the excavation for a skyscraper at King and Yonge—most likely the Dominion Bank headquarters. In order to allow footings to be built 40 feet below street level, the excavation was enormous and exposed the city’s water, gas, and electrical works usually hidden under the street. The site’s eastern wall began collapsing inward—slowly, but with enough force to rupture a water main—and water spilled into the pit, further weakening the soil around the supports of abutting buildings. Sullivan describes Pearson’s quick action:

Then into the muck jumped Pearson—dominant, confident, resourceful, knowing exactly what to do and what to do with. For sixty hours his sweating gangs laboured—shoring, underpinning, and strengthening. Regulations governing Sunday labour were thrust aside. He demanded and got all that his eighty men had to give. Order gradually replaced chaos; safety displaced danger; and at the end, Pearson climbed out, dirty, weary, triumphant, and supremely happy—a master fabricator, who once more had asserted his mastery. It was an emergency job, one that depended absolutely on the courage, ability, and ingenuity of a single individual. One can understand why many of the greatest construction firms in Canada and the United States have generously admitted that Pearson is the cleverest builder of them all.

The Dominion Bank headquarters was completed in 1913-1914 and is considered by O’Brien to be Darling and Pearson’s finest work. “With its grey granite base and white glazed terra cotta shaft and top storeys,” she writes, “it is the quintessential Beaux Arts style skyscraper—using classical elements in a new and modern way.” It survives today as One King West.

Holwood, Sir Joseph Flavelle's residence on Queen's Park Crescent, ca. 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3121.

Darling and Pearson’s success with these massive projects—with budgets in the millions of dollars—brought further commissions from the heads of these corporations or their friends for residential work. The firm designed or renovated a number of the city’s finest addresses, including railway tycoon Sir William Mackenzie’s Benvenuto, meat packer Sir Joseph Flavelle’s Holwood (now the University of Toronto law school), and Bank of Commerce president Sir Edmund B. Walker’s Long Garth. Although there was little profit in domestic architecture for a firm engaged in skyscrapers and large projects, Darling and Pearson gave each project faithful attention. “[A]s a matter of fact,” Sullivan writes, “the firm is more interested in producing structures of pure design and perfect construction than in amassing a fortune.”

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