Historicist: Toronto's First Skyscraper
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Historicist: Toronto’s First Skyscraper

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.
Photo of Temple Building (with IOF signage) on the left and City Hall in the distance from Wikimedia Commons.
Hailed as the first skyscraper in Toronto and the British Empire’s tallest building for a time, the Temple Building helped usher in a new era of high rise towers that transformed the downtown core in the late nineteenth century. Built in 1895 at the northwest corner of Bay and Richmond Streets, the Temple Building prompted the redevelopment of Bay Street from a small-scale commercial district into an office area. Its construction was recognized as such a watershed moment for the city that the Governor General, the Earl of Aberdeen, laid the cornerstone with all appropriate pomp and circumstance. However, as tastes and the city’s necessities changed over the decades, its demolition in 1970 would usher in another new era and a new style of office building.

Photo of Temple Building as seen from City Hall from Wikimedia Commons.
In the late 19th century, new construction methods made tall buildings possible, and the development of the electric elevator made them practical. Toronto banks and institutions soon realized the potential for such monumental buildings to act as “effective image-makers for the institutions that sponsored them,” in the words of historian William Dendy. When the Independent Order of Foresters, a fraternal and charitable society, needed to erect a new North American headquarters, the Order’s intentions were no different. When it was rare for projects of such magnitude not to have at least one advisor from Chicago or New York, the IOF enlisted Canadian architect George W. Gouinlock to handle the entire project from start to finish. Gouinlock designed a cast-iron frame building—one of the last built before steel frames became the norm—that rose to the then-remarkable height of nine storeys (a tenth storey was added in 1901).
Although the frame carried the weight of the building, Gouinlock’s design included thick brick and stone walls, which measured 4′ 3″ thick at the base and 18″ thick at the ninth-floor. This made the building’s construction an arduous process. Masons needed to pre-test the durability of each stone by hitting it with sledgehammers on the sidewalk before raising it into place. But the substantial walls ensured that the new building fit the Romanesque styling of the nearby Old City Hall and the Confederation Life Building. Gouinlock used red brick and Credit Valley stone so that the building’s facades varied in texture and colour. The Temple Building, however, had relatively little decorative carving apart from acanthus leaves above the entranceways and detailed corbels supporting third-floor balconies above. A carved moose head, the symbol of the IOF, overlooked each balcony. The building’s interior featured ornately tiled floors, hand-carved panelling with inlaid marble, and ornamental doors with raised designs carved into door-knobs. The main office even contained a gilded replica of Edward VII’s coronation chair. Among other modern amenities, the Temple Building boasted the fastest elevator in town.
Photo of a Masons banquet inside the Temple Building from Wikimedia Commons.
Inside the building, there stood a life-size bronze statue of Oronhyatekha, the Supreme Chief Ranger of the IOF, one of Canada’s foremost Aboriginal entrepreneurs and the man whose unceasing work had made the new building possible. Born in 1841 in a Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Oronhyatekha always insisted on being called by his Mohawk name rather than the anglicized Peter Martin. In 1860, the nineteen-year-old Oronhyatekha was chosen to give an address welcoming the Prince of Wales on a visit to Six Nations. The wit and intelligence of Oronhyatekha’s speech were so impressive that the prince arranged to have the young man study at Oxford University. Upon his return to Canada, Oronhyatekha studied medicine at the University of Toronto and became Canada’s first Aboriginal doctor in 1867. “Dr. O,” as he became affectionately known, at first struggled against the tide of discrimination as he built up his medical practice. For this reason—or so a 2007 Ottawa Citizen profile speculates [PDF]—Oronhyatekha increased his network of contacts by joining community groups, such as the Masons, the Good Templars, and the Orange Order. The Independent Order of Foresters had to make an exception to the rule limiting their membership to able-bodied, white males so that Oronhyatekha could join in 1878. As he demonstrated himself to be a charming entrepreneur and a passionate orator, he rose rapidly through the Forester ranks.
2008_08_30_TriumphalArch.jpgHe joined at a time when the IOF was so ridden by internal strife and debt that it was near collapse. Upon his election as Supreme Chief Ranger in 1881, Oronhyatekha’s leadership reinvigorated the IOF. By the early 1890s, he’d built it into North America’s leading fraternal benefit society. He travelled widely, met with American presidents, and advocated that women be encouraged to become full members of the IOF in 1898. His efforts increased membership exponentially and Foresters investments grew to over $1 million. Oronhyatekha became such a household name that his death made front-page news in March 1907. Largely due to his tireless efforts, the IOF survived and evolved into the $6-billion insurance company that still exists today. The IOF outgrew the Temple Building in 1954 and moved to Jarvis Street, and then to a new 22-storey building in Don Mills.
During its early-20th century heyday, the Temple Building was one of the social centres of the city. Its sixth-floor Assembly Hall, with a gilt ceiling and ornate walls, hosted dances, meetings, and conventions. With most of the city’s parades and celebrations now marching up Bay Street to Old City Hall, the Temple Building offered the best vantage point in town from which to observe. For example, when the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) visited in 1905, a triumphal arch was erected to span Bay Street in their honour.
With time and the accumulation of dust and grime over seventy-four years, however, the Temple Building came to be seen an outdated relic in the booming city of the late 1960s. The demand for office space in downtown Toronto, The Star reported on August 1, 1970, had increased four-fold over the previous twenty years and was expected to double again by 1980. To take advantage of this hot market, new buildings popped up everywhere, including the Commerce Court complex, the Sheraton Centre Hotel, the Thomson Building, The Star‘s new waterfront head office, and the Manulife Centre. The new buildings offered amenities that older structures couldn’t match: air-conditioning, temperature control, modern interiors, and access to the brand new underground pedestrian network. As The Star concluded, the Temple Building’s “prime downtown location and high assessment rate make preserving it economically impractical.”
2008_08_30_TempleBuilding.jpgOn June 29, 1970, the Temple Building’s remaining tenants vacated so that Y and R Properties could begin developing its new $20-million, 32-storey office complex on the site. Known simply as 390 Bay Street, the new building was designed by Webb, Zerafa and Menkes, one of the most successful architecture firms in Canada. Over six months, Teperman and Sons Ltd demolished the Temple Building. Teperman signs were such a common sight around town at this time that the name became newspaper short-hand for the destruction of the past.
The Globe and Mail bemoaned the fate of the monumental building on July 6, 1970:

Want to see a monument destroyed? Go down to the corner of Bay and Richmond streets and watch them make gravel out of the Temple Building. It won’t go easily or prettily because it wasn’t built with destruction in mind. It was intended to last like the Pyramids, one of the wonders of a young country, a great stone tribute to an Iroquois who became supreme chief ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters in 1881.

The Globe concluded by asking cynically, “Will there be a headstone to mark where it stood?”
Historian William Dendy, in his book Lost Toronto (Oxford University Press, 1978), argued that instead of making room for another “boring” office tower, the Temple Building “could have been saved as part of a new development had there been enough incentive and concern expressed at the time.” For the most part, however, there was no organized effort to save the building. Some elements were salvaged. The copper doors and pebbly glass ended up as decoration in a steak-house. The contents of a time capsule uncovered during demolition—including Forester documents and medals, period coins, and newspapers of the day—are on display at the Foresters’s suburban headquarters along with the bronze statue of Oronhyatekha.
Photo of the Triumphal Arch in honour of the royal visit under construction from Wikimedia Commons; bottom photo of the Temple Building from Wikimedia Commons.