Historicist: North American Edifice Complex
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Historicist: North American Edifice Complex

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

King Street looking east from York to Bay streets with the North American Life Building on the left side, November 6, 1936. City of Toronto Archives, James Salmon Collection, Fonds 1231, Item 81.

By 1914, an identifiable financial district began to take shape around King and Bay streets. The leading banks of the day—the Canadian Bank of Commerce, Standard Bank, Bank of Toronto, and the Union Bank among them—had their head offices (or main Toronto branches) clustered within a few blocks of this intersection. Insurance firms like the North American Life Assurance Company and Canada Life were also nearby.
Between the 1920s and the 1970s, according to Gunter Gad and Deryck Holdsworth’s chapter in Forging a Consensus (UTP, 1984), the city’s economy evolved from that of a regional capital—second to Montreal in almost all measurable categories—to the dominant national business centre. The individual corporate histories of these institutions reflected this process. As companies like North American Life reacted to economic forces—and erected edifices that reflected their growing stature—they transformed the physical fabric of the downtown core.

North American Life Building, No. 112-118 King Street West, April 30, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, James Salmon Collection, Fonds 1231, Item 836.

The insurance business boomed in the 1920s. But while the rampant speculation of the roaring twenties drove the stock market ever higher with little apparent concern for the underlying value of assets, the insurance industry’s growth was steady but not extravagant. Seeking to stay above this speculative fray, North American Life Assurance Company’s president, Leopold Goldman, promised, according to G.R. Stevens in North American is a Way of Life: 1881-1956 (Toronto: North American Life Assurance Company, 1956), that “[t]here would be no silly gambling or wild promising while [he was] in charge of North American.” But circumstances threatened nonetheless. Goldman retired in 1926 and his replacement, W.B. Taylor—son-in-law of one of the firm’s founding directors, William McCabe—likewise sought to retire shortly after assuming the presidency.
It was an open secret that upon Taylor’s departure from active business, the entire Taylor-McCabe holdings, representing control of North American Life, would enter the open market. An enticing prize for speculators, the company was ripe for a takeover. “In a speculative boom,” Stevens writes, “the shrewder gamblers ‘average’—that is to say, they dilute their risks by acquisition of a minority of solid holdings, which bestow an air of substance and which, if worse comes to worst, may be used as collateral to sustain less stable investments. A company like North American with a splendid reputation, high earning power and an alluring portfolio of high-class securities, could scarcely be improved upon as such an ‘anchor’ property at a time when the markets were running wild.” And so when the Taylor-McCabe shares hit the market, there were quick offers from three brokerage houses and some American interests.
In addition, a group of North American employees sought to gain control of the company. Aiding the employees was Thomas Bradshaw, a partner in the Toronto investment firm of J.H. Gundy. Born in Manchester, England, Bradshaw had begun his career emptying wastepaper baskets at North American Life in 1883. He worked up the hierarchy to become an actuary in 1897, before joining the Imperial Life Assurance Company of Canada in 1898. There, he rose from secretary to vice-president in 1901, and to managing director in 1907. Leaving the insurance business in 1911, he became a partner at A.E. Ames, one of the country’s leading investment houses.

Image of Thomas Bradshaw from G.R. Stevens, North American is a Way of Life: 1881-1956 (Toronto: North American Life Assurance Company, 1956).

A few years later, he accepted a reduction in pay to help the municipality of Toronto sort out its out-of-control finances as commissioner of finance. In this and other civically minded capacities, Bradshaw earned a national reputation as, in Stevens’s words, “an economic Elder Statesman.” He was known as “a gentle, kindly man, supremely gifted with the genius of simplicity” in financial matters. With the assistance of J.H. Gundy (the man, not the firm) in the early 1920s, Bradshaw had helped ensure the Massey-Harris Company remained a Canadian entity when the Massey family liquidated its assets.
Hearing the concerns of North American Life employees, Bradshaw was determined that the company should likewise not be lost to the foreign control of American bidders. Nor should it, Stevens writes of Bradshaw’s intentions, “become a promotional chattel or pass under the control of those who would be interested only in its profits.”
So, with Gundy’s backing, Bradshaw approached Taylor, offering to purchase half the guarantors’ stock at $325 per share—a fair price but certainly not the highest offer. In late 1927, Taylor agreed and Bradshaw became president and majority shareholder.
With the 1929 stock market collapse came the Great Depression. Despite an increasing number of lapsed payments and sharply slackened returns on investments, insurance companies weathered the crash better than most. For many individuals, life insurance policies were their sole remaining asset in the wake of the crash.
At North American Life—which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1931—Bradshaw wanted to demonstrate unquestionably the company’s institutional strength and its ability to weather the turmoil of the Great Depression. And so, despite the straitened times, the company set out to erect a new headquarters.
Other financial institutions had the same intentions. With Canada Life moving into its new head office on University Avenue, the Bank of Nova Scotia acquired the insurance firm’s old building, Cawthra House, at the northeast corner of King and Bay. The bank intended to demolish the historic structure to make way for a grand skyscraper. But in the financial turmoil of the Great Depression, caution outweighed boldness and the project was shelved until a new building—a compromised version of John Lyle’s original design—was completed in 1951. Likewise, the Bank of Montreal hesitated in constructing their new building at the same corner until 1948.
North American Life had occupied the same quarters in the old United Empire Club building at 112 King Street West since its founding in 1881—and as sole occupant since about 1897. Despite renovations, these were no longer adequate. As Stevens put it, “its hodge-podge layout was hampering the management and the offices had a dated look.” Furthermore, the nature of office work in this era was changing. Company headquarters began to house more and more employees, including university-trained specialists and managers, divided into more and more segregated departments and supported by a growing array of new-fangled business machines like telephones, typewriters and tabulating machines. A larger, more adaptable office building was a necessity.

Image of the new North American Life headquarters from G.R. Stevens, North American is a Way of Life: 1881-1956 (Toronto: North American Life Assurance Company, 1956).

The firm of Marani, Lawson & Morris was retained as architect. Designs were drawn in August 1931 for a seven-storey structure—but with a foundation and frame strong enough to support the possible addition of another nine storeys. Like other Marani, Lawson & Morris buildings, such as the Bank of Canada (1937-38) in Ottawa, the North American Life building was designed in the sleek contemporary fashion—a style that would, in retrospect, become known as Art Deco. At Bradshaw’s insistence, the building included such uncommon amenities as a dining room, lounges for men and women, and staff locker rooms.
The new building was to occupy the same site on King Street West. So for ten months, as construction progressed, the firm was temporarily housed in the Ogilvie Building on Bay Street.
When the North American Life building opened in September 1932, an article in Construction praised the building as “an edifice of real distinction, its simplicity of design and reversion to clean lines being somewhat in contrast to the earlier home of the company.” The foyer was, in Stevens’s words, “severe yet elegant” with “walls enriched with contrasting marbles and modelled bronzes;” the offices were “attractive and modern.”
One visitor inspecting the company’s new quarters found them to be in keeping with the company’s—and Bradshaw’s—character: “never pretentious, never exuberant but in every detail correct and reliable, with their functional or utilitarian aspects mellowed by the beauty of plain but pleasing shapes and decorations.” Another vouched that the building was “an additional step towards the regeneration of downtown Toronto.”
Sales of life insurance increased substantially in early 1935 as business slowly returned to normal for North American and other insurers. Riding the crest of post-war prosperity, financial and insurance firms once again outgrew their office towers. But, as Gad and Holdsworth note, in the 1960s and 1970s, the firms did not seek to merely construct updated head offices. Rather, with the encouragement of city officials, firms partnered with real estate developers to build enormous office and retail complexes.
North American Life, along with the Bank of Montreal, partnered with the Reichmanns’s Olympia and York Developments. The result was First Canadian Place, a complex bounded by King, Adelaide, Bay, and York streets. Built in 1975, it was the last of a number of major complexes that razed a previous generation’s monuments to institutional strength.