Historicist: The Lasting Legacy of Darling and Pearson
Frank Darling and John A. Pearson defined an era in Canadian architecture.
In a partnership that lasted from the mid-1890s until 1923, Frank Darling and John A. Pearson left an indelible mark on the streetscape of Toronto and communities across the country with grand bank buildings, early skyscrapers, university buildings, and cultural institutions. Although a full inventory of their commissions is too long to list, their work includes some of Toronto’s iconic buildings like the ROM, North Toronto Station, and the original structures that have been incorporated into the Hockey Hall of Fame and One King West.
In an era when Canadian businessmen and institutions most often turned to established British and American architects for high-profile projects, Darling and Pearson became the architects of choice. British professor and architecture critic Percy Erskine Nobbs saw in the work of Darling and Pearson the beginnings of a distinctive Canadian architecture that charted its own path between the popular architectural styles of Britain and the United States. As Kelly Crossman paraphrases in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: “At a time of rapid architectural change, [Darling and Pearson’s] ability to combine ideas, materials, and techniques from London, New York, and Chicago into a unified whole (without copying) was exceptional.” Subsequent architects, like John M. Lyle, would build on their efforts and effect a truly independent style of Canadian architecture.
Born in Scarborough Township on February 17, 1850, Frank Darling was the son of a church rector and was educated at Upper Canada College and Trinity College School.
Initially unsure of a career path, Darling worked in a bank for a spell before apprenticing in Thomas Gundry and Henry Langley’s architecture firm when he was 16 years old. Beginning in 1870, he spent three years in England studying under George Edmund Street and was influenced by his Gothic Revival style.
He returned to Toronto to practise and, after a few years, formed a highly successful partnership in 1880 with S. George Curry, a Port Hope native four years his junior.
Among Darling and Curry’s early works in Toronto were a few Anglican churches, an island clubhouse for the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, and some buildings on the original grounds of Trinity College.
In late 1880, Darling and Curry submitted a proposal for the new provincial legislature to be erected at Queen’s Park. Although their Gothic design was deemed to be the best of the entries by the design competition jury, their plan was the victim of backroom machinations and an entirely new design by another architect was constructed.
Nevertheless, the press coverage of the competition raised Darling and Curry’s public profile, and the firm was tapped to design a landmark bank branch on an oddly shaped site on the northwest corner of Front and Yonge. The result was the Bank of Montreal (completed in 1885-1886 and now housing the Hockey Hall of Fame), an ornately decorative example of the Beaux-Arts style. Capped by a glass dome, the banking hall was the largest in Canada, according to architectural historian Marta O’Brien. “Functional and stylish,” Crossman writes in the DCB, “the bank was a success for Darling. In it he anticipated the taste for monumental public architecture that would sweep North America in the first decades of the 20th century.”
Darling and Curry expanded their practice in the early 1890s to add Henry Sproatt, who had worked as a draughtsman on the design of the Bank of Montreal, and John A. Pearson, who had worked on the firm’s plans for the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children (built between 1889 and 1891, and currently home of the Canadian Blood Services). But after Curry and Sproatt left the firm in the mid-1890s, Darling and Pearson continued alone.
Seventeen years younger than Darling, Pearson was born in Chesterfield, England. Descended from a family of builders—his father and grandfather had constructed Arundel Castle for the Duke of Norfolk—Pearson was naturally inclined towards architecture and apprenticed at a local firm.
But, Laura Waldie argues at History To The People, he grew frustrated by what he saw as the limitations of “old boys with old ways” of the profession in Britain.
Seeking more opportunity for creativity, a 21-year-old Pearson relocated to New York City in 1888 and, a very short time later, came to Toronto. In Darling, Pearson found a colleague who agreed with his desire to rethink popular architectural styles instead of just reproducing what British architects were doing.
The two men, who would be partners for nearly three decades, were very different in outward manner and personality. Darling is often considered the more artistic of the two. He was most content drafting sketch after sketch of his projects, Stephen Beszedits writes in Eminent Toronto Architects of the Past (B&L Information Services, 1983), “[t]he artist in Darling frequently overshadowed the practical architect” and “he tended to pay scant attention to routine office administrative matters which bored him.” For his part, Alan Sullivan suggests in The Year Book of Canadian Art, 1913 (J.M. Dent & Sons Limited), Pearson brought to “all projected designs an uncanny knowledge of detail, structural materials, and building possibilities and limitation.”
As they collaborated on designs, however, the two could butt heads and fight “with a cheerful acrimony over plan after plan,” as Alan Sullivan puts it. Sullivan describes a meeting before a bank’s board of directors that devolved into a series of disagreements between Darling and Pearson as they debated ideas and refined their design proposal in accordance with the directors’ wishes. “No half-way measures were countenanced; ‘prove it or discard it’ was their mutual argument,” Sullivan writes. “When the ‘smoke’ cleared away, the directors felt doubly assured.” Despite their differences in personality, the two men shared an inner drive, dedication to their craft, and a commitment to quality work.
Big and broad-shouldered, Pearson was outgoing and affable, while Darling was quieter and less comfortable in large groups. The more gregarious partner could work a room to drum up commissions, but Darling’s skill lay in one-to-one conversations with clients, listening attentively to discern their precise aims and wishes for a project. He was always willing to incorporate the client’s suggestions into his plans and was highly attuned to the building’s function.