Historicist: Beaux Arts Eclecticism
Chapman and Oxley's architectural impact on Toronto.
Alfred Chapman was among the dominant figures in Toronto architecture in the first half of the 20th century, designing buildings as diverse as libraries, the Old Mill Tea Room, Sterling Tower, Maple Leaf Stadium, the Princes’ Gates, and Holy Blossom Temple. Although guided by underlying principles learned at the École des Beaux Arts, Chapman’s prolific output was eclectic, ranging from the classical to the Gothic, Romanesque Revival, pre-Renaissance English, and Art Deco in decorative treatment. His work was warmly embraced by the public and press for much of his career, earning him major institutional commissions from the Toronto Hydro Electric Commission, the Royal Ontario Museum, Sunnyside Amusement Park, and the Bank of Montreal. In his later years, the critical acclaim cooled as younger architects spurned his influence to pursue contemporary designs. Although he and his partner, structural engineer J. Morrow Oxley, built dozens of buildings across the city in the first half of the 20th century, a mere handful remain today.
Born in Toronto on December 8, 1879, Alfred Hirschfelder Chapman was the son of an English-born father and a Canadian-born mother. With his father and uncle operating a prosperous business, the Belle Ewart Ice and Fuel Company—later renamed Chapmans Limited after Chapman inherited the business in 1920—Chapman’s childhood was comfortable, with croquet and sailing and summers spent at Lake Simcoe.
As a youth, educated at Harbord Collegiate Institute, Chapman first dreamed of a career in art before opting for architecture. When he inquired at the University of Toronto’s School of Architecture, its director dissuaded Chapman by questioning his math skills. He learned the trade, therefore, by articling with architect Beaumont Jarvis, and completing a stint at the firm of Burke and Horwood. Travelling to Europe, Chapman then studied at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts in Paris from 1901 to 1903.
After two years working in New York City, Chapman returned to Toronto by 1906 to establish himself in sole practice. The Central Reference Library, constructed in 1907-1908 at the corner of St. George and College streets with funding from Andrew Carnegie, was among his first commissions. Calling it “[o]ne of the best Second Classical Revival buildings in Toronto” in Toronto Architecture: A City Guide (McClelland & Stewart,  1989), Patricia McHugh describes the reference library as “rich in sculptural stone ornament but poised and firm with graceful large windows set deep into smooth yellow-brick walls and a gradually stepped approach to dignify the entrance.” Chapman would also work on an expansion on the north side of the building from 1928 to 1930; and his son, Howard D. Chapman, was among the architects who renovated the building in 1985 to its present configuration as the Koffler Student Services Centre.
In 1908, Chapman entered a partnership with Robert B. McGiffin. Until the partnership was dissolved in 1919, Chapman and McGiffin designed Oakville High School (1908), the Gothic-styled Rosedale Presbyterian Church (1909-1910), the Dovercourt branch of the Toronto Public Library (1912-1913)—now known as Bloor/Gladstone branch—and Carnegie-funded libraries in Dundas and Barrie. Chapman’s involvement with real estate developer R. Home Smith‘s Humber Valley Estates led to his designing the Old Mill Tea Room (1913-1914) and the nearby Humber River Bridge (1916).
As a result of the indelible influence of his Beaux Arts training over the course of his career, Chapman’s design philosophy stressed the importance of planning with an eye to proportion and spatial organization to such a degree, his son Howard explained in Alfred Chapman: The Man and His Work (Architectural Conservancy of Ontario-Toronto Region Branch, 1978), “that, from a plan alone, one should be able to appreciate the entire architectural composition and its quality.” Stylistically, Chapman’s work was eclectic, sometimes invoking classical, pre-Renaissance English, medieval or Gothic idioms, as well as utilizing Romanesque Revival or Art Deco styles when they were in vogue.
“Every job,” a colleague of Chapman’s later recalled, “was accepted as a challenge to accomplish something better, more perfectly suited to its purpose, and with due regard to the client’s purse.” That Chapman took seriously the responsibility to adhere to clients’ budgetary restrictions led him to lament that he was usually only offered commissions with tight budgets, never ones with looser financial restrictions.
Writing in The Year book of Canadian art (London Dent, 1912/1913), Chapman felt that Canadian architecture was “unconsciously maturing”—not necessarily in the sense of a distinctly Canadian architectural identity, but certainly towards Canadians producing “some really great works of architectural art.” There were two distinct schools of architects in Canada, he speculated: those under English influence who, having trained in apprenticeships, had gained a “refined sense of traditional beauty”; and those under the influence of Beaux Arts principles learned in France or the United States. With one “striving after abstract beauty, the other after correct logical architecture,” Chapman suggested, the blending of the two schools would lead to “the basis of a great architectural development” in Canada, though he didn’t speculate the exact form or style that would emerge.
When Knox College planned to relocate to the core of the U of T grounds, Chapman was engaged as architect. His Collegiate Gothic design was a conscious effort to harmoniously contrast with the adjacent University College. The scheme divided the college by separating the academic rooms, library, and chapel from the dining hall and dormitories. The two monumental features, the chapel on the south and the library on the north, face onto the lawn at King’s College Circle. “The central part [between these], being the entrance hall, is only one story high, thus enabling one to see over this part and obtain a glimpse of the buildings on the far side of the quadrangle,” Chapman explained in The Lamps (June 1912). “This produces that effect of a group of connected buildings surrounding a quadrangle, each serving a different function in the community life of the college, which arrangement has been proven of such beauty and charm in the English colleges at Cambridge and Oxford.”
(Above: Knox College, ca. 1920. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3150.)
The architect was charmed by Doris H. Dennison, a young musician from England visiting relatives in Ontario in 1913, and after a brief courtship, the two were married. The couple lived in a ravine-clinging house at 83 Roxborough Drive, and after their family grew to include six children, they moved to a larger house at 93 Roxborough Drive—both houses of Chapman’s design.
Chapman executed numerous residences around town for family, friends, and clients in styles ranging from the Renaissance or Georgian tradition to Tudor or early English types. His ambition to undertake larger architectural commissions, however, prompted him to turn away from residential work in the 1910s. “With his love of planning on the Beaux Arts scale and his enthusiasm for the current North American ideas of technical progress,” Howard Chapman notes, “he felt the detail and scale of domestic work to be incompatible with his more ambitious creations and its tempo disruptive of smooth office production.”
In 1919, Chapman entered into a partnership—Chapman, Oxley & Bishop, Architects and Engineers—with two of his proteges, James Morrow Oxley and Roy Hartnoll Bishop. Born in Halifax in September 1883 and educated at the University of Toronto, Oxley had just returned from serving in France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. As a partner in the structural engineering firm of Oxley and Harkness, Oxley had collaborated with Chapman on Knox College and the R.S. Williams Building (1912) at 145 Yonge Street. Until its demolition in 1987, the latter was a pioneering 10-storey tower with reinforced-concrete walls clad with classical decorative elements, and was, McHugh writes, an example of Chapman’s ability “to bridge the gap between Beaux-Arts tradition and Moderne innovation.”
Bishop, a Toronto-born and educated architect, had articled with a number of firms and served in the First World War before being asked to join the partnership by his mentor. Bishop would leave the firm in the early 1920s, continuing in sole practice until his death in 1948. But the successful collaboration between Chapman and Oxley continued until 1949.
The Toronto Harbour Commission, for whom Chapman had already designed an office headquarters in 1917-1918, enlisted Chapman and Oxley in the planning of the Sunnyside Amusement Park and the new Lake Shore Boulevard approach to the city. Of the variety of kiosks, concessions, and buildings the firm conceived, only the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion (1921-1922) and the Palais Royale (1922) still stand. Chapman and Oxley also designed a Memorial Stadium, a 12,000-seat baseball park on Lake Shore Boulevard between Bathurst and Strachan. The $225,000 expenditure for the proposed project was rejected by the voters at the 1923 municipal election, however, and never built. A few years later, in 1926, when businessman Lol Solman built Maple Leaf Stadium with private financing in 1925-1926, Chapman and Oxley designed it.
Chapman and Oxley left their mark on the downtown core as well, designing a slew of office towers drawing on the pair’s early experience constructing the 10-storey Williams building. Often featuring Classic and Romanesque decorative elements, these skyscrapers represented an important achievement “in structural and constructional innovation and economy,” Howard Chapman argues, and “they display the architect’s sense of order and appropriate scale of decoration both at street level and in upper termination.” The architect’s son considered the Sterling Tower (1928), a 20-storey office building at 372 Bay, to be “the most successful of these earlier buildings.” Other downtown commercial buildings constructed by Chapman and Oxley include the Northern Ontario Building (1924-1925) at Bay and Adelaide, the western expansion of the Simpson’s Department Store (1928-1929)—including the Arcadian Court—the Hobberlin Building (ca. 1925) at Adelaide and Peter, and an office for Canadian Breweries (1939) at Victoria and Gould. The smooth stonework façade of Chapman and Oxley’s 12-storey National Building (1925-1926) at 347 Bay has been subsumed by a new glass skyscraper, the Bay-Adelaide Centre.
Perhaps the culmination of their office tower work was at 80 King Street West, a skyscraper commissioned by Joseph E. Atkinson as headquarters for his Toronto Star editorial operations and printing plant. At the time of the opening of the 23-storey Star Building (1929), critics praised its “fresh and modern departure in style.” After the newspaper relocated to its current 1 Yonge Street quarters in 1971, the tower was demolished to make way for First Canadian Place.
(Right: Toronto Star Building, 80 King Street West, ca. 1928. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 842.)
Having proven themselves capable of innovative skyscraper design, Chapman and Oxley were selected to design an imposing new headquarters for the hydroelectric company. The Toronto Hydro Electric Commission Building (1932-1933), near the corner of Carlton and Yonge, was hailed by contemporary critics as “”one of the outstanding architectural achievements of recent years.” The 10-storey limestone structure built, however, was just a fraction of the project the architect and engineer had intended when the Great Depression forced the company to scale back. Anticipating that the modest structure would eventually be expanded northward—and upward—Chapman and Oxley engineered their 10-storey podium to be able to support the later addition of 20 more storeys. The anticipated tower addition was planned to be set back from the existing platform, bounded on each side by the existing sculptural heads peering down to the sidewalk.
In addition to office towers, Chapman and Oxley designed numerous factories, schools (such as Whitby’s King Street Public School (1920), and Albert College (1923) in Belleville), the Runnymede Theatre (1927), the Danforth Theatre (c. 1926), and interior renovations to the Park Plaza Hotel (1934).
Despite the firm’s prodigious output across the city and province, Chapman and Oxley dedicated a substantial amount of time in the 1920s to the Canadian National Exhibition when the firm was retained to draft a master plan for an enlarged and impressive fairground laid out according to Beaux Arts principles. “A more or less classic style was chosen,” Chapman explained of his scheme’s late Roman treatment, “owing to the fact that the Canadian National Exhibition is a permanent Exhibition and it was thought advisable to avoid styles that were liable to become obsolete with the change of fashion or public taste.” At the east end, a new triumphal arch would lead onto an immense entrance plaza—flanked by two new monumental buildings, the Automotive Building, and the Electrical and Engineering Building—that would terminate at an arrangement of six imposing Classical buildings fronting onto an Empire Court. “The slightly severe character of the Architecture,” Chapman added, “is dissipated by flags, streamers, booths, and the gay colouring of the crowds during the Exhibition which tends to give the effect of the whole Entrance springing to life for the great fete of the year.”
Several structures were erected according to Chapman and Oxley’s monumental vision. The Pure Food Building (1921-1922), constructed of brick and trimmed with stone, was designed around a series of open courts. The defining feature of the Classical-styled Ontario Government Building (1926) remains its dome, constructed of stone and wood. As an exhibition space used for a few weeks each year, this building’s interior was as finished as a warehouse and required massive refurbishment—including the installation of replica cornices, Corinthian columns, and lighting inspired by Chapman and Oxley’s exterior decorations—prior to reopening as the Liberty Grand event venue in 2001.
The Princes’ Gates (1927), erected to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, “are a superb example of monumental architecture in the Beaux Arts mode,” according to architectural historian Stephen Beszedits in Eminent Toronto Architects of the Past (B&L Information Services, 1983). Curved colonnades extend on each side of an immense central arch to terminate at symmetrical pylons. The nine columns on either side symbolized the nine provinces of the Dominion at the time.
And the ten-foot-tall statue above the central arch, sculpted by Charles Duncan McKechnie—the frequent collaborator on the decorative treatment of many Chapman and Oxley projects—is modeled after the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a classical Greek artifact housed in the Louvre. The $152,204 project was completed in less than five months through the innovative use of cement and stone. McKechnie was able to complete his contribution—which was originally an electric light in the centre of the laurel crown—in such short time by building a rough mould that was filled with a mixture of poured concrete and chipped stone, then finishing the resulting stone cast by hand.
On the north side of the imposing vista that Chapman envisioned to the immediate west of the Princes’ Gates was the Electrical and Engineering Building (1928-1929). Its centrepiece was to be a brightly shining beacon, the Electric Tower, rising 180 feet above the monumental main building. But, as the victim of cost-cutting, the tower was cut from the final version of the design. Apart from the construction of these structures, however, Chapman and Oxley’s CNE master plan was only partially implemented. When the Automotive Building was built, immediately south of the Electrical and Engineering Building, its architect was selected through an open competition and the resulting structure was built to a different scale than Chapman’s Beaux-Arts-inspired plan envisioned for the grand eastern entranceway to the grounds.
In 1929, Chapman and Oxley were engaged to more than double the size of the Royal Ontario Museum (1931-1932). The resulting T-shaped addition provided the institution extensive frontage along Queen’s Park, including a new entranceway with a grand octagonal rotunda, featuring a brightly-coloured dome ceiling supported by two-storey arches. In Bold Visions: The Architecture of the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum, 2007), Kelvin Browne characterizes the limestone exterior of the Queen’s Park wing as Art-Deco-inspired, but notes some of the decorative details “appear almost ecclesiastical and Romanesque.” The interior, he notes, featured a mix of Romanesque, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco detailing. Browne speculates that the client was too conservative to commit wholeheartedly to the fashionable new Art Deco style their architect desired.
Chapman took a great deal of pride in the work for the ROM, but critical response of younger architects showed that the older architect’s work was starting to be considered démodé. Alvan Sherlock Mathers‘s response in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada was typical: “The general scheme of the building in plan and facade is excellent. The entrance is well and strongly marked and the detail, particularly the carving is well conceived and beautifully executed…it is a fine performance on the part of the architects even though it is as I hope, for this country, a brilliant climax and finale to that great school of North American architecture founded by the late H.H. Richardson.”
A business slowdown during the 1930s due to the Depression led to Chapman dedicating more time to the family business and hobby farming at his summer home on Lake Simcoe.
Holy Blossom Temple (1937-1938) remains one of Chapman’s signature achievements and a unique religious space in Toronto. In the 1930s, the congregation needed a new building because their existing premises, a former Greek Orthodox Church at 115 Bond, were too small and too far from their now-second-generation of congregants relocating to the north and west of the city core. The Holy Blossom congregation, Robert Fulford recounted in Toronto Life (December 1988), was the locus of Reform Judaism in Canada during the early 20th century. Maurice Eisendrath, hired as rabbi in 1929, envisioned “Holy Blossom as the Jewish equivalent of a cathedral church, a place of ideas and leadership for Jews and non-Jews” and “himself as the Jewish community’s ambassador to the larger world,” in Fulford’s words. As with the introduction of musical instruments and use of English and Hebrew in sermons and prayers, the new synagogue building itself was self-consciously intended as a symbol of the congregation’s efforts to adapt their religion for modern times.
Thus, Chapman and Oxley’s Romanesque Revival design more resembles a Christian church than a traditional synagogue. In keeping with this breaking from tradition, the building is oriented on its site at Bathurst and Ava Road so congregants face west during prayers, rather than towards Jerusalem; and it features a steeple-like appendage. The synagogue was the result of Chapman and Oxley’s early experimentations with utilizing exposed concrete for non-industrial purposes—a rarity prior to the Second World War. The reinforced concrete walls allowed for a spacious interior uninhibited by structural supports. “The central space is quite majestic,” Howard Chapman recounts, “deriving great effect from the simple central and flanking arches and plain surfaces which show to advantage the decorative work in the sanctuary. The exterior massing, fenestration in the poured concrete walls and the restraint of the decorative motifs are all interesting and successful.”
Chapman and Oxley were chosen in 1938 to design the Bank of Montreal’s new Toronto headquarters at Bay and King, which—apart from some industrial designs for military purposes, like an airplane factory in London, Ontario, during the Second World War—proved to be Chapman’s final commission. Chapman drew inspiration from the bank’s monumental head office in Montreal, and sought to emulate the proportions and scope of its grand banking hall, complete with paired columns of dark granite running its length, in the Toronto facility. Although Chapman dubbed it “modernized classical,” Mark Osbaldeston notes in Unbuilt Toronto 2 (Dundurn, 2011), the scheme was a somewhat dated concept by the late 30s, resulting in the juxtaposition of a two-storey podium embellished with classical detailing, and a 16-storey set-back office tower topped with Art Deco detailing.
Excavation and construction began in the summer of 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of war. When Canada declared war on Germany, that September, the bank halted all progress. The three-storey-tall steel frame stood unfinished for nearly seven years, a reminder of the war’s impact. By the time construction resumed in early 1946, Chapman had been incapacitated by a stroke and had retired to home life. Another firm, Marani and Morris, was brought in to complete the project in conjunction with Chapman, Oxley and Facey—where long-time employee A.G. Facey had been elevated to full partner. Pre-war plans were almost wholly reworked, including reorienting the entrances to the structure and simplifying its decorative treatment, as well as the interior appearance Chapman had intended. A decade after initial construction began, the Bank of Montreal tower opened in early September 1949 (but would be demolished in 1975 to make way for First Canadian Place).
(Above: Sterling Tower, southwest corner of Bay and Richmond streets, ca. 1920s. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 737.)
Chapman died November 12, 1949, and was buried at St. George’s Anglican Church near Lake Simcoe. Chapman was the quintessential establishment architect. A founding member of the Arts and Letters Club, he participated in the Guild of Civic Art, and the Ontario Association of Architects, serving as president of the latter in 1929-1930. Chapman and Oxley were both Fellows of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. For his contributions, the structural engineer Oxley was made an honorary member of the Ontario Association of Architects in 1956. He died the following year on October 8, 1957.
Additional sources consulted include: Victor E. Graham, “Toronto’s Triumphal Arch: The Princes’ Gates,” in the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada Bulletin (March 1990); Glenn McArthur, A Progressive Traditionalist: John M. Lyle, Architect (Coach House Books, 2009); Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart, eds., Concrete Toronto (Coach House Books, 2007); Mark Osbaldeston, Unbuilt Toronto (Dundurn, 2008); and articles from Building (February/March 2011); Canadian Architect (September 2000; May 2002); and the Toronto Star (August 6, 1988; May 31, 2001; August 5, 2005; January 3 and November 30, 2008).
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.