Visiting 3 Beauties from the 1930s
Being the architecture buff that I am, I have really been looking forward to checking out Toronto’s free architecture festival: Doors Open. A few years ago I went to Chicago with a few friends for a May long weekend, right at the time when Chicago’s architecture festival was on, and I am really happy that Toronto now has an architecture festival of its own.
The architectural period I am most fascinated with is the Jazz Age and the early part of the Great Depression, the era of the Roaring Twenties and the much less roaring Thirties, when the Art Deco skyscraper really came of age.
So it was only fitting that my good friend Shauna, another aficionado of Art Deco, and I would pick a few beauties dating back to that era from the 144 buildings that opened their doors to the public for free. We started with the Beaux-Arts / neoclassical Canada Life Building, built on University Avenue, Toronto’s biggest thoroughfare.
At 17 stories it was the tallest building when it opened in 1931. We admired the lobby with its thousands of decorative details, guilded ceilings and marble floors and columns. Then we took the elevator up to the 17th story Tower Room, a rather small room with windows on 3 sides and beautiful views of downtown Toronto, that previously was used as a boardroom.
The final touch was the “Canada Life Environmental Room” in the newer Canada Life Building next door which houses a variety of plants and aquatic creatures along walls made from lava rock. It looks like a tropical rain forest and is a joint project with the University of Guelph to study the effect of plants on indoor air quality. Quite a serene place that is used for meetings, presentations and even weddings.
Just about 10 minutes away at 320 Bay Street we visited the next architectural beauty: the Canada Permanent Building, also constructed between 1928 and 1930. It features Classical Revival Styling with Art Deco influences and the visually astounding Banking Hall with its marble floors, high ceilings, and Art Deco chandeliers, reproductions that were hand-crafted from photographs as the original chandeliers were lost when the building closed. The Safety Deposit Vault with its exquisitely crafted brass gates, is also accessible, it has now been turned into a conference room. Last but not least, we admired the elevator doors that are decorated with bas-relief brass panels, showing a variety of mythical figures, as well as an original mail chute from the 1930s, the only such mail chute in Toronto still in active use today.
Our next stop was the Design Exchange, actually the former Toronto Stock Exchange Building. It was completed in 1937 and shows a much stronger Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne influence. The masterpiece of streamline design is the Inco Staircase, constructed in stainless steel with lacquered birch handrails. A very interesting feature is the suspended light fixture with vertical fluorescent tubes behind ribbed transparent panels.
The most spectacular portion of the Design Exchange is the former Toronto Stock Exchange trading floor. It features 8 giant murals, 4 on the west and 4 on the east side, painted by Canadian artist Charles Comfort, which portray topics from the 1930s such as transportation & communication, pulp & paper, construction & engineering, agriculture, the oil industry, mining, nickel and gold production. The Trading Floor has rounded ceiling corners and triple banding that stretch around the room.
We walked one floor up from the Trading Floor and saw an interesting exhibition on examples of low-cost yet effective Canadian architecture, showing recent public buildings (libraries, university buildings, community centres) that were built at half or even one third the cost per square foot of an average condominium building (C$303 per square foot). Behind the PSF exhibition we also visited the “TSA Poster Competition” which exhibits entrants in the Toronto Society of Architects poster competition celebrating May as Architecture and Design Month. On the north side of the building we also visited the only permanent collection of modern Canadian industrial design in the country where we admired post-war designs of tea kettles, chairs and furniture, thermos bottles, Tupperware dishes, electric frying pans and various other household items. It was funny seeing a lot of these items in a museum setting since a lot of them can still be seen in active use in Canadian households today.
Our final stop was Commerce Court, a monumental 34 story building that opened in 1930. The majestic banking hall with its beautiful ceiling was closed and we couldn’t get in but we nevertheless got a taste of this amazing architectural gem through the locked glass doors.
Since it had started to rain and we had no umbrellas, we headed underground again, into “PATH”, downtown Toronto’s underground walkway linking 27 kilometres of shopping, services and entertainment. PATH connects about 1,200 retail shops and services and more than 50 buildings / office towers. 20 parking garages, 5 subway stations, 2 major department stores, 6 major hotels, and a railway terminal are also accessible through PATH.
We reached our underground parking at Royal Thomson Hall in the climatized comfort of this underground network of walkways without experiencing a single drop of rain. We both had a fabulous time on our treasure hunt for architectural jewels from the 1930s, thanks to Doors Open.