1900s architect firm introduced Beaux-Arts to Toronto

There is a proposal to remodel one of New York City’s most celebrated landmark buildings, the NYC Public Library on Fifth Avenue. It’s a magnificent structure as famous as the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty.

Built in 1897 by the renowned architectural firm Carrère and Hastings, the library is nothing less than breathtaking from the celebrated stone lions standing guard to the painted ceiling of the famous Rose main reading room.

Sadly there is very little left in Toronto that could come close to this library’s spectacular brilliance, yet at one time we could and in some cases did surpass its radiance.

Toronto had grown from a desolate British colonial outpost of 500 people in 1800 to an imposing city of almost a half a million by 1900 and with that escalation came men of industry and commerce all loaded down with new money.

These latest barons of trade, wanting to leave their mark, would hire the leading architects of their day to build spectacular commercial palaces, each one more stunning than the last.

As Toronto grew its architecture went from the elegant Georgian (the Grange at the AGO 1816), to the Classical (St. Lawrence Hall 1850), to Second Empire (Bank of British North America on the northeast corner of Wellington and Yonge 1872). Then at the turn of the 20th century came the grandest style of all, the Beaux-Arts.


The architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings made up of John Merven Carrère (Nov. 9, 1858-Mar. 1, 1911) and Thomas Hastings (Mar. 11, 1860-Oct. 23, 1929) was located in New York City and jointly became the preeminent Beaux-Arts architectural firm in North America.

Carrère and Hastings came to define the architectural era they lived in known as Beaux-Arts (Beautiful Art), a neoclassical architectural style taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

The pairs’ first major work was the Ponce de León Hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., built in 1887, followed 10 years later with a rise to national prominence by winning the competition for the New York Public Library in 1897 and cementing their reputation as the last word in the Beaux-Arts.

Toronto was to have five Carrère and Hastings buildings (alone or with local partners) of which only three remain including Spadina House’s glass-and-wrought-iron porte-cochere, added in 1905.

The most famous Carrère and Hastings building in the city was the Bank of Toronto headquarters built in 1912 on the southwest corner of King and Bay.

Sadly, with its interior dominated by a stained-glass ceiling dome and the exterior by 21 marble Corinthian columns—each three stories tall—it was demolished in 1964 to make way for the TD Centre.

However bits and pieces of this tour de force, including its main entrance, can be seen at Guildwood Park in Scarborough as well as a scale model on display in the present TD Centre banking hall.

What made the Beaux-Arts movement even more impressive was the fact that it arrived at the same time as the skyscraper, making some of North America’s early tall buildings even more imposing.

A superb example of a Beaux-Arts Carrère and Hastings skyscraper here in Toronto is the Trader’s Bank built in 1905 at 67 Yonge Street and at 15 stories was once the tallest building in the entire British Empire.

While the building’s exterior with its wonderful terra-cotta frieze of cattle skulls has recently been cleaned and repaired, nothing remains of its once stately 2-story banking floor destroyed during one the building’s many extensive renovations. However a stunningly beautiful Art Nouveau wrought-iron spiral staircase that is nothing short of a masterpiece at the rear of the lobby managed to survive.

On the northeast corner of Yonge and King is another Carrère and Hastings structure, the Royal Bank Building built in 1914 (with the firm of Ross and Macdonald).

With its massive exterior Corinthian columns still standing guard, it too once had a glorious banking hall of black marble columns and sweeping staircases.

Alas, all was gutted, all destroyed in the name of progress to sell mattresses and burgers.

While Toronto lost many of its Beaux-Arts buildings during the 1960s and ‘70s we still have some excellent examples standing including the Royal Alexandra Theatre (1907), the 1903 wing of the King Edward Hotel and the Bank of Montreal (1886) now the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Arguably the largest Beaux-Arts building still standing in Toronto is Union Station (1927) built by local architect John Lyle who, as an associate of Carrère and Hastings, was involved in the design of the New York City Public Library (Carrère and Hastings were also partners in Lyle’s Royal Alexandra Theatre).

Carrère and Hastings’ lustrous affiliation lasted from 1885 until 1911, when Carrère was killed in an automobile accident. Then Thomas Hastings continued on his own, using the firm name, until his death in 1929.

Shifting attitudes in design including the coming of the more streamlined Art Deco in the 1930s (320 Bay) and International Modernism in the 1950s and ‘60s (TD Centre) led business leaders to disregard the work of Carrère and Hastings as too fussy.

As more sleek buildings were being constructed much of the Beaux-Arts style was either demolished or severely altered which brings me back to the New York City Library.

Plans call for the removal of its back wall and replacing it with a massive window opening the library onto Bryant Park.

I say leave it alone as one fix will only lead to another and the next thing you know the beauty that once was will be gone forever. We here are familiar with that all too well.

Join me at C’est What? nightclub 67 Front Street E, Monday Feb 18 at 7:30pm for my ongoing History of Toronto series $20 -ph.647-393-8687 r reservations.
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