A search for Toronto’s historic past takes me to Venice

This past spring I made a first time visit to Venice, partly with the hope of finding some of Toronto’s lost architectural heritage. After years of reading and writing about how the Venetians of 500 years ago influenced some of Toronto’s early architects, I wanted to see for myself.

Like no other city on earth, Venice with its romantic canals, stunning churches, opulent banks and imposing hotels, its no wonder other cities on the verge of greatness like late 19th- and early 20th-century Toronto, wanted to have that look of imperial importance. While much of Toronto’s Venetian past has disappeared, there are still a few dazzling reminders around like the former CPR Train Station, built in 1916 (now the Summerhill Liquor Store on Yonge), with its bell tower a scale model of the famous Campanile at St Mark’s Square.

Also, the Centre Island Bridge (c1900) with its low-slung curve similar to the Ponte degli Scalzi (“the bridge of the barefoot monks”) crossing the Grand Canal. And the glorious ceiling of One King West, the former Dominion Bank inspired by the ceiling art of the Hall of the College in Doge’s Palace where the gods of ancient Rome are transfigured into the coats of arms of the Canadian Provinces.


Sadly what we lost was even more noteworthy, including the former Hollywood Cinema on Yonge north of St. Clair, with its elegant Venetian façade modeled after the Ca’ d’Oro (aka Palazzo Santa Sofia), regarded as one of the most beautiful palazzos on the Grand Canal in Venice. However, probably no other building in our city built in the late 19th century was more Venetian-looking than the Bank of Toronto on the northwest corner of Church and Wellington. Constructed in 1862, it’s an almost perfect copy of the Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande, still standing on the Grand Canal in Venice.

The Palazzo, constructed in 1570 and now home to the Provincial Administration Offices, is nothing short of breathtaking: the archetypal Venetian palace. And to think we too had one just like it.

So off I went, cashed in my travel points and took the next flight to Venice. When I arrived, it was raining and with the downpour came the wailing sound of the city’s alarm system set in place to warn residents and shop owners that the water in the canals are about to rise above the crest.

With the rain, the alarms and the side streets—and canals jammed packed with thousands of tourists—I was none-the-less thrilled to finally be here.

After I checked in to my little hotel which reminded me so much of the charming 19th-century commercial buildings that still stand along Queen Street West near Spadina, I headed for the Grand Canal and a boat tour that would take me to see the Palazzo della Ca’ Grande and a little bit of lost Toronto.

In 1860 back in our city, the Bank of Toronto needed a larger and more opulent headquarters as its former offices just up Church Street were deemed too small and unassuming for such a new and prosperous enterprise.

The bank’s first president, George Gooderham, whose family owned Gooderham and Worts Distillery, hired architect William Kauffman to build what would be the most beautiful building in Ontario and to show the world that the city of Toronto, not yet even 75 years old, had finally arrived.

And what a building it was! A little bit of Venice on Wellington Street, 3-storeys-high, arched windows, detailed stonework with steps leading up to main banking hall that was nothing short of breathtaking.

If the exterior and banking hall were undeniably Italian, the interior offices were distinctly British, as was the custom of the day, with heavily molded oak woodwork walls and plastered coffered ceiling—all conceived to impress.

Regardless of its splendour, by 1901 it was getting overcrowded. So the Bank of Toronto began a plan to move into a larger and an even more impressive building at its new headquarters on the southwest corner of King and Bay (1911-1962), now the site of the Toronto-Dominion Centre. In 1955 the Bank of Toronto merged with the Dominion Bank to become Toronto-Dominion Bank that’s known today as TD Canada Trust).

For the next 50 years, the once-grand former main office back at Church and Wellington became a lonely branch of the bank and sadly, like hundreds of other historic structures in Toronto, started to decay from years of being covered with city grime.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Toronto began its vast Urban Renewal project and rather than clean up these buildings, ordered instead an army of bulldozers through the old Downtown core. One of the first buildings to be destroyed was Mr. Gooderham’s Venetian palace.

The bank was replaced in 1964 by what was seen at the time as an award-winning modern design and still stands today in part as a burger place, formerly a Pizza-Pizza.

Back in Venice: As our crowded tour boat rounds the corner on the Grand Canal—and with the sun finally breaking through— there it is! In all its glory! The inspiration for Mr. Gooderham’s palace back home.

As the Palazzo della Ca’ Grande gradually comes into full view, I ask myself: How did we allow ours to be destroyed? How stunning it would have looked today if it was all cleaned up and still holding court at Church and Wellington?

Suffering from our own success, Toronto loves to tear down its past and build anew. It has gotten better, with the former Bank of Montréal now home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and Market Street being totally transformed. Yet still over 25,000 heritage properties fell to dust in the last 45 years.

Venice, on the other hand, doesn’t destroy anything and possibly looks the same as it did five centuries ago. However, Mother Nature is doing her best and one day the brilliant city on water might become a lost metropolis beneath the sea. So I’m thankful I got to see it, Mr. Gooderham’s palace, and all.

Join me at C’est What Nightclub-67 Front Street E, Monday July 15 at 7:30pm for my ongoing History of Toronto series where I will talk about the people and places that have defined our city. Visit online at: brucebelltours.ca for reservations at $20 per person. Or ph. 647-393-8687.