Bruce Bell –
On July 1, 1914 the Dominion Bank opened its stunning new headquarters on the southwest corner of King and Yonge.
From the moment you ascend its sweeping marble staircase leading into one of the most dazzling banking halls in all of North America you can see that Toronto—once a minor outpost of the British Empire—was by 1914 firmly established as a major banking centre.
Today this extraordinary building is undergoing its second substantial restoration in 10 years. This time it’s repairing and cleaning the rare white terra cotta façade and rebuilding its roof-top cornice, restoring the look it had exactly 100 years ago.
Originally the building had 14 storeys, but since 2006 a new portion rose up 49 floors with one of the most slender skyscrapers in the world attached to its side.
The Dominion Bank was founded by one of the more fascinating characters of early Toronto, James Austin. His legacy is still very much part of our city’s landscape both with the buildings and the institutions he left behind, including his great home Spadina House, now a museum next door to Casa Loma.
On Nov. 18, 1870 Austen attended an inspiring speech given by Frank Smith, a local business leader, in which he predicted that Toronto was bound to outstrip in enterprise and solid commercial progress every other city in Canada as a great trading centre. Afterward, it was agreed that James Austin, Joseph Mead, James Holden and Peleg Howland would form the basis of a new banking venture.
Then on Jan. 10, 1871, spurred on by this new put-Toronto-first economic approach, Austin was elected president of the newly formed Dominion Bank and opened its first branch at 40 King St.E.
The bank proved to be a success so in 1878 Austin decided to build one of this city’s most impressive 19th-century buildings to be the new headquarters for the Dominion Bank on the southwest corner of King and Yonge.
This spectacular bauble of Victorian architectural excess was a temple to money the likes of which Toronto had never seen, complete with giant Atlas-like statues holding up a massive arch over the main Yonge Street entrance.
James Austin died in 1897 at the age of 84 just as commercial architecture was about to go through a massive transformation. Gone were fussy adornments, statuary and low building heights; the age of the skyscraper had arrived!
In 1914 a new Dominion Bank headquarters arose on top the demolished rubble of the old on the corner of King and Yonge and just as with the previous structure, citizens of Toronto gasped at its beauty.
The centre piece of the new Dominion Bank building is the magnificent 2-storey banking hall with its gold-leaf coffered ceiling imbedded with the emblems of Canada’s then nine provinces (the bank was built before Newfoundland joined Confederation). Surrounding the entire hall are massive Corinthian-styled columns and huge floor-to-ceiling cathedral windows overlooking the corner of Yonge and King.
Another interesting feature of the former bank that has been saved for all to view is the original vault built directly into the bedrock at the base of the building. Weighing 40 tonnes with a 4-foot-thick door that can be moved with one finger, it was hauled up Yonge Street by a team of 18 horses in 1913 from the harbour, damaging the street in the process.
The building of the Dominion Bank ushered in a new era for Toronto and with it the skyline that was once dominated by church steeples changed forever.
In 1955 the Dominion Bank merged with the Bank of Toronto to become Toronto-Dominion and its former headquarters at King and Yonge became a branch of the new TD Bank empire and stayed at that location until 2003.
In 1966 Toronto-Dominion moved their centre of operations into the present TD Centre at Bay and King, which like its former head office, is a masterpiece of design and function.
After World War II Toronto reinvented itself with the rise of glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Followin TD’s lead, other skyscrapers wiped out over 25,000 structures and some of the most spectacular commercial buildings ever built in North America were wiped off the map, including the Toronto Star Building on King, the Board of Trade at Front and Yonge and the Temple Building at Queen and Bay.
Luckily, when Toronto was tearing down its past the old Dominion Bank was spared and in 2006 entrepreneur David Mirvish, condo maverick Harry Stinson and master architect Stanford
Downey undertook a massive building project that not only preserved the original bank building but added to its side a 49-storey tower.
The Dominion Bank renovation, with its own skyline-altering addition, is a striking example of how saving our architectural treasures should be handled by mixing the old with the new, giving us a direct link to our past rather than wiping it out completely and forgetting what and who came before us.
Today one of Toronto’s most beloved landmarks has transformed its once-bustling offices and boardrooms into hotel suites, apartments, restaurants, condos, cocktail lounges and some of the most luxurious (and expensive) penthouse apartments in the city. Happy 100th!