Irish drinkers overtake a sober historic British institution

Bruce Bell –

Between the years 1955 and 1975 some 20 000 of Toronto’s oldest buildings were demolished in an effort to “modernize” the Downtown core.

Sadly only a handful of imposing structures were left standing after miraculously escaping the ravenous appetite of the wrecker’s ball.

One of the few architectural treasures that incredibly was saved, considering it was right in the heart of this mass destruction, is the Bank of British North America (BNA) opened in 1874 at 49 Yonge Street on the northeast corner of Wellington and Yonge and now home to the Irish Embassy Pub.

It stands today as a testament not only as a reminder to what was lost during the urban renewal frenzy but also to the man who built it: the brilliant architect Henry Langley.

Langley the son of a Toronto shoemaker came on the scene just as the Paris we know today, with its grand boulevards and stunning buildings were being constructed in a style known as The Second Empire (1852-1870) the brain child of Georges-Eugène Haussmann a city planner hired by Napoleon III to modernize mid 19th-century Paris.

Haussmann went about knocking down the old medieval city with its tiny streets and in its place created a whole new Paris. Haussmann’s greatest achievement might be the construction of the Palais Garnier Paris’s spectacular opera house and the majestic avenue that leads up to it, void of any trees as not to block the view.

Henry Langley schooled in Second Empire design was a superstar in the Canadian architectural world and caused a sensation when his Government House open in 1870 on the site of present day Roy Thompson Hall.

Bank of British North America building now houses the popular Irish Embassy pub.

Bank of British North America building now houses the popular Irish Embassy pub.

This immense home, built as the official residence of the Lt Governor of Ontario, ranked supreme amongst the great estates of 19th century Toronto.

However it was sadly demolished in 1912 and replaced with a CPR freight warehouse in a time when most of the west end of the Downtown core was given over to the rail companies. Another of Langley’s masterpieces was his General Post Office that at one time stood on Adelaide at the head of Toronto Street.

Built in 1870-73 and resembling a smaller version of the 19th century Paris Opera House, its destruction in 1958 marked the beginning of the International Style of glass and steel high rise construction in Toronto.
A remnant to General Post Office existence today are Toronto Street’s unusually wide sidewalks originally laid out to give Langley’s post office a grand and treeless vista in a homage to Haussmann (trees have since been planted on Toronto Street).

Langley’s Bank of BNA project on Wellington and Yonge while not as commanding a presence as his post office or the Lt. Governor’s residence would have to be just as imposing if it was to compete with its neighbours in the Wellington, Front, Scott and Church Street area then the financial core of Toronto.

By 1872 with a new generation at the helm of Toronto’s financial district the Bank of BNA decided to construct a more impressive bank headquarters and hired Langley who they felt understood the need for this new expressionism of wealth and power. Langley tore down the original nice but boring Bank of BNA erected in 1844 and set out to construct a more striking bank building to match the other great banks that were now springing up in the area.

In order to make his new venture stand out Langley used gold coloured Ohio stone for the exterior giving it a luminous effect and the look and feel of one of those opulent homes he admired so much on the Champs de Elyees in Paris. The new Bank of British North America open its doors in 1874 with its main entrance on Wellington Street then most sought after address in the entire banking community. In 1903 due to Wellington Street losing its status as a fashionable address the massive stone entrance of the Bank of BNA with its carved floral designs was moved to Yonge Street which by the turn of the century was becoming a much more fashionable address.

In 1907 Henry Langley died and with his death saw the end of the romantic French style of architecture and the dawn of the modern skyscraper in Toronto.

In 1918 the Bank of British North America which was founded in 1835 merged with the Bank of Montreal.

During the 20th century Langley’s beautiful bank with its mosaic floors and arching interior columns became a branch of the Bank of Montreal and later a Bank of Commerce. In 1982 the former Bank of British North America building was completely restored by Greymac Trust who in turn sold to Household Finance and now is owned by Calloway REIT in an unbroken line of banking ventures on that corner dating back to 1844.

The former banking hall of the Bank of British North America is now home to the Irish Embassy Pub which opened on St Patrick’s Day 2001. Owned and operated by Gavin Quinn a true Irish gentleman in every sense of the word who not only can appreciate a fine pint but also the need to preserve what little remains of our once rich 19th-century architectural past.