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Art Deco and Urban Toronto: from 1920s to Present


“Harris imagined a palace for it. He wanted the best ornamental iron. He wanted a brass elevator to lead from the service building to the filter building where you could step across rose-coloured marble. The neo-Byzantine style allowed him to blend in all the technical elements. The friezes depicted stylized impellers. He wanted herringbone tiles imported from Siena, art deco clocks, and pump signals, unfloored high windows which would look over filter pools four feet deep, languid, reflective as medieval water garden.”  – From Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion

Let’s travel back in time to 1920s. The Roaring Twenties. This flourishing period in Canadian culture is like a skyscraper: poised, magnificent, and elaborate; it is a feat of machinery and high art. The Roaring twenties not only portrayed economic affluence and social change, but also some of the most extravagant buildings. Take for instance, some of Toronto’s lavish commercial and public buildings like Royal York Hotel, the Bank of Commerce, Canada Life Building, and R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. These early landmarks of the city were constructed in the Art Deco style, which originated in France after the First World War, and swiftly made its way across the continent. Influenced by art nouveau and cubism, the Art Deco style featured bold colours (such as chrome and black) and geometric shapes, adopting machine age imagery (such as electric lighting, the ocean liner and the skyscraper). It also relied on the use of man-made materials, like glass and stainless steel. Fast–growing technology was its distinguishing feature. Art Deco symbolized modernity: it celebrated trains, planes, cars, and electricity. The opulence of the style contrasted sharply with the austerity of the war period. Borne out of industrialization and 169544-ext-1the economic boom of the 1920s, the Art Deco reigned in Toronto until the beginning of the Second World War. Let’s navigate through some of the most impressive buildings in the heart of the city

Fairmont Royal York Hotel Nowadays it is hard to imagine Toronto Island without this grand dome-shaped building. Originally finished in 1929, this architectural gem remains as the famous Art Deco hotel, attracting visitors worldwide. The elegant structure was the tallest building in the British Commonwealth, drawing members of high society. To this day, Royal York exhibits an atmosphere of royalty with geometric-patterned carpets, mirrored elevator doors, sweeping staircases, light fixtures and chandeliers. It is a truly spectacular sight.

The Bank of Commercetor-75

This impressive commercial building (now called CIBC) stands on the south side of King Street West. Its erection began in 1927, when the ambitious spirit of the Roaring Twenties was in full bloom. Back in the day, the Bank stood as a symbol of economic prosperity, reflecting the boundless potential of the market. Originally, the structure was clad in limestone with vertical rows of windows ascending to the sky. It was a skyscraper, representative of the Machine Age. The upper part of the building featured two massive carved-stone heads, symbolizing Courage and Enterprise. The tower is elaborately ornamented in the Art Deco style. The banking Hall on the first floor of the building is six stories high and resembles a cathedral with ornate ceiling and chandeliers.

Canada Life Building

kveca0663sOne of the tallest structures in the city, Canada Life Building was constructed between 1929 and 1931. The high-rise structure was built as a commercial office, designed to be much taller but scaled back due to the onset of Great Depression. Above the Tower Room, the Canada Life Beacon was erected in 1951, shining its weather-forecasting light across the city. It was inspired by a similar beacon in New York City. The magnificent beacon uses both signals and tower lights to give forecasts. The green flashing light signals a clear weather; the red light signals a cloudy weather; the white predicts snow and the flashing red predicts rain. The running up of tower lights predicts warmer temperature; the running down of the lights predicts cooler temperature and steady lights predict no change in weather conditions. The information is updated four times a day and it is determined from computer data. A truly impressive technological feat.

RC Harris Water Treatment Plant

Named after Toronto’s former commissioner of public works Ronald Caldwell Harris, this impressive monument was designed in 1929. It remains as one of Canada’s most spectacular public places at the foot of Victoria Park Avenue. Dubbed “The Palace of Purification”, the plant produces 950 million litres of water per day. Currently, the plant purifies 30 percent of Toronto’s tap water. It is an architectural wonder. The ornate exterior features limestone carvings while the interior is clad in marble and bronze in flattened geometric design. Brick arching windows, stylized frescoes. Round-arched opening in the Filter building and formidable pediments on the Pumping station. The structure stands tall, pointing up to the sky. Michael Ondaatje recounts the building of this plant in his 1987 novel In the Skin of a Lion: “In the tunnel under Lake Ontario two men shake hands on an incline of mud. Beside them a pickaxe and a lamp, their dirt-streaked faces pivoting to look towards the camera. For a moment, while the film receives the image, everything is still, the other tunnel workers silent. Then Arthur Goss, the city photographer, packs up his tripod and glass plates, unhooks the cord of lights that creates a vista of open tunnel behind the two men, walks with his equipment the fifty yards to the ladder, and climbs out into sunlight.”