May 17th, 2022
A Bank On (Almost) Every Corner

Q1. Where were the 13 East Toronto bank buildings located 100 years ago?
Q5. What two architectural styles portrayed conservative, reliable, and wealthy elements?

A Bank On (Almost) Every Corner

By Marta O'Brien


Walking along Queen, Gerrard, or The Danforth you'll pass some dignified brick or stone buildings that were built as banks as many as 100 years ago. Almost all of these buildings were built on corners, and some still have the bank names carved in stone. Although many now have other uses - maybe a paint store, restaurant, or law office - a few are still used as bank branches. These often well-designed small buildings remain an important part of our streetscape and there are several excellent examples in the greater Beaches area.

Hard to believe, but there was a time when the only way to do any banking was to visit a bank and deal with a teller or other staff and update a bank book (as some still do). It was critical for banks to have numerous branches throughout the city. Fewer people had cars, so services had to be within walking distance.

Where were the East-End Bank Buildings?

Looking back 100 years, six banks had thirteen branches in the east end of Toronto from Broadview to Victoria Park, and from Danforth south to the lake. They can be found in the 1910 Toronto City Directory (which, like a modern phone book, lists businesses and residents in the city). All the bank buildings were located on the major streets - such as Danforth Avenue and Queen Street East - and almost all were on street corners. A corner location gave a bank more visibility, and made it easy to find by being identified with an intersection. One example is the Bank of Montreal at Queen & Beech.

Of the thirteen bank buildings, seven have been demolished and six are still standing. Check the list and see how many you can recognize.

sculptureBank Mergers & Name Changes

Some bank names most of us would not recognize were once household names in Toronto. The Traders Bank of Canada had the most branches in the east end of the city. This prolific Torontobased bank had more Ontario branches than any other in 1912, yet that same year its poor financial position enabled a takeover by the Royal Bank. Another name on the list that you wouldn't recognize is the Metropolitan Bank. Two of its 1910 Beaches area branches - Queen & Lee and Gerrard & Main - became Bank of Nova Scotia branches after an amalgamation in 1914.

Furthermore, of the Bank of Nova Scotia's fine stone and red brick building at the northeast corner of Broadview and Gerrard was actually built for the Bank of Ottawa - another bank swallowed up by the growing Bank of Nova Scotia.

In 1935, just 25 years later, there were 45 branches representing 10 banks in the east end of Toronto. By then the Canadian Bank of Commerce - which in 1961 would merge with the Imperial Bank of Canada to form the familiar CIBC - had the most branches with ten in our area.

One of the most ornate small bank buildings in the entire city is the former Union Bank, now RBC, at Danforth and Pape. You've probably never heard of the Union Bank, but they had 392 branches in Canada in 1923 - two years before they were taken over by the Royal. Make sure you have your shades on if it's a sunny day because the white glazed terra cotta facade positively gleams. White terra cotta was popular during the early 1900s; it gave the appearance of a stone building at a fraction of the cost. Banks like to save money too!


Bank Styles: Sending a Message with Classical Architecture

Before the 1920s, banks used architecture to express a certain image and attract customers. Without stringent government regulation and deposit insurance, people needed to be reassured that their money would be safe in a bank. A wooden building would probably not have inspired confidence. Banks wanted the permanence of stone and brick.


The Origin of the Caduceus Symbol

Before the caduceus became associated with medicine, it was the symbol of banking. The caduceus is a staff with two snakes wound around it, and it dates back to at least ancient Greece as a messenger's staff. One tale suggests that the god Hermes separated fighting snakes with his staff. The wings on the staff represent the messenger.

In ancient Rome, Hermes was the god Mercury, the patron of commerce and banking. Mercury's staff - the caduceus - was used by architect John Soane on the Bank of England. Soane had great influence on bank architecture in North America. You can see a stone carving of Mercury himself holding the caduceus.

It is above the entrance to the tall older building that's now part of Commerce Court on King Street east of Bay Street.

The Medical Connection

The caduceus resembles the rod of Asclepius - a staff with a single snake around it. This is the symbol that is actually associated with medicine and healing. One explanation is that the snake was seen as a symbol of renewal (because snakes shed and renew their skins). Another theory is that the snake was a symbol of healing.

The U.S. Army Medical Corps popularized the use of the caduceus for medicine in 1902. By mistake, they inadvertently adopted the caduceus as their symbol instead of the rod of Asclepius. From there its use spread and now there's no going back.

Next time you see a caduceus on an old building, you'll know it was probably a bank - not a doctor's office or hospital.

Beyond materials, banks used architectural elements to appear conservative, reliable, and wealthy. Two styles that fit this criteria were used in the early 1900s for the bank branches seen locally: Beaux Arts Classicism and Edwardian Classicism. Both styles used elements of classical architecture dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, such as imposing stone columns and over-sized mouldings around windows and entrances.

Beaux Arts Classicism is named for the École des Beaux Arts, Paris - the place to study architecture in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The curriculum was aimed at the design of monumental public buildings rather than houses or shops. Prospective architects studied classical architecture from Greece to the Italian Renaissance and beyond, and learned to apply its principles to modern buildings.


This system was widely copied in North American architecture schools.

The Beaux Arts style can be over-the-top and make even small structures look grand. The columns and other classical details are often colossal to exaggerate the building's scale and importance. Perfect for the image that banks desired, right? This is beautifully illustrated by the former Canadian Bank of Commerce branch on the northeast corner of Queen Street East and Grant Street, just east of Broadview. It was designed in 1904 by prolific bank architects Darling & Pearson. Imagine entering this branch through the enormous classical columns and frieze (the band with the bank's name carved on it). Banking was a serious and sometimes intimidating experience in those days. An upscale fashion designer now occupies the structure.

Edwardian Classicism was an architectural style used to achieve dignity without the ostentatiousness - or expense - of the Beaux Arts style. Most of the pre-1940 bank branches in the Beaches area can be classified as Edwardian Classicism. It's characterized by red or dark brown brick and smooth, lightcoloured stone trim. The door and window surrounds have classical mouldings and there is often a stone-trimmed parapet (a low wall at the edge of a roof ).

The former Canadian Bank of Commerce on the southeast corner of Danforth and Woodbine is a fine Edwardian building with an added feature favoured by the Commerce: a caduceus high above the corner entrance (see sidebar). This building is now a CIBC, although this branch will soon relocate to a new building on Queen Street East.

Changing Styles: Modern Classicism By 1951, when the well-proportioned building for the Bank of Toronto was built, architecture had become less ornamental than in the past. This structure would be described as Modern Classicism: it features simple decorative details and overall classical proportions. Modern Classicism was a transition between more decorative styles (like Art Deco) and the starkness of Modernism. This building also became a Toronto- Dominion branch in 1955. The bank closed in 1981 and is now the landmark Lion on the Beach restaurant.


Local Banks by an Important Architect

Important Canadian architect John Lyle designed many banks, homes, and other buildings in Toronto between 1907 and the 1930s. He designed the former Bank of Ottawa at Broadview and Gerrard, described earlier. That building has a distinctive curved corner entrance.

Lyle's Dominion Bank branches were almost always red brick with light limestone trim and there's a perfect example in the heart of the Beaches at Queen and Lee. Edwardian Classicism is expressed in the curved pediment above the entrance and the cornice, which is the projecting stone moulding above the second floor windows . If you look closely, you can see the ghostly outline of "The Dominion Bank" lettering above the entrance. This building became a Toronto-Dominion branch in 1955 when the Dominion merged with the Bank of Toronto. Today you can browse for books in this former bank.

75 Years and Counting for Beaches Banks

As we've seen, over time some bank branches have been closed. Perhaps changes in the neighbourhood meant fewer customers, or in recent years branches were no longer needed as more people banked by telephone or online.

Not surprisingly, more of the bank buildings existing in 1935 have survived. Just eight of those structures are gone. There are still banks in thirteen of the branches listed in 1935. New businesses have moved into twenty-three of the original structures, with restaurants being the most popular conversions. You can buy health food in the former Bank of Montreal at Queen and Beech, and the old Standard Bank on the corner of Danforth and Aldridge Avenue is now a funeral home.

Former location of the Imperial Bank of Canada -Queen St. E. & Kingston Rd. Former location of the Bank Montreal -Queen St. E. & Beech Ave.

Bank Branches Today

By the 1960s the whole banking experience seemed less forbidding. Banks were enclosed in glass held in place by thin metal columns and beams. Torontonians of the past probably would not have trusted such flimsy-looking buildings!

Canada's chartered banks are now wealthier than ever, but classical buildings are no longer used to reassure customers. Advertising - not architecture - is the preferred method for attracting business. With the soundness and reliability of modern Canadian banks, we're not seeking a traditional building in which to deposit our money.

The surviving bank buildings reveal part of our neighbourhood's history, even as services have evolved. It's a testament to their fine design and convenient locations that so many of our early 1900s bank buildings are still standing and in use either as banks or other commercial facilities.

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