Visiting Toronto, Ontario and its Birkbeck Building: Classicism and Edwardian Baroque in Downtown splendour
Gracious structure, redolent of another era
For more than a century, close to Yonge Street, the frontage of this gracious, historic building has been a presence in Toronto's Adelaide Street, East. The basic, Classical design of the frontage is complemented by known as Edwardian Baroque — sometimes referred to as American Beaux Arts, with its careful use of symmetry.
Among the materials used in the building were natural and cast stone and terracotta tiling. Thus, the main frontage is sometimes spoken of as incorporating what is known as 'Art Stone': the 'Art' not referring to its artistic value (although this would be an accurate description, also) but to 'Artificial', indicating that this material was prepared in a more cost-effective manner. However, it still proved less expensive to use natural sandstone for the sculpted elements of the stonework.
The interior of the building includes a lobby executed in marble, and an oval-shaped boardroom with oak panelling. Its high windows let in daylight to an ample degree. The property is popular as a hired out venue for events.
This fine structure dates from 1908, when the Canadian Birkbeck Investment and Savings Company sponsored these Downtown offices. Its architect was George W. Gouinlock. The building featured a fireproof steel structure, in its day, a fairly innovative development. Winnipeg-educated architect Gouinlock, who practised in Toronto for about thirty years, had already designed a number of local bank buildings and he was also responsible for a number of the structures at Toronto's Exhibition Place (1).
A restoration was carried out by the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1987. A further restoration was accomplished from 2005 to 2007. The building is now the headquarters of the Ontario Heritage Trust. Other occupants in the past have included the Standard Bank. The original purpose of the Birkbeck Investment and Savings Company had in any case been to have offices surplus to its own requirements so that these could be hired out to various, mainly commercial, tenants.
A number of plaques have been affixed to the frontage of the building: a bilingual historical plaque from the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (the Building is a National Historic Site of Canada); a plaque from the Toronto Historical Board indicating designation under the Ontario Heritage Act; and a plaque from the Ontario Heritage Foundation.
The preservation of this historic building in Downtown Toronto came at a time when more and more older buildings were being demolished to make way for new commercial properties, particularly those in the Financial District. The Birkbeck Building thus seems redolent of a pre-World War One era when grace and a measure of ornateness were more highly regarded in commercial buildings than subsequent conceptions of functionalism.
(1) These structures at Exhibition Place by Gouinlock include the Horticulture Building and the Press Building, which is also in Beaux Arts style.
Also worth seeing
Toronto 's visitor attractions are far to numerous to summerize adequately, but in near vicinity around the Birkbeck Building these include Old City Hall , Osgoode Hall , Campbell House , the United Metropolitan Cathedral and St James's and St Michael's Cathedrals .
Willowdale (distance: approx. 13 kilometres); the mid-19th century Gibson House is now a museum.
How to get there: Air Canada, flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. However, visitors to Downtown Toronto will find many sights to be easily walkable. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. For any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities, please refer to appropriate consular sources.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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