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Visiting the Confederation Life Building, Toronto, Ontario: Romanesque Revival on Richmond Street East

Updated on January 8, 2016
Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
The Confederation Life Building, Toronto
The Confederation Life Building, Toronto | Source
Historical plaque, Confederation Life Building, Richmond Street East, Toronto
Historical plaque, Confederation Life Building, Richmond Street East, Toronto | Source
Map location of Toronto, Ontario
Map location of Toronto, Ontario | Source

Victorian commercial confidence

The Romanesque Revival style of architecture which was popular in North America in the 19th and early 20th century finds expression — among other fine examples — in the Confederation Life Building, on Richmond Street East, Toronto (1).

Some history and features

Thus, here we see repeatedly the familiar rounded arch, which deeply informs the Romanesque Revival style. When the building was commissioned, the world of architecture was being profoundly influenced by H H Richardson, whose name even gave rise to a specific term: Richardson Romanesque.

In any case, this building, was the responsibility of architects Knox, Elliot and Jarvis, who participated in, and won, an international competition to design headquarters for Confederation Life. Building work commenced in 1890 and was completed in 1892. In its day, the monumental nature of this 7-storey building was regarded as especially striking.

Confederation Life served as an insurer from 1871 until 1994; the building served as the company's headquarters until 1955. The Confederation Life Building now has a number of tenants, thus perpetuating in an impressive edifice the company which commissioned it in the late 19th century.

Over the years, considerable alterations have been made to the building, in a varied process of refurbishments and repairs, not least following a severe fire. A central tower's height was curtailed; some tower corner pinnacles have been removed.

Some impressions

But the whole still continues to exude a sense of the Victorian commercial confidence characteristic of late 19th century Toronto. Nowadays the Confederation Life Building is dwarfed by skyscrapers. But one can for a moment choose to ignore the high-rise properties of Toronto's commercial core, and reflect on the visual impression that the Confederation Life Building must have had on 19th century Torontonians. In my view, it is not unlike the effect which would have been given — for example — by the contemporaneous Ellicott Building, Buffalo, New York, with its (for then) state of the art office facilities, before it was eventually dwarfed by the Art Deco City Hall and other skyscrapers.


(1) Other buildings in Toronto influenced by Romanesque Revival style include the Old City Hall (1899) on Queen Street East and Ontario's Legislative Assembly building (1886-1893) at Queen's Park.

(2) The building actually also incorporated French Gothic elements, although, following much rebuilding work, some of these are not as pronounced as they were originally.

Also worth seeing

In Downtown Toronto , interesting old buildings which serve as visitor attractions include:

St James's Anglican Cathedral , St Michael's Roman Catholic Cathedral , and United Metropolitan Church , all with tall towers; Mackenzie House museum is at 82 Bond Street; Osgoode Hall and the historic Campbell House are on Queen Street West.

Further afield:

The Ashbridge Estate (approx. distance: 5.7 kilometres); its main building belonging to an old Provincial family dates from 1854.


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. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. 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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