Art Deco

When our son Daniel and his family moved to The Beach, we noticed that they lived not too far away from a stunning building. They told us it was the “Palace Of Purification.” We were intrigued.

After some clandestine trespassing and a little googling, we discovered that it was the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. And it does almost look like royalty could live there. The idea for a water treatment plant on the shores of Lake Ontario was floated around beginning in 1926 but it took architects and builders 15 years to work out the details, and the plant wasn’t finished until 1941. It still produces over 30% of Toronto’s drinking water.

We studied the architecture further and discovered a new (to us) architectural style – art deco. Art deco was meant to be a symbol of hope following World War I. The style is sleek with interesting rectangular forms. It is anything but minimalist, as the forms are broken up with curved ornamental elements, sometimes fanciful, sometimes representing the purpose of the building. Some art deco structures you might be familiar with are the Chrysler Building in New York, or the Supreme Court Building in Ottawa. The first impression is very streamlined and modern but, if you look closely, you will find touches of whimsy.

There are other art deco buildings in downtown Toronto so, on a recent Lucy Cleaning Day, we went to see them. Our first stop was at College and Yonge, where we found the Toronto Hydro Building. One of its ornamental elements is a coat of arms with the words “industry, intelligence and integrity,” the motto for the original City Of Toronto, in 1834. There are also unusual details along the roofline, including faces staring down accusingly at the pedestrians below, reminding us to “Turn Off Those Lights!”

Hydro Building – Lookup to see the faces staring down.

Farther down Yonge St we discovered an old (Toronto) Dominion Bank, built in 1930 and now converted to a restaurant. The details on the outside describe the past through carvings of agriculture, industry, shipping and even Queen Victoria. On Bay St, we found the Canada Permanent Building, one of the original “skyscrapers” at a remarkable 18 storeys high! The Canada Permanent , 1931, has a magnificent arched entranceway and elaborate brass detailing inside.

Canada Permanent

The most unique building we found is on Adelaide St – the Concourse Building, 1928. Described as a canvas for elegant details, it gets its reputation from Group OF Seven artist J. E. H. MacDonald, whose mosaics decorate the front entrance and surrounding archway. Aboriginal-inspired decorations line the edge of the roof. We had to be creative in order to find a photo spot to capture this elegant roof-top design.

Concourse Building doorway by J.E. H MacDonald

The Concourse Building is on such prime property that in 2017 most of the building was torn down, leaving only 2 facades now tucked into the bottom corner of a modern 40-storey glass and steel tower. While we were delighted to see that the facade had been saved, we lamented the abundance of glass and steel buildings monopolizing the downtown core. There is a sameness to them that is cold and inhuman. Bring on more art deco!

Concourse Building roofline, surrounded by glass and steel


PS. Thanks to everyone who wrote in last week with suggestions for safe, covid-free travel. We heard from someone who has been enjoying winter in Hawaii, a couple who flew to Germany but paid more for business class, just to have the extra space away from germs, and another family who are waiting for summer so they can safely visit their cottage. And we heard from 2 people who suggested a visit to the west coast. Next Tuesday you can read about where we decided to go.

7 thoughts on “Art Deco

  1. Thanks for the wonderful photos, Sue. They made me nostalgic for the days I would walk north from my job at 8 York Street – a former Yardley factory and an Art Deco building. I would look up as I walked to see the marvellous architectural wonders on the buildings I passed, suspecting few others noticed. I had an architecture tour of downtown I took visitors on. So many years later, now, I bet I couldn’t find most of the buildings. You gave me an easy review!


  2. Ehi you! Sue and Peter! We are still waiting for you! Do come to Italy, please! In Busto Arsizio too we have a number of monuments art deco or liberty style! Baci e abbracci Lavinia


  3. Dear Sue

    Beautifully written and adorned. Love love love these buildings. They are what make Toronto downtown very special.

    Can’t wait to hear where you are going to go. Til next week.

    Love, Judy xoxoxo



  4. Toronto –my old stomping grounds–is a handsome New World city. Nice and clean, too. Thank-you for expressing your observations with style and graces; as always.


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