The Decorative Language of
Canadian Art Deco Architecture
By Tim Morawetz
Like Art Deco buildings everywhere, Canada’s examples display a rich array of decorative motifs that are unique to the country’s geography, history, and culture. Archetypes such as hockey, beavers, and maple syrup all turn up on the country’s Deco buildings, along with many more symbols that reflect Canada’s identity and history.
As a country, Canada is about 25 percent larger in area than America’s lower 48 states. In 1930, it had a population of ten million, compared to 124 million in the United States, with a population density one-tenth that of its southern neighbor. While the U.S. had more than 100 cities with a population of 100,000, Canada had only eight. The population has always hugged the country’s southern border––to this day, some three-quarters of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S.
Canada was––and is––a trading nation, with an economy during the 1930s largely based on natural resources such as mining, fishing, forestry and agriculture. Although Canada gained its political independence from Britain in 1867, it truly began viewing itself as its own nation only after World War I. In earlier years, Canadian architecture reflected European traditions, but by the Deco era, Canada’s architects started looking south for inspiration.
Notwithstanding its smaller and more widely dispersed population, Canada produced a collection of interwar buildings––from office towers and apartment buildings to schools and cinemas––that measure up to those of other regions around the globe and that span the categories of Zigzag, Streamline Moderne and Stripped Classical styling. Although there are lesser-known gems in smaller and more remote communities across the country, this article focuses on buildings in Canada’s major cities.
The west coast city of Vancouver––150 miles north of Seattle––rose to prominence in the 1920s with the opening of the Panama Canal, which positioned the city as an alternate shipping route to Europe. Vancouver is home to Canada’s finest Zigzag skyscraper: the twenty-story Marine Building (McCarter and Nairne, 1929–30) that overlooks the city’s harbor. The subject matter of the building’s decoration reflects its function––providing office space for grain and lumber shipping companies, insurance brokers, and import/export merchants. In the architects’ words, the tower “suggests some great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea green, touched with gold, and at night in winter a dim silhouette piercing the sea mists.”1
Marine Building, Vancouver: front doors.
Three in-house designers at McCarter and Nairne developed the Marine Building’s dazzling decorative palette. Glazed terra-cotta panels lining the front archway feature fronds of seaweed and various marine creatures, while panels on a lower cornice include flying geese and leaping fish. The brass trim framing the revolving front doors boasts turtles, starfish and snails; other terra-cotta panels at the building’s base include dirigibles, ships, biplanes, and trains emerging from mountain tunnels. No other Canadian building from the period incorporates such a lively and coherent decorative program.
The Toronto Stock Exchange building (George and Moorhouse, with Samuel H. Maw, 1937) sports decoration depicting eight different industries––including transportation and communications, logging and smelting––whose shares were traded on the exchange. Designed by noted Canadian artist Charles Comfort (1900–1994), the uniquely stylized motifs of men at work are presented in three media: in paint on a series of eight canvas murals adorning the trading floor; in pneumatically chiseled limestone on the giant bas-relief frieze spanning the Streamline Moderne front façade; and in stainless steel roundels on the entrance doors.
Given the vital role hydroelectricity from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls played in powering the growth of the province of Ontario, it’s not surprising that Toronto’s Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario Building (Sproatt and Rolph, 1935) features representations of moving water. Giant carved stone sluices flank the wavy glass block wall above its front entrance, while the wave theme continues inside on the marble trim and door handles.
Hydro-electric Power Commission of Ontario Building, Toronto: carved sluice. Photo: Tim Morawetz
Toronto Postal Delivery Terminal: cornice, beaver bas-relief. Photo: Tim Morawetz
Toronto Stock Exchange: frieze. Photo: Tim Morawetz
Dominion Bank, Toronto: quarter-column capital.
Photo: Tim Morawetz
During the Deco era, primarily French-speaking Montreal led the country as a center of commerce, a position relinquished to English-speaking Toronto only after the rise of the Quebec sovereignty movement in the 1970s. The city’s Canadian National Railways Central Station (John Schofield, 1942–43) includes Charles Comfort’s remarkable murals gracing the interior of the concourse. Comfort wrote: “The work is an effort to formalize the contemporary life of Canadians, their industry, their recreation, their culture, their hopes and aspirations, and to some extent their environment.”2 Four large stepped bas-reliefs––representing the North, South, East and West of Canada––wrap around the corners, with smaller reliefs running beneath the giant windows at the ends of the concourse. Cream-colored on a pale blue background, these bas-reliefs––similar to those of the Toronto Stock Exchange––depict industrial activities such as lumbering, mining and fishing, but also feature interconnected scenes of such iconic Canadian activities as dog sledding, downhill skiing, canoeing and, of course, hockey. The French and English lyrics of ”O Canada,” by then the country’s de facto national anthem, encircle the murals’ base.
The fur trade played an important role in Canadian history. The city of Edmonton in central Alberta was once the location of a major trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The company’s department store in that city (Moody and Moore, 1937–38) boasts an oversize incised limestone carving of a trapper. Meanwhile, across the country in Montreal, on the façade of the Holt Renfrew store (Ross and Macdonald, 1937), the copper and brass front doors feature low-relief depictions of beavers, sheep and other fur-bearing animals.
John M. Lyle – Champion of Canadian Themes
Many architects and artists incorporated Canadian symbols in their work. Charles Dolphin included beavers––nibbling on tree stumps and interspersed with maple leaves and bulrushes––in the bas-relief cornice on the Toronto Postal Delivery Terminal (1939–40). Montreal sculptor Henri Hébert depicted a habitant man (early French settler) making maple syrup in one of four terra-cotta bas-relief panels high up on the Administration Building of the Montreal Botanical Garden (1932–37); the three other panels show a moose eating water lilies, a First Nations woman grinding corn, and a First Nations hunter in a birchbark canoe. And pine needles adorned the metalwork on Alexandra Biriukova’s 1930 house for Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris.
But perhaps the greatest champion of Canadian-themed decoration was architect John M. Lyle (1872–1945) who, incidentally, worked in New York City from 1896 to 1905. In the late 1920s, Lyle’s office set out to “accumulate data in the forms of Canadian flowers, fruits, trees, birds, animals, grain, marine life and Indian motifs… [We were] trying to create a new language [of decorative ornament] based on Canadian forms, the only criteria [being] that any form had to pass the test of beauty.”3 Much of his work from this period consisted of bank branches, all in the Stripped Classical idiom.
Hudson's Bay Co. store, Edmonton: fur trapper bas-relief. Photo: Tim Morawetz
Montreal Botanical Garden Administration Building: maple syrup habitant bas-relief. Photo: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose
Bank of Nova Scotia, Calgary: oil bas-relief. Photo: Adina Currie
For his 1929 Dominion Bank in Toronto, Lyle designed a carved capital of a quarter column on the front façade with such native flora as lilies, sunflowers and corncobs, while the capitals of side-façade pilasters consist of fowl including swans and pigeons. The molding above the first floor reflects First Nations motifs.
Also in 1929, the Bank of Nova Scotia hired Lyle to design a branch in the southern Alberta city of Calgary (which became the oil capital of Canada only in the late 1940s). For the building’s front façade, Lyle designed three carved limestone bas-reliefs depicting the primary elements of the local economy: oil, grain and ranching. Vertical bas-reliefs framing the ground-floor windows portrayed prairie life before and after European contact: the former contained a bison head, hunting tools and a First Nations elder, the latter featured a horse’s head, rifles and a Stetson-wearing cowboy.
Lyle’s most complete expression of Canadian iconography was the Bank of Nova Scotia’s head office building in Halifax, the country’s leading city on the east coast. This remarkable structure, built 1930–31, features 86 different representations of Canadian animals and plants, plus scenes of local economic and historical significance.
Lyle was certainly aware of classic Deco motifs: for instance, he treated the oil gushing from the oil well on the Calgary bank façade, and the smoke belching from the Sydney Steel Mill’s exhaust stacks on the Halifax bank façade, as perfectly symmetrical frozen fountains. Without question, however, Canadian motifs take pride of place in Lyle’s work of the Deco era.
Beyond Canadian iconography
Canadian architects also incorporated more universal Deco motifs. The fascination with Egypt played out on the Empress Theatre in Montreal (Joseph-Alcide Chaussé, 1927), whose façade includes a pharaoh’s head and palm leaves. On the Albert Memorial Bridge (Puntin, O’Leary and Coxall, 1930) in the city of Regina, Saskatchewan––some 350 miles northwest of Bismarck, North Dakota––the baluster capitals sport colorful terra-cotta motifs of lotus flowers and papyrus plants. And the neon-lit sign for the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver––designed in 1940 by Canada’s premier cinema architects, Kaplan and Sprachman––is crowned with a kneeling silhouette of the Roman goddess Diana.
With the arrival of the International Style after World War II, building ornamentation fell out of favor. Fortunately, Canada can still enjoy the blessing of its rich heritage of architectural decoration from the interwar period.
About the Author:
Tim Morawetz is the author of Art Deco Architecture Across Canada: Stories of the country’s buildings between the two World Wars (2017). ADSNY members can use the promotional code ARTDECONYC to obtain a 15% discount when purchasing the book on Amazon.com.
1 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal, July 1931, 256–7.
2 Engineering and Contract Record, June 23, 1943, 43.
3 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal, April 1929, 135.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Winter 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.
Bank of Nova Scotia, Halifax: Sydney Steel Mill bas-relief.
Photo: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose