If you’ve ever tried to distinguish between the myriad of Victorian architectural styles then you know it isn’t always easy. â€˜Victorian architecture’ has numerous forms and influences requiring a bit of patience and a little extra research on the part of the observer. When it comes to the Second Empire style however, the task isn’t as difficult. Just look at the roof.
The most distinguishable feature for this style is the prominent mansard roof. The roof may be straight, convex, concave or a combination of the three. It may be covered with polychromatic slate shingles (rarely surviving today) and is most likely punctuated by dormers of various shapes and sizes. Windows are large, with classical embellishment and details around the openings and corners. Built of brick or stone, Second Empire buildings in Toronto are most often of brick with stone or wood detailing. The roof is commonly finished with decorative metal cresting (mostly absent now), adding to its prominence.
The name Second Empire is derived from the style popular in France during the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870). Inspired by Haussmann’s renovations of Paris, the Paris Opera House and the additions to the Louvre, the Second Empire style was well suited to public buildings meant to convey the burgeoning pride of North America cities, in which regard Toronto was no different.
It is one of those styles that fell out of favour in the 1950s and 60s and as a result, many of Toronto’s finest representations of Second Empire architecture have been lost. Fortunately the style’s versatility (being used for everything from humble worker’s houses to grand municipal edifices) ensured that a great deal of has survived.
Perhaps the greatest loss to Toronto’s inventory of Second Empire buildings is the post office formerly on Adelaide Street East at the head of Toronto Street. Constructed in c. 1871-1873 to the designs of renowned local architect Henry Langley (1836-1907), the post office was in a class of its own. It was torn down in the name of progress in order to build a modernist building (in its own right a wonderful piece of architecture) that hasn’t been able to capture the significance of its location. If you wish to see the last remnant of this once proud building you’ll have to go up a block to Lombard Street, where the royal arms, formerly over the main doors, have been preserved in the sunken courtyard of its successor.
Toronto has other examples found around town. The Reverb (formerly The Big Bop) at Queen and Bathurst may have lost its mansard roof but its Second Empire stylings still reveal themselves beneath layers of blue paint. (It is also believed to be Old City Hall and Casa Loma architect E.J. Lennox’s first building). There is also the former Bank of British North America (now the Irish Embassy bar) at Yonge and Wellington (also designed by Langley), and for a particularly high concentration of the style head for Beverley between Dundas and College. There you’ll find the George Beardmore House (now the Italian Consulate), George Brown House, and a number of others. Humbler commercial and domestic examples dot King, Queen and Yonge Streets, Parkdale and Cabbagetown, and Corktown, just to name a few.
Photo of the Beardmore Building, Front Street, Toronto, by Laura Hatcher
Editor’s Note: This post is the third of an ongoing column exploring various architectural styles in and around Toronto. Spacing writer and heritage architecture consultant Thomas Wicks will look into the history of that style, the people behind it and where in Toronto examples can be found.