Given the winter we’ve been having it would seem impossible to think of Toronto as being in any way exotic, much less to draw comparisons between our city and one in Morocco or the Middle East. That is, until you encounter a work of exotic revival architecture.
Like many cities within the sphere of Anglo-American influence, Victorian Toronto had a small love affair what they saw as the “exotic” architectural forms of Islam. Bearing few children, this affair left only small vestiges behind. These buildings, often described simply as “Moorish,” draw their inspiration from north Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East. The few examples that survive today are easy to miss, which is why encountering one on a snowy winter day is all the more surprising — looking at home yet somewhat foreign under a thick blanket of snow.
The Moorish Revival style was one of many revival styles to spring up during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An offshoot of Victorian Romanticism that evolved into an interest in all things “oriental,” this fascination manifested itself into vaguely Islamic forms being applied to all manner of buildings. The style made its way to Canada via England and the United States, where it had already been employed since the early nineteenth century.
In central Europe, Jews began to use the style for synagogues and consequently spread it all over the world. Toronto’s oldest Jewish congregation used Moorish forms when they built Holy Blossom Temple on Bond Street in 1897. Now a Greek Orthodox church, the building has been altered to appear more like a standard Greek church, most notably in the altered shape of the domes. Compare the two images here and here.
Most commonly employed for use in “Moorish” or “Turkish” smoking rooms, Toronto has a beautiful and accessible interior example of this at the former Massey mansion on Jarvis Street (now the Keg Mansion). Massey Hall, built in 1894, relied heavily on the Moorish style for its interior decorations. This stands in stark contrast to its more neo-classical exterior. Now trimmed down, the interior still retains some of its earlier Moorish flare. Nearby on Church Street, the former Athenaeum Club has all but vanished — save for its faà§ade, now incorporated into a condo. The Moorish inspiration is evident in the arches and intricate brickwork of its surviving faà§ade.
Unfortunately Toronto has lost two of its most interesting examples. The John Miller house, formerly on Murray Street, looked to Morocco for inspiration and would have been a one-of-a-kind eccentricity when it was built in 1898. The Bethany Chapel located on University Avenue is almost entirely forgotten, lasting only briefly from 1893 to 1910. This structure housed a religious sect that didn’t feel traditional church architectural forms could express their religious views and relied instead on the Moorish style to evoke images of the Holy Land.
With an increasing Muslim population in Toronto, these forms are enjoying something of a revival, this time for religious structures conveying personal references for the users own faith and heritage rather than as exotic and colonial decorations. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, they look both at home and also foreign in the midst of a snowy Toronto winter.
Editor’s Note: This post is 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.
Photo of Athenaeum Club on Church Street by author.