The lions of March (part 1)


March has arrived. In Toronto, there are no alerts or warnings or red notifications on the Weather Network. But the forecast is for more wintry weather for the foreseeable future.

So it’s as true as ever this year that March comes in like a lion (and — one can only hope this year — will go out like a lamb).

To mark the start of March, I thought I’d post some of Toronto’s architectural lions:


If this were a human face tangled up in foliage, it would be called a “green man.” I don’t know if there is a category of architectural sculpture known as the “green lion,” but there ought to be, based on this example alone.

Lions may be so ubiquitous in architectural sculpture because of their frequent use in heraldry, and because they stand for virtually everything.

This building is currently a branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), at Church and Carlton, but it was originally the Somerset House Hotel, built in 1895 by Frederick H. Herbert and remodelled in 1930 by Langley & Howland.

In entry for Herbert in the online Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950, Robert Hill says he was a proponent of the Queen Anne style and his work was characterized by circular corner towers (of which this is a modified example).

Here’s another CIBC lion, although from the days when it was just the Imperial Bank of Canada, and before its merger with the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1961.


I shot this on a recently closed CIBC branch in Leaside. The building has recently been sold to a developer. It was built in 1940-1941 as the official bank to the former Town of Leaside and, according to the building’s heritage property nomination form, was the scene of a Boyd Gang hold up.

Faces *Around* Places?


One of the last times I was in San Francisco, I was walking around in the area of City Hall and the Opera, and noticed this unusual doorway.

I don’t remember what this door led to at the time, but it’s been a succession of financial institutions since it began life as the entryway to Vivande Ristorante, a second Italian restaurant opened in 1995 by chef Carlo Middione, in addition to his Vivande Porta Via, opened on Fillmore Street in 1981.

Both restaurants have closed. I’m not sure when Vivande Ristorante died, but Vivande Porta Via fell victim to the recession at the end of 2009 — as well as to Middione’s loss of his senses of smell and taste as a result of a car crash in 2007.

A 1995 story on, a division of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, attributes the 15-foot (4.6-metre) doorway sculpture to local sculptor Michael Casey.

The article also claims the inspiration for the doorway sculpture is La Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth) in the Roman portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.


But in a 2011 blog post, San Francisco architect Larry Mock found it reminiscent of the Orcus sculpture in the the Sacro Bosco (“Sacred Grove”),known colloquially as the Park of the Monsters (Parco dei Mostri) and the Gardens of Bomarzo in northern Lazio, Italy, about an hour’s drive from Rome.

Inscribed on his upper lip is “Ogni penser vola” — translated as “All thoughts fly” but also as “All reason departs”).


I’ll leave it to you to figure out which the San Francisco doorway most closely resembles. I’m checking out flights to Rome!


Canada’s “monuments men”


The release of the movie “The Monuments Men” put me in mind of a building in Ottawa.

“The Monuments Men” tells the story of the rescue of European art stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. The “men” included about 345 men and women from 13 countries, most of whom volunteered for services in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied armies.

The Ottawa building is the K. W. Neatby Building, now home of the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre, a research centre of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (the federal agriculture department). It’s located on Carling Avenue, across the street from the Ottawa Civic Hospital and on the grounds of the Central Experimental Farm. The part of the building seen from Carling Avenue, a 1956-1958 addition in the International Style as it was used for federal buildings of the mid-1950s, actually hides the main reason it is a Recognized Federal Heritage Building.


The original 1936-1938 building was the Public Records Building, which housed the “Polish treasures” from 1940 to 1948.

The Polish government wanted to conceal the nation’s cultural heritage at the beginning of the 1939 German invasion. The treasures — including 140 Arras tapestries dating from the 15th century, regalia such as the 14th-century coronation sword, religious artifacts including a Gutenberg bible, and Chopin manuscripts — arrived in Ottawa in July 1940, after a “dramatic and circuitous” trip from Wawel Castle in Cracow, through France and Britain.

According to an undated essay about the building by Edgar Tumak, an architectural historian and heritage specialist who is currently a city councillor in Deseronto, Ont., the Dominion archivist offered the building because no area museums had appropriate storage space. The Records Building, however, was fireproof and had necessary security and temperature and humidity controls. One floor was given over to the collection, including large open storage areas that allowed the tapestries to be hung and repaired. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police stood guard.

“In 1945 the Canadian representative of the Polish government-in-exile hid most of the artifacts in other locations around Ottawa and Quebec before the recognition by Canada of the Polish communist government,” Tumak wrote. “Due to various claims on its ownership, return to Poland of the small portion of the collection remaining in the Records Building was delayed until 1948, while the bulk of the treasure was only released from various institutions between the years 1959 and 1961.”

(At least two books, neither of which I have read yet, have been written about this effort — The Odyssey of the Polish Treasures by Aloysius Balawyder (1978) and The Strange Odyssey of Poland’s National Treasures, 1939-1961: A Polish-Canadian Story by Gordon Swoger (2004).

The original Tudor Revival structure was designed by architect E.L. Horwood and was intended to be “severely plain,” according to Tumak.

But Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King decreed that the exterior was to be “somewhat more embellished.” King approved a sketch by architect J. Albert Ewart (eldest son of David Ewart, chief architect for the Department of Public Works from 1896 to 1914) who was also hired to supervise construction of the building, the plan for which was otherwise unchanged.
Most of the “embellishment” is around the entrance — and provides a treat for anyone who leaves Carling Avenue and walks around to the other side of the building.

What a gas! The clock is back!


Over the Christmas holidays, I was driving past the old Consumers Gas Showroom, on Yonge Street north of Eglinton in Toronto and happened to glance up at the clock. The clock that hasn’t worked — at least, not for long — for at least the last 20 years.

Well, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a cleaned-up, lit-up, working clock!


(Yes, I know — this is a daylight photo of the clock.)

I guessed — correctly — that the work on the clock had been done by Abernethy and Son, the Richmond Hill-based firm of watch and clockmakers and heritage clock restorers.

I called to find out about the Consumers Gas clock, and found out it was Phil Abernethy (the eponymous “Son“) who handled the job. He told me that the original Telechron system was worn out and couldn’t be restored. So he installed a main synchronous motor, an AC motor that is synchronized with the frequency of the supply current. If the power supply is interrupted, the clock shuts off for 12 hours, at which time (assuming the hydro has been restored) it begins telling the correct time again. It even has an automatic Daylight Saving Time correction.

“The system is virtually hands-off,” Phil said.

The clock’s case and the bird on whose back it is borne are made of cast aluminum which was sandblasted, changing the colour from near-black (as in the picture below, from 2005) to a dull grey.


Because it’s difficult to apply a finish to aluminum, that’s just the naked metal exposed to the elements, meaning it will acquire a darker patina in time, he said.

The southern-exposed clock face — milk glass that is 24 in. (or about 61 cm.) in diameter — was cracked, but that could be repaired without Phil having to reproduce it in acrylic.

It’s great to have the clock working again, and so beautifully. It actually was important to the North Toronto community in 1931 when architect Charles Dolphin built the Consumers Gas Showroom.

“A feature required on the building was a clock,” according to a report in the building journal Construction in 1931. “As there was none in the immediate district it was felt that this would be a very useful as well as attractive item if it could be embodied in the design.

“In order that the clock might be visible north and south on Yonge Street it was necessary to extend it out from the face of the building.”

Dolphin accomplished that by placing the clock on “an allegorical design of a bird,” frozen as it was poised for flight to the east, thus allowing people on Yonge Street to see the time. The bird motif was repeated in stone at the corners of the building, atop fluted pilasters.


The birds most resemble the phoenix, the legendary bird that is said to have lived 500 years, burned itself on a pyre, and risen from the ashes to live again. Only missing on this building are the flames that usually accompany representations of the phoenix — unless they were assumed, or the choice of bird was emblematic or a visual joke (Consumers Gas — get it?).

In recent years, the Consumers Gas Showroom building also been a women’s fitness centre, a Puma athletic shoe store, Bowerings, the Children’s Book Store, and a YWCA. Its latest incarnation is as Casalife, a furniture store that opened in early December, and for which the clock was restored. Nice job, Phil!


They’re no angels, either!


I thought angels were supposed to be ethereal and beatific — qualities that can be conveyed even in stone.

But not the angels in the architecture of Toronto’s Loretto Abbey Secondary School.

The Collegiate Gothic school that opened in North Toronto in 1928 has a pair of sweet cherubs on either side of the main entrance, one of which is shown below:


But Findlay and Foulis, the two Scottish-born architects who designed the building, somehow couldn’t bring the same charm to the two angels flanking the south entrance:

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Is it just me (and I don’t mean to be mean), or are those two of the ugliest angels you’ve seen on any building? And especially a Roman Catholic building?

They’re no angels…


Italian priest and self-described “angelologist” Father Renzo Lavatori told a conference on angelic art hosted by the Fondazione Archivio Storico and held in the Vatican-owned Palazzo della Cancelleria that angels don’t have wings. In fact, he said, according to a story in Britain’s The Independent newspaper that angels don’t even have a recognizable human form – that they’re more like shards of light.

“Angels do not have wings or look like cherubs,”The Independent quoted Father Lavatori. “You do not see angels so much as feel their presence… They are a bit like sunlight that refracts on you through a crystal vase.”

After centuries of seeing angels as winged humans, I’m sticking with that portrayal, as with these angels from the Clarendon Apartments in Toronto (and featured in my book Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto; Anansi, 2006).

I’m not sure that Catholics are angel experts… They’re no angels, after all.

Many thanks to Doors Open Toronto and…


all the enthusiastic gargoyle hunters who came out for the Faces on Places walking tours! You have motivated me to update and maintain this blog after a lapse (due to the crush of work at my day job). Stay tuned – new posts coming soon! Keep looking up! For those of you who couldn’t make it: CTV News walked with us on the first tour on Saturday ( – look under “Latest Videos” tab on the right for “Doors Open city architecture tours kick off”), and CBC Radio’s Here and Now promo’d the walks on Friday but they don’t seem to have archived the interview (or not yet).