Enjoying Toronto’s architectural gems – 1890s Confederation Life Building

10 Apr

Compared to other cities in North America, Toronto has been slow to appreciate its architectural gems. Many lament the loss of our architectural heritage, as so many great building from the past have been destroyed. However, many remain. It is fun and meaningful to explore them. The recent influx of condominium buyers in the downtown core is creating a renewed interest in these structures, since people pass them daily as they travel to work, shop, or stroll the streets for recreation. Taking a few minutes to stop and examine these fine buildings adds greatly to the experience of living downtown as it engenders a greater awareness and appreciation of one’s neighbourhood.

In this post, I examine the old Confederation Life Insurance Building at the corner of Richmond and Yonge Streets. The lithograph below depicts the building as it appeared in the 1890s, when it was one of the tallest structures in the city. As Torontonians watched the structure rise from its foundations to its towering heights, it captured the imagination of the residents of the city. 


An 1890s lithograph, showing the Richmond St. facade that faces south, with Victoria St. on the right (east side) and Yonge Street on the left (west side)


Looking west along Richmond St. to Yonge Street in 1919. The Richmond St. Facade of the Confederation Life Building is on the right-hand (north side) of the street. (Photo from City of Toronto Archives,  Series 372, SS 0058, Item 0082)

The Confederation Life Insurance Company held an architectural contest in 1889, the firm of Knox, Elliot and Jarvis winning the competition to erect the prestigious office building at 14 Richmond street East. When it was completed in 1882, the fanciful castle-like structure was one of the tallest in the city, as it rose on its massive stone blocks to a height of six storeys, though its massive walls and towers created the illusion of a much taller building. Since the invention of the electric elevator in 1853, buildings were reaching ever higher into the skies. The use of cast iron to provide a framework for structures aided in the creation of taller structures.

During the years 1898 to 1900, the Confederation Life Building was altered, and it was again renovated in 1908. In 1981, a devastating fire created much damage, but thankfully, it was restored. When the building was completed in 1892, it was considered the finest and most up-to-date office building in the city, indeed, in all of North America. Flamboyant in style, it was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, similar to Toronto’s Old City Hall. The Credit Valley sandstone  stones employed for the base of the structure are massive as they must support the immense weight of the upper floors. The many carvings on the building are a delight to examine as they are rich in classical and Medieval symbolism.


  The Richmond Street facade of the the Confederation Life Building today

DSCN6194  DSCN6195   

                     Detailed carvings on the building

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          Classical designs on the Richmond Street facade  

DSCN6204     DSCN6199 

Corner of Richmond and Victoria  – Massive doorway on Richmond Street


Corner at Yonge and Richmond showing tower, the tall windows having wish-bone surrounds.

I have spent much of my adult life researching the history of Toronto. I love the city. It has provided the background for my books, one of which, “The Villages Within”, was short-listed for the Toronto Heritage Awards. If interested in novels with a Toronto setting, descriptions of the books are available by following the link:

They can be purchased in soft cover or electronic editions. All books are available at Chapters/Indigo and on The electronic editions are less that $4. Follow the links:

There Never Was a Better Time:

Arse Over Teakettle:

The Reluctant Virgin;

The Villages Within: 

Author’s Home Page:

Authors can be contacted at:


Carved dragon on the Confederation Life Building

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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Toronto


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