past pieces of toronto: the temple building

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on March 11, 2012.

Temple Building, probably between 1967 and 1970.  Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 53. One of the sections marked "Temple Building" above the entrances survives as a ruin at The Guild.

“Want to go see a monument destroyed?” the Globe and Mail asked readers in its July 6, 1970 editorial. “Go down to the corner of Bay and Richmond streets and watch them make gravel out of the Temple Building. It won’t go easily or prettily because it wasn’t built with destruction in mind. It was intended to last like the Pyramids, one of the wonders of a young country, a great stone tribute to an Iroquois who became supreme chief ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF) in 1881.”

Oronhyatekha liked whatever he was involved in to be the biggest and best in the field. Educated at Oxford thanks to an invitation from the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) during his 1860 Canadian visit, Oronhyatekha developed extraordinary networking skills to overcome the prejudices he faced as a Mohawk. As head of the IOF, which he had joined under a special dispensation (initially only Caucasians were granted membership), he built one of the largest insurers and fraternal organizations in North America. When the IOF required a new headquarters in the late 1890s, Oronhyatekha wanted the finest structure the organization could afford. His prestige was such that the Governor-General, the Earl of Aberdeen, laid the cornerstone in 1895.

The result was one of Toronto’s first true skyscrapers, the city’s tallest building for nearly a decade. Architect George Gouinlock designed the nine-storey (expanded to 10 in 1901) Temple Building with a cast iron frame protected by concrete and brick. Its Romanesque style matched structures rising nearby like Old City Hall and the Confederation Life Building. Durability was provided by four-feet-thick foundation walls that couldn’t be cracked by a sledgehammer. It was one of the first buildings in the city constructed with serious consideration for fire safety. As the Globe noted in 1896, “the whole building will be as thoroughly fireproof as modern science can make it, there being nothing to burn except the window frames and sashes.” When the building officially opened in August 1897, Oronhyatekha claimed that it was designed so that the IOF’s employees had “a place in which to work where every possible thing was done that could be done to contribute to their health and comfort while working for this great order.”

While the lower floors were rented to financial and legal firms, the IOF enjoyed luxurious surroundings in the upper half, including a two-storey high ballroom with a gilded ceiling on the sixth floor. Amenities included ice water dispensed by marble drinking fountains, the speediest elevators in the city, and a basement power plant which by 1969 resembled, according to Toronto Life, “a modern computer with its gleaming copper switches.” Oronhyatekha ordered the construction of vaults on every floor, though those in the basement didn’t prove to be waterproof—following a flood, employees of Guaranty Trust used a dryer to preserve, one-by-one, $40 million worth of bonds, whose lingering stench earned them the nickname “stinking fund debentures.”

After the IOF moved its operations to Jarvis Street in 1954, the Temple Building’s tenants ranged from garment manufacturers to the Toronto Pop Festival. But as the demand for downtown office space grew in the late 1960s and nearby projects like the Four Seasons Sheraton Hotel threatened to dwarf the Temple, the aging building’s demise seemed inevitable. Few were surprised when developer Yolles and Rotenberg announced the Temple’s demolition in 1969, as its prime downtown location and high tax assessment rate did not make preservation financially attractive. As William Dendy noted in his book Lost Toronto, “a ten-year reprieve from demolition would probably have resulted in sufficient incentive and popular concern to guarantee the preservation of the Temple Building.”
Following the departure of the last tenants in 1970, the public watched the Temple Building’s destruction, an effort that took six months, then saw the 390 Bay office tower rise in its place. Elements of the building wound up as décor at the Oxford Steak House in Etobicoke and as ruins in Guildwood Park. The cornerstone was moved to the IOF’s headquarters at Don Mills and Eglinton, where visitors to the executive suite will find another significant piece of the Temple: a life-sized bronze statue of Oronhyatekha, watching over the organization he built.

Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993), the December 5, 1896 and August 27, 1897 editions of the Globe, the July 6, 1970 edition of the Globe and Mail, the December 1969 edition of Toronto Life, and the August 1, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star.


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