Canada Life Building – Toronto’s Beaux-Arts Gem & Iconic Beacon

2020 - The Canada Life Building, looking northwest
2020 – The Canada Life Building, looking northwest

The Canada Life Building is located at ‪330 University Ave‬ (just north of Queen St W) in downtown Toronto.

The History of Canada Life

The insurance company, the first in Canada, was founded in 1847 as the Canada Life Assurance Co. by Hamilton-based banker and mathematician, Hugh C Baker. In 1903, they moved their offices to a building on the northeast corner of King & Bay Sts in Toronto. In 1929, the company sold their first office building to the Bank of Nova Scotia (now Scotia Plaza) and began building its new head office on University Ave.

The Impressive Architecture & Move

1931 - The Canada Life Assurance Company Building taken just after completion, looking northwest
1931 – The Canada Life Assurance Company Building taken just after completion, looking northwest

Completed in 1931, the historic second-generation skyscraper was designed by prominent Toronto architects, Sproatt & Rolph. Canada Life wanted the building to convey the company’s stability and security while preserving simplicity. The E-shaped structure is made of a steel skeleton and clad with Indiana limestone. On the University Ave facade, above the 3-storey portico are 10 Tuscan columns. The interior has ceilings adorned with gold leaf while the floors, columns and trim are made of different types of marble.

The dignified office building has a 12-storey centre block, a 6-storey tower and 8-storey wings. When constructed, inside there were executive offices, boardrooms, a 17th-floor observation lounge, an assembly hall, hospital, laboratory, a switchboard, cafeteria, elevators, two basements and under Simcoe St, a tunnel leading to a boiler house and garage. The Beaux-Arts style building was supposed to be larger however it had to be scaled back due to the Great Depression.

The move from King and Bay Sts to the new offices on University Ave took 200 people, 40 hours to complete. One of the City’s newspapers called it “one of the greatest overnight treks the city has ever seen”. There were also three Brinks trucks and several police officers on motorcycles to assist in the transfer of millions of dollars in policyholder funds to the new office vaults. That Monday morning, 700 employees started working at the company’s new office.

The Weather Beacon & How to Read It

2020 - The tower and weather beacon on top of the Canada Life Building
2020 – The tower and weather beacon on top of the Canada Life Building

In 1951, the insurance company added a weather beacon. It was the talk of the town. They copied this idea from an insurance company in NYC. In 2019 and after 68 years, the beacon got its first update and switched to LED bulbs – 1,004 of them.

Colours

Light Direction

  • Green = clear
  • Red = cloudy
  • Flashing Red = rain
  • Flashing White = snow
  • Running Up = getting warmer
  • Running Down = getting cooler
  • Steady = no change

Forecasts

  • ‪7 am‬ = morning forecast
  • 11 am‬ = afternoon forecast
  • 3 pm = evening forecast
  • 7 pm‬ = next day forecast

The Company Today

The insurance and wealth management company has been in operation for more than 170 years. It still calls this historic gem home and they have offices throughout Canada as well as in the US, the United Kingdom and Europe.

Did You Know?

  • Before the Canada Life Building, this area of University Ave and Simcoe St was home to many stylish homes.
  • Second-generation skyscrapers are high-rise buildings which are set back from the property line and rise in a series of progressively narrower widths while increasing in height. This allows for sunlight to reach the street.
  • In 1909, a league was formed in Toronto to promote Beaux-Arts planning ideas. University Ave from Front St W to Queen St W was supposed to look like Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Some of the plans included buildings of a certain colour and height, no billboards or illuminated signs and no overhead wires. While part of this plan happened and include the Dominion Public Building, Union Station, the demolished Parker Pen Building and the Canada Life Building, the Great Depression and a vote changed these plans. There was also supposed to be a traffic circle called Vimy Circle (a war memorial) at Richmond St and University Ave.
  • In the early 1970’s, the Sir William Campbell Foundation entered into an agreement with Canada Life and the City. In the agreement, the Campbell House Museum was moved and resides on property owned by the insurance company, directly south of the Canada Life Building.
  • The Toronto landmark received heritage status in 1973.
  • Just north of the Canada Life Building, on the east side once stood Canada’s largest armoury, the University Avenue Armouries.

Canada Life Building Photos

1931 - The Canada Life Assurance Company Building taken just after completion, looking northwest
1931 – The Canada Life Assurance Company Building taken just after completion, looking northwest
2020 - The Canada Life Building, looking northwest
2020 – The Canada Life Building, looking northwest
2020 - The tower and weather beacon on top of the Canada Life Building
2020 – The tower and weather beacon on top of the Canada Life Building
1935/36 - University Ave looking northwest to the Canada Life Assurance Company Building
1935/36 – University Ave looking northwest to the Canada Life Assurance Company Building
2020 - University Ave looking northwest to the Canada Life Building
2020 – University Ave looking northwest to the Canada Life Building
1950 - Aerial view of the Canada Life Assurance Company Building and Osgoode Hall, looking northwest
1950 – Aerial view of the Canada Life Assurance Company Building and Osgoode Hall, looking northwest
1945 - Employees filling at the Canada Life Assurance Company Building (Archives of Ontario I0004509)
1945 – Employees filling at the Canada Life Assurance Company Building (Archives of Ontario I0004509)
1945 - Office employees at the Canada Life Assurance Company Building (Archives of Ontario I0019712)
1945 – Office employees at the Canada Life Assurance Company Building (Archives of Ontario I0019712)
1945 - Employees at their desks at the Canada Life Assurance Company Building (Archives of Ontario I0004508)
1945 – Employees at their desks at the Canada Life Assurance Company Building (Archives of Ontario I0004508)
1931 - An interior boardroom of the Canada Life Assurance Company (Toronto Public Library r-3977)
1931 – An interior boardroom of the Canada Life Assurance Company (Toronto Public Library r-3977)
1930 - Aerial view of downtown Toronto showing University Avenue extension
1930 – Aerial view of downtown Toronto showing University Avenue extension (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 10092)
1930 - Aerial view of University Avenue Armouries and Canada Life Building with bare land on right being cleared for University Ave extension
1930 – Aerial view of University Avenue Armouries and Canada Life Building with bare land on right being cleared for University Ave extension (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7295)
1930 - Raising the last stone to the top of the Canada Life Assurance Company Building, looking southeast
1930 – Raising the last stone to the top of the Canada Life Assurance Company Building, looking southeast
1930 - Construction of Canada Life Assurance Company Building, photo taken from the Star Building at 80 King St W
1930 – Construction of Canada Life Assurance Company Building, photo taken from the Star Building at 80 King St W
2020 - The Canada Life Building, looking west
2020 – The Canada Life Building, looking west
2020 - The entrance to the Canada Life Building
2020 – The entrance to the Canada Life Building
2020 - Sign for the Canada Life Assurance Company
2020 – Sign for the Canada Life Assurance Company
1924 - Future site of the Campbell House Museum and Canada Life Building at Queen St W & University Ave, looking northwest
1924 – Future site of the Campbell House Museum and Canada Life Building at Queen St W & University Ave, looking northwest
1926 - The Canada Life Assurance Co Head Office and Annex once near the northeast corner of King & Bay Sts
1926 – The Canada Life Assurance Co Head Office and Annex once near the northeast corner of King & Bay Sts
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