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 first insurance company 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
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. Above the 3-storey portico are 10 Tuscan columns on the University Ave facade. 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, there were executive offices, boardrooms, a 17th-floor observation lounge, an assembly hall, a hospital, a laboratory, a switchboard, a 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 and 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
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.
- Green = clear
- Red = cloudy
- Flashing Red = rain
- Flashing White = snow
- Running Up = getting warmer
- Running Down = getting cooler
- Steady = no change
- 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 operating for more than 170 years. It still calls this historic gem home, and they have offices throughout Canada, the US, the United Kingdom and Europe.
Did You Know?
- Before the Canada Life Building, the University Ave and Simcoe St area was home to many stylish homes.
- Second-generation skyscrapers are high-rise buildings that 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 plans included buildings of a specific colour and height, no billboards or illuminated signs and no overhead wires. While part of this plan happened and included 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 1970s, 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
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 330 University Ave
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 330 University Ave
- City of Toronto: Canada Life Building – history – weather beacon
- Canada Life: Our history
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & Archives of Ontario