Confederation Life Building – Toronto’s Dramatic Architecture

1890s – Looking along Richmond St, across Yonge St toward the Confederation Life Building in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The building stretches an entire block from Yonge St to Victoria St. Notice the structure originally had a taller centre tower and was topped with several pinnacles
1890s – Looking along Richmond St, across Yonge St toward the Confederation Life Building in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The building stretches an entire block from Yonge St to Victoria St (Toronto Public Library E9-90)

The Confederation Life Building is located at ‪20 Richmond St E‬ (between Yonge St and Victoria St on the north side) in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto.

Confederation Life Insurance Company was founded in Toronto in 1871 by John Kay Macdonald and a group of high-profile businesspeople. In 1889, the company held an international competition to design its prestigious head office, the Confederation Life Building. The architect team of Knox, Elliot & Jarvis (of Chicago and Toronto) was awarded the top prize.

Construction began in 1890, and the Confederation Life Building was formally opened in 1893. Not only was it the tallest structure in Toronto, but it was also considered one of the city’s grandest and most state-of-the-art office buildings.

Majestic Confederation Life Building

2021 – The seven-storey Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E and Yonge St was once the tallest building in Toronto
2021 – The seven-storey Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E and Yonge St was once the tallest building in Toronto

The massive seven-storey red sandstone building includes both Romanesque Revival and Gothic design elements. It was originally topped with several pinnacles, while the central tower on Richmond St E facade once stood 65 m or 214 ft tall and featured intricate stone tracery. Two towers mark the Yonge St and Victoria St corners. Other architectural highlights include decorative wishbone window surrounds and a steep hipped roof.

Inside the office building, the main entrance and hall were lined with marble and paved with mosaic tiles. The general interior was finished with white oak. The 80 vaults inside the building were said to be fireproof. Employees and visitors could access the upper floors by the main staircase or one of four elevators. Each room had both electric lighting and gas, plus large windows for good light and ventilation. On the top floor was a large assembly hall, a supper room, a lounge and more. While a large portion of the landmark was used by the insurance company, there were also offices available for rent.

Alterations in 1899

Just six years after opening, the Confederation Life Building underwent alterations. Since the building was located in the retail centre of Toronto, management wanted to give the building an update to add more window space for ground floor shops. They commissioned architect James Wilson Gray for the redesign. On the lower part of the building, heavy masonry bulk was removed, and delicately carved slender columns and steel supports were added. The elaborate stone carvings on the facade are both classical and Medieval and include faces, dragons, lions, grapes, grape leaves, acorns, oak leaves and more.

The building was home to the Confederation Life Association until 1955. The company went out of business in 1994; however, the liquidation process took several years to complete.

A Fire at the Heritage Building

June 18, 1981 - Looking west across Victoria St from Richmond St E, at the Confederation Life Building after the fire
June 18, 1981 – Looking west across Victoria St from Richmond St E, at the Confederation Life Building after the fire (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 101)

The City of Toronto gave the majestic Confederation Life Building heritage status in 1973.

In 1981, a fire roared through the historic building while the landmark was being renovated. It suffered a lot of damage, but it was a heritage property and was saved from demolition. Most of the building was restored.

Today, the building is home to many shops, restaurants, businesses and medical offices.

Confederation Life Building Photos

1890s – Looking along Richmond St, across Yonge St toward the Confederation Life Building in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The building stretches an entire block from Yonge St to Victoria St. Notice the structure originally had a taller centre tower and was topped with several pinnacles
1890s – Looking along Richmond St, across Yonge St toward the Confederation Life Building in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The building stretches an entire block from Yonge St to Victoria St. Notice the structure originally had a taller centre tower and was topped with several pinnacles (Toronto Public Library E9-90)
1910 - A postcard of the Confederation Life Building looking northeast towards Yonge St and Richmond St E
1910 – A postcard of the Confederation Life Building looking northeast towards Yonge St and Richmond St E (Toronto Public Library PCR-2172)
2021 – The seven-storey Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E and Yonge St was once the tallest building in Toronto
2021 – The seven-storey Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E and Yonge St was once the tallest building in Toronto
Circa 1892 - An aerial view looking northwest towards the Confederation Life Building from Richmond St E and Victoria St
Circa 1892 – An aerial view looking northwest towards the Confederation Life Building from Richmond St E and Victoria St (Archives of Ontario I0001812)
2022 – The Confederation Life Building on Richmond St E stretches an entire block from Victoria St to Yonge St
2022 – The Confederation Life Building on Richmond St E stretches an entire block from Victoria St to Yonge St
2020 – The Confederation Life Building's architectural style includes both Romanesque Revival and French Gothic elements
2020 – The Confederation Life Building’s architectural style includes both Romanesque Revival and French Gothic elements
1950s - Looking northeast towards Confederation Life Building at the intersection of Yonge St and Richmond St. Notice the building’s pinnacles have been removed and the centre tower on the Richmond St E façade is no longer as tall
1950s – Looking northeast towards Confederation Life Building at the intersection of Yonge St and Richmond St. Notice the building’s pinnacles have been removed and the centre tower on the Richmond St E façade is no longer as tall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567, Series 577, Item 108)
2021 - The main entrance of the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E features elaborate sandstone carvings
2021 – The main entrance of the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E features elaborate sandstone carvings
1961 - Looking northwest from Richmond St E and Victoria St towards the Confederation Life Building. Notice the Saphire Tavern once occupied the first-floor corner of the building. A British American Oil Co gas station was once at the intersection's southeast corner
1961 – Looking northwest from Richmond St E and Victoria St towards the Confederation Life Building. Notice the Saphire Tavern once occupied the first-floor corner of the building. A British American Oil Co gas station was once at the intersection’s southeast corner (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 1, ID 62)
1972 – The Saphire Tavern was once located inside the Confederation Life Building on the northwest corner of Richmond St E and Victoria St. The Saphire Tavern was one of the legendary venues that helped define Yonge Street’s music history
1972 – The Saphire Tavern was once located inside the Confederation Life Building on the northwest corner of Richmond St E and Victoria St. The Saphire Tavern was one of the legendary venues that helped define Yonge Street’s music history (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 17, Item 22)
1973 - Looking west along Richmond St E from just east of Victoria St
1973 – Looking west along Richmond St E from just east of Victoria St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 1)
2022 – Looking northwest from Richmond St E and Victoria St towards the Confederation Life Building
2022 – Looking northwest from Richmond St E and Victoria St towards the Confederation Life Building
1979 – Looking northwest from Victoria St toward the main facade of the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St. Notice the Fotomat kiosk in the parking lot
1979 – Looking northwest from Victoria St toward the main facade of the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St. Notice the Fotomat kiosk in the parking lot (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 20)
1980 – An aerial view looking northwest toward the Confederation Life Building at Richmond St E and Victoria St. Notice the Eaton Centre in the background
1980 – An aerial view looking northwest toward the Confederation Life Building at Richmond St E and Victoria St. Notice the Eaton Centre in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File3, ID 71)
February 27, 1981 - The main Richmond St entrance of the Confederation Life Building during renovations
February 27, 1981 – The main Richmond St entrance of the Confederation Life Building during renovations (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 30)
April 1, 1981 – The Richmond St E entrance of the Confederation Life Building during renovations
April 1, 1981 – The Richmond St E entrance of the Confederation Life Building during renovations (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 36)
May 1, 1981 - Looking northeast from Yonge St and Richmond St E towards the Confederation Life Building during restoration. Notice the burgundy Simpson's department store truck on the right
May 1, 1981 – Looking northeast from Yonge St and Richmond St E towards the Confederation Life Building during restoration. Notice the burgundy Simpson’s department store truck on the right (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 92)
June 18, 1981 - Looking west on Richmond St from east of Victoria St at Toronto Fire Services extinguishing a fire at the Confederation Life Building. While the landmark was undergoing renovations, a fire roared through the building
June 18, 1981 – Looking west on Richmond St from east of Victoria St at Toronto Fire Services extinguishing a fire at the Confederation Life Building. While the landmark was undergoing renovations, a fire roared through the building (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 62, Item 72)
June 18, 1981 - During renovations, a fire tore through the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E. Notice the yellow police car on the right
June 18, 1981 – During renovations, a fire tore through the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E. Notice the yellow police car on the right (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 103)
April 7, 1982 – Looking northwest from Victoria St and Lombard St toward the Confederation Life Building during restoration
April 7, 1982 – Looking northwest from Victoria St and Lombard St toward the Confederation Life Building during restoration (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 29, Item 138)
2021 – The Confederation Life Building is located at 20 Richmond St E between Yonge St and Victoria St. The architect team of Knox, Elliot & Jarvis designed the historic structure
2021 – The Confederation Life Building is located at 20 Richmond St E between Yonge St and Victoria St. The architect team of Knox, Elliot & Jarvis designed the historic structure
Circa 1930 - Looking west across Victoria St from Richmond St E. Notice in the foreground the Confederation Life Building on the right
Circa 1930 – Looking west across Victoria St from Richmond St E. Notice in the foreground the Confederation Life Building on the right (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 417)
2022– Looking west from Richmond St E and Victoria St towards the Confederation Life Building on the right
2022– Looking west from Richmond St E and Victoria St towards the Confederation Life Building on the right
2020 – A face along with grapes and grape leaves carved into the stone capitals on the Confederation Life Building
2020 – A face along with grapes and grape leaves carved into the stone capitals on the Confederation Life Building
2020 – Carved sandstone decorations on the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E
2020 – Carved sandstone decorations on the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E
2020 – Grapes and grape leaves carved into the sandstone pillars' capitals at the Confederation Life Building
2020 – Grapes and grape leaves carved into the sandstone pillars’ capitals at the Confederation Life Building
2020 – A dragon, oak leaves and acorns carved into the sandstone over the main entrance of the Confederation Life Building in downtown Toronto
2020 – A dragon, oak leaves and acorns carved into the sandstone over the main entrance of the Confederation Life Building in downtown Toronto
2021 - Looking up at the main entrance of the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E. The magnificent building was home to the Confederation Life Association until 1955
2021 – Looking up at the main entrance of the Confederation Life Building at 20 Richmond St E. The magnificent building was home to the Confederation Life Association until 1955
1903 – Looking north from Yonge St and Temperance St towards the tall Confederation Life Building on the right located at Yonge St and Richmond St E. Notice the Dineen Building in the foreground on the left, a hat and fur manufacturer, which is today home to Dineen Coffee Co
1903 – Looking north from Yonge St and Temperance St towards the tall Confederation Life Building on the right located at Yonge St and Richmond St E. Notice the Dineen Building in the foreground on the left, a hat and fur manufacturer, which is today home to Dineen Coffee Co (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 311)
2022– Looking north up Yonge St from south of Temperance St. Notice the Confederation Life Building halfway up on the right at Richmond St E
2022– Looking north up Yonge St from south of Temperance St. Notice the Confederation Life Building halfway up on the right at Richmond St E
1922 – Looking west from Richmond St E and Berti St in the St Lawrence neighbourhood
1922 – Looking west from Richmond St E and Berti St in the St Lawrence neighbourhood (Toronto Public Library R-6000)
2021 – Looking west from Richmond St E and Berti St in the St Lawrence neighbourhood. Notice the Confederation Life Building in the distance
2021 – Looking west from Richmond St E and Berti St in the St Lawrence neighbourhood. Notice the Confederation Life Building in the distance
2020 – The heritage plaque reads: Confederation Life Building 1892 "Once one of Toronto's grandest office buildings, this landmark served as the headquarters of the Confederation Life Association until 1955. Plans for the building arose from an international competition won by Knox, Elliot and Jarvis, architects. The design incorporates Romanesque and French Gothic architectural elements and originally featured decorative pinnacles and a taller central tower with elaborate stone tracery. Revitalized in the early 1980s, the building remains an important part of Toronto's architectural heritage." Designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, 1975 - Heritage Toronto 2009
2020 – The heritage plaque reads:

Confederation Life Building 1892

“Once one of Toronto’s grandest office buildings, this landmark served as the headquarters of the Confederation Life Association until 1955. Plans for the building arose from an international competition won by Knox, Elliot and Jarvis, architects. The design incorporates Romanesque and French Gothic architectural elements and originally featured decorative pinnacles and a taller central tower with elaborate stone tracery. Revitalized in the early 1980s, the building remains an important part of Toronto’s architectural heritage.”

Designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, 1975 – Heritage Toronto 2009
SOURCE