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
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
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.