Toronto’s Early Banks

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Lots of history

Yonge Street has become the main street of Toronto but the city didn’t start there. The original town of York started in a small ten block section east of there. The town of York was bounded by George, Berkley, Adelaide and Front Streets and the oldest bank building in the city is to be found there.

The Bank of Upper Canada opened in 1821 in a local store and they began work on their new building in 1825. It opened in 1827 and because it was owned and operated by The Family Compact it came under constant attack from reformers. It was a target of the failed Rebellion of Dec. 1837. The building housed the bank until it failed in 1866 after which it had several uses before being abandoned by the late 1970’s. It was restored in 1982 and now serves as office spaces. The bank issued bank notes between 1822 and 1861 and ones in poor condition can sell for $750 in today’s market. More about the building can be found in our story Toronto’s First Post Office.

The Bank of Toronto was founded in 1855 by a group of grain dealers and flour mill operators including Gooderham and Worts. Throughout most of the 19th century the bank had farmers as their primary customers. By the 1880’s and 90’s they had started to extend loans to manufacturing, utilities and natural resource companies. Between 1856 and 1937 the bank issued several series of bank notes that continue to be collected today. In 1856 the bank opened their first branch at 78 Church Street. It was located in the building which is now numbered 80 Church Street and has the three small dormers on the top floor in the picture below.

The archive photo below was taken from the York University Library collection and is dated July 7, 1956. At this time the building was still numbered as 78 Church Street and the bank had recently merged with the Dominion Bank in 1955 to form the Toronto Dominion Bank (TD).

The Bank of British North America was founded by Royal Charter in London in 1836. It opened its first branch in Toronto in 1845 on the corner of Yonge Street and Wellington Street. Thirty years later it opened a new building at 49 Yonge Street and issued its own bank notes from 1852 until 1911. It merged with the Bank of Montreal in 1918.

The Bank of Montreal was founded in 1817 and was the first chartered bank in Canada. It served as the central bank for the country until the founding of the Bank of Canada in 1935. Legislation in 1824 prevented the bank from serving the town of York but it got its break in 1840 when it took over The Bank of The People. This was a reformer bank started in 1835 to provide loans to farmers that the Bank of Upper Canada wouldn’t serve. The Family Compact didn’t like the direct competition of reformers and plotted to have the bank taken over by the Bank of Montreal. In 1885 they opened a branch at Yonge and Front Streets and this building is one of the few in this area that survived the great fire of 1904. The building was designated in 1976 for its heritage value as one of the finest examples of 19th century bank buildings in Canada. It is now home to The Hockey Hall of Fame.

A little farther north on Yonge Street the Bank of Montreal opened another branch in 1887. Somewhat less ornate than the one built at Front Street two years earlier it survives today as an A & W restaurant.

Traders Bank of Canada was formed in Toronto in 1885 and survived until it was acquired by the Royal Bank of Canada in 1912. It was popular in rural Ontario but built a 15 story skyscraper on the corner of Yonge and King Streets in 1905. It was the tallest building in the British Empire upon completion, a title it would only hold until 1911. It was the first skyscraper in Toronto and one of the few remaining from the early 20th century. It is currently undergoing some restorations.

The Canadian Bank of Commerce was founded in 1867 by a group of Toronto businessmen. It grew rapidly and by 1907 had 172 locations across Canada. In 1961 they merged with The Imperial Bank of Canada to form the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce or CIBC. In 1905 they built this impressive 4 story building at 199 Yonge Street which has been preserved as part of the Massey Tower condos.

The Bank of Toronto erected a building at 205 Yonge Street in 1905 to a design by Toronto architect E. J. Lennox. He is famous for designing Old City hall and Casa Loma. This small building looks more imposing than its four stories because of the dome on top.

The Dominion Bank was founded in Toronto in 1869. In 1914 they constructed The Dominion Bank Building at the corner of King and Yonge Streets to replace the head office that had been located there since 1879. The building is 12 stories tall and was one of the earliest skyscrapers in the city. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts style with Renaissance Revival detailing.

On June 19, 1929 the Canadian Bank of Commerce started construction on their new 34 story building. When it was completed in 1931 it was the tallest building in the British Empire, a status that it held for the next 30 years while it served as head office for the bank. The site was originally home to a small wood chapel for York’s first Wesleyan Methodist Church starting in 1818. In 1887 the Canadian Bank of Commerce demolished a theatre on the site and built a 7 story head office which stood until 1927 when it too was razed for the current building.

The Dominion Bank built a new branch in 1930 at the corner of Yonge and Gerrard Streets. The building was designed in a simplified classical style is the work of prominent Toronto architect John M. Lyle and has fine detailing on the front and sides. Images of native plants and animals along with Canadian history adorn the building.

Following the Second World War designs had been simplified when the Bank of Nova Scotia built this branch in 1949. The Modern Classicism is enhanced with the rounded corner and smooth cladding.

In 1975 the Bank of Montreal completed their 298 metre tall building called First Bank Building in honour of the banks status as Canada’s first bank. It is the tallest building in Canada and only two metres short of being classified as our only Supertall Building. Two Supertalls are under construction and four more are in the planning phases. When they are completed it will be the first time in over 100 years that a bank building hasn’t been the tallest on Toronto’s skyline.

The banks have always held some of the most prominent buildings in the city, either in architectural design or for their height. It is only in the next couple of years that new condos will surpass the bank buildings in height but who knows how long that will last before a grander bank tower is constructed.

Associated blogs: The Rebellion of 1837, Toronto’s First Post Office, The Distillery District.

Google Maps Link : Yonge and Dundas

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5 thoughts on “Toronto’s Early Banks

  1. Leslie M Kuretzky

    My Late dad would have just LOVED this story. He always drove me to the Upper Canada Bank building and proudly told me all about it. Thank you yet another fabulous article.

    Reply
  2. anita steins

    This was a interesting read. Thanks. My mother used to work at another lovely bank building. It was the CIBC that used to sit at the SE corner of Yonge and Queen, It was demolished a number of years ago but I do remember the impressive entrance with the sweeping marble staircase. My mother said this branch was rarely robbed because thieves couldn’t navigate the stairs when trying to escape.

    Reply
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