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Manitoba History: The Buildings of the Winnipeg-Based Union and Northern Crown Banks: A Glimpse into Early Twentieth Century Corporate Architecture

by David Spector
Nepean, Ontario

Number 21, Spring 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In the 1930s the Canadian Banker celebrated contemporary Canadian bank architecture with the publication of articles on the buildings of the Dominion Bank and the Banks of Commerce, Montreal and Toronto. Many of the buildings analyzed constituted neo-classical [*] examples of pre-World War I corporate architectural styles. [1] The Canadian Banker commemorated success, not failure, for the banks mentioned above had survived intact during the mergers of the 1920s. Other less successful financial groups, too, had developed elements of a corporate architectural identity but had been absorbed by stronger banks. Two of these institutions, the Northern Crown Bank and Union Bank were Western-oriented and Winnipeg-based. Prior to their absorption by the Royal Bank, they projected their own brands of architecture across the prairies and to a number of Canada’s major metropolitan centres.

During the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, a national, neo-classical bank architecture emerged in Canada. The strength of Canada’s banks in weathering the 1893 American financial panic fostered in Canadian bankers a sense of pride in the country’s branch banking system. By the late 1890s, Klondike gold enriched bank coffers and offered bankers the financial means to display their newly found wealth. In a prosperous turn of the century Canadian economy, banks required facilities from which to finance the shipment of farm machinery westward from Central Canada and of grain eastward from the prairies. In an industry which confined newspaper advertising to a listing of the bank and its financial assets, identifiable buildings could assist financial institutions in attracting clients. Popularized by the Columbian Exposition of 1893 at Chicago, the rise of Classical Revival architecture enabled Canadian bankers to specify that style for their buildings. By adopting neo-classical architecture, bankers who had come to believe that they were the nation’s financial guardians could express through stone, brick and steel their wealth, good taste, and perhaps trendiness. [2]

The Union Bank welcomed its first clients as an Eastern Canadian institution. Established as the Union Bank of Lower Canada with headquarters in Quebec City in 1865, the Union Bank remained Quebec-based for over four decades. [3] But by the late-nineteenth century, the Union Bank turned its attention to Western Canada. In order to survive, the bank expanded from its limited Anglophone Quebec base. [4] The first branch in Western Canada opened in Winnipeg in 1882. Four years later, the institution shortened its name to the Union Bank of Canada to project a national image. [5] With the completion of a grand Winnipeg edifice in 1905, the Union Bank’s new identity was secure and seven years later, the relocation of corporate headquarters from Quebec to its Winnipeg building reflected its newly-acquired orientation. [6]

At the turn of the century, before Canada’s financial institutions routinely constructed buildings along neo-classical lines, the Union Bank had already established an architectural presence in Western Canada. However, the buildings of the Union Bank like those of other banks had differed widely from one another and failed to project a company image.

At first some of its premises were rented. Photographs indicate that by 1898, the Union Bank occupied space in a variety of buildings with a variety of styles in Winnipeg, Minnedosa, Moosomin, Carberry, Morden, and Neepawa. [7] [See Figure 1.] To replace what were probably rented quarters, the Union Bank erected two of its earliest buildings in Manitoba in Neepawa and Carberry, in 1899 and 1902 respectively. They were dissimilar structures to say the least. Constructed from Portage la Prairie brick, the Neepawa branch was an unornamented two storey Romanesque house-like structure with a pedimented dormer window at attic level on the main facade. [8] In sharp contrast to the simplicity of the Neepawa building, the Union Bank in Carberry was built in a highly adorned Romanesque style. It ascended two storeys and possessed a stone base, brick walls, grand exterior staircase, and a projecting central pavilion flanked by two pedimented dormers. The interior of the Carberry building featured rental offices in the basement and part of the main floor, a well-furnished main floor banking hall with manager’s office at the rear, and a second storey manager’s living quarters. [9]

Figure 1. Union Bank, Neepawa, 1898.
Source: Banks and Banking, The Colonist, vol. 12, no. 8, January 1898.

Toronto architects Darling and Pearson’s new 1905 building in Winnipeg served as a model for many of the Union Bank’s later structures. When the construction announcement was made on 2 August 1902, [10] Darling and Pearson had already established a reputation as important bank architects. In Eastern Canada, this firm and their predecessors Darling and Curry had prepared the design for a number of bank buildings. One of these, the 1885 Bank of Montreal in Toronto, a highly-adorned neo-classical building, was widely acclaimed for its interior layout. [11] By the time of the announcement of the new Union Bank building Darling and Pearson were also an established presence in Winnipeg. Their Dominion Bank, constructed in 1898 at the corner of Main and McDermot, flaunted a highly eclectic neo-classical facade. [12] Winnipeg’s first Canadian Bank of Commerce across the street was another Darling and Pearson creation. Completed in 1900 and possessing a structural steel frame and a highly-adorned neo-classical facade and interior, this edifice represented the state of the art in turn of the century commercial building. [13] Their previous successes made Darling and Pearson a logical choice for designing the Union Bank’s Winnipeg showcase.

To project an image of the Union Bank as a leading financial institution in Western Canada, Darling and Pearson drew plans for a typical skyscraper—a monumental building with rental space and offices above. To potential clients and an enthusiastic press, the building proclaimed the Union Bank’s commitment to technology. Rising eight storeys above a two storey monumental base, the Winnipeg structure at Main and William featured a structural steel frame. [14] The interior of the building was finished in the accepted contemporary manner. To convey an image of wealth and stability, the main banking room boasted a marble floor, marble Ionic columns, and a gold leaf ceiling. Bronze and marble chequing desks and tellers’ cages with bronze grilles completed the arrangement of this space. On the upper floors, twelve foot high ceilings and oak-panelled offices marked the building as representative of the highest quality of rental structures. [15]

Exterior style set Winnipeg’s Union Bank apart from the structures of many competing financial institutions. At street level, the colonnade favoured by other banks was replaced by a two storey high Romanesque base topped by a decorative balustrade and an unadorned third floor the same size as the base. Minor ornamentation adorned the upper office floors. Constructed of ochre brick, the outer walls featured radiating voussoirs above each window. At its upper level the structure received rather unusual decorative treatment. Darling and Pearson specified a decorative Sullivanesque terra cotta frieze with porthole windows and an enormous overhanging cornice to supplant the more common pilastered frieze. [16] The stylistic ingredients of this building comprised of the Romanesque facade, Sullivanesque frieze and overhanding cornice separated the Union Bank from its Winnipeg competition (with the exception of the Merchants Bank) and constituted a model for other structures of this institution. [See Figure 2.] In overall effect, the building was distinguishable from other banks as a result of its unadorned and column-free street level facade and its extensive ornamentation just below roof level.

Figure 2. Union Bank, Winnipeg. Under construction, 20 July 1904.
Source: Cyclopedia of Architecture, Carpentry, Building (Chicago: American Technical Society, 1909).

Architects duplicated the profile and stylistic details of the Winnipeg edifice in both Toronto and Ottawa Union Bank regional offices. Situated at King and Bay Streets, the Toronto building was completed in 1912 from plans prepared by Darling and Pearson. [17] In Ottawa, on Metcalfe and Sparks Streets, local architect W. E. Noffke designed the Union Bank branch completed in 1919. [18] Like the Winnipeg structure, both the Toronto and Ottawa buildings possessed multiple storeys; the former rose five storeys while the latter ascended ten. Both buildings displayed contemporary technology in building materials and contemporary taste in interior furnishings. The Toronto edifice features a terra cotta facade likely over a structural steel or reinforced concrete frame while the Ottawa structure possessed a Stanstead granite and Ohio sandstone facing over a reinforced concrete skeleton. The interiors of the buildings were adorned with the marble floors and counters, bronze tellers’ cages, and mahogany walled offices so common among bank buildings. But the exteriors clearly identified these structures as Union Banks. Like the earlier Winnipeg building neither possessed columns. Instead, these buildings displayed a simple profile featuring large main floor windows either Romanesque or rectangular, several storeys of offices, and a huge adorned overhanging cornice. [19]

The Union Bank erected substantial offices in Edmonton and Vancouver. From plans by Edmonton architect Roland Lines and Vancouver architects Somerville and Putnam, branches in these two cities opened in 1910 and 1921 respectively. Both buildings utilized contemporary technology. Structural steel was used on the Edmonton building and reinforced concrete on the Vancouver branch. The interiors of the main floor banking halls bore a striking similarity to the hall at the Winnipeg headquarters. But the exteriors of the two buildings were neo-classical. The Edmonton branch more closely resembled the colonnaded neo-classicism of the Canadian Bank of Commerce at Main and Lombard Streets in Winnipeg than it did other Union Banks while the Vancouver office displayed an eclecticism of its own. The Edmonton building did share a few exterior features with corporate headquarters—main floor Romanesque windows and a huge over-hanging cornice. On the Vancouver branch, only the overhanging cornice, a common element in bank design, reflected the corporate style. [20] [See Figure 3.]

Figure 3. Union Bank, Vancouver, British Columbia, post 1925. Note that the building was acquired by the Bank of Toronto after the absorption of the Union Bank by the Royal in 1925.
Source: Vancouver Public Library, Photo VPL 22362.

Like other financial institutions, the Union Bank opened branches in the emerging towns of the Prairie West and in the suburbs of a rapidly expanding Winnipeg. Contemporary photographs, plans, and city directories reveal the existence of branches in Yorkton, Indian Head, Humboldt, Kindersley, and Milestone, Saskatchewan, in Hanna and Wainwright, Alberta; in Minnedosa, and other towns in Manitoba; as well as at several locations in north and central Winnipeg. [21]

Two buildings, one in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and the other on Logan Avenue in Winnipeg, epitomized the small branch manifestation of the corporate architectural identity. The Yorkton branch was designed in 1906 by Darling and Pearson while the Logan Avenue branch was built in 1910 from plans by Winnipeg architects Jordan and Over (formerly Darling and Pearson associates). Except in the most minute detail, both buildings shared a similar design. The Yorkton branch measured 46 feet, 10 inches in length by 25 feet in width while the Logan Avenue building was 50 feet by 25 feet. Both buildings constituted two storey masonry structures. They had main floor banking rooms with maple floors and oak trim and a second storey designed for staff living quarters. Like branches of the Bank of Montreal at Stradbrook and Osborne in Winnipeg and on Rosser Avenue in Brandon, the buildings were totally devoid of columns and pediments. Instead they featured the usual Union Bank trademarks—simple unadorned facades with a combination of rectangular and Romanesque windows, extensive stone trim and huge overhanging cornices. [22]

The Union Bank erected small branches on a more modest scale than the Yorkton and suburban Winnipeg branches. The buildings in Minnedosa, Manitoba and Wainwright, Alberta typify this most basic of banking halls. Essentially these buildings constituted square brick boxes. The Minnedosa and Wainwright structures possessed two storeys with the usual main entrance to the left flanked by a large window. The main and side elevations were illuminated by unadorned vertical windows instead of the stone-trimmed Romanesque windows with voussoirs common to the larger branches. The brick construction, the absence of columns, the window configuration and the presence of large cornices marked these structures as Union Banks. [23]

By 1920, a sizeable number of Union Bank buildings could be distinguished from other financial institutions by their lack of colonades and pediments. Corporate headquarters in Winnipeg, regional offices in Ottawa and Toronto and branches in a variety of prairie centres shared several elements of a common architecture.

Unlike the Union Bank, which was a transplanted Eastern Canadian institution, the Northern Crown Bank was established by Western Canadian businessmen. First known as the Northern Bank, it opened for business in 1905 and boasted among its directors James Ashdown, Winnipeg’s leading wholesaler, Sir Daniel McMillan, the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, and Manitoba Premier Rodmond P. Roblin. [24] From its Winnipeg base, the Northern Bank quickly expanded into a number of Manitoba and Saskatchewan centres. Soon its directors turned their eyes eastward. The Crown Bank, a Toronto financial concern founded in 1903 by Hamilton manufacturer Edward Gurney, was absorbed by the Northern in 1908. [25] The enlarged institution became known as the Northern Crown Bank.

In contrast to the Union Bank, Northern Crown buildings shared few elements of a corporate architecture. To lure clients from the longer-established banks, the Northern experimented with a variety of styles—sometimes on the same building. The flagship building in Winnipeg reflected this policy. Rather than constructing a corporate headquarters, in 1905 the Northern Bank purchased an existing structure and expanded it by two storeys. In enlarged form, its five storey Winnipeg structure reflected the garrishness and flamboyance of late-nineteenth century neo-classicism in the first three storeys, but also revealed the more subdued ornamentation of the twentieth in the upper two. [26] [See Figure 4.] In 1910, the bank called upon Winnipeg architect George W. Northwood to expand and re-model this structure. (Northwood had carried out the original re-modelling and expansion). To meet the bank’s growing business needs, he prepared plans for a twenty by one hundred feet addition. In the interior he added the usual touches expected by the banking public—modern elevators, a marble floor, and bronze tellers’ cages. But the greatest transformation occurred on the exterior. The highly-adorned neo-classical facade gave way to a reserved and unornamented cream-coloured terra cotta exterior. [27] The Northern Crown headquarters became the only early twentieth century Canadian bank headquarters to be clothed in two consecutive forms of neo-classicism.

Figure 4. Northern Bank, Winnipeg, 1905.
Source: Manitoba Free Press, Building Number, November 1905.

Experimentation constituted the Northern Crown’s architectural hallmark, and the Regina, Saskatchewan branch featured some of the most picturesque neo-classicism of the period. Designed in 1906 by Blair and Northwood of Winnipeg, a partnership of an Irish born engineer and an Ottawa born and McGill University trained architect, the building cost $115,000 and boasted one of Western Canada’s first commercial applications of reinforced concrete construction. [28] By prairie standards the structure was immense. Situated next to Regina’s new Tudor revival style Post Office, the edifice fronted on busy Scarth Street for fifty-two feet and ascended five storeys skyward. [29] But styling as well as technology set this structure apart from other regional bank offices. Finished in stone, the first two storeys featured Romanesque and vertical windows, respectively. These windows were divided by one of the most elaborate small colonnades and pediments seen in Western Canada. Upper floors received brick facing and an abrupt stylistic change. On the second and third floors, Romanesque fenestration flanked banks of four vertical windows. An unusual fifth storey completed the building. Set apart by pilastered stonework, the top floor broke again with the established fenestration pattern by featuring six identical vertical windows. In overall effect, the building looked like a bank, but was unlike any other neo-classical bank ever erected in Canada. [See Figure 5.]

Figure 5. Northern Bank, Regina, Saskatchewan, no date.
Source: Saskatchewan Archives Board, Regina, Chamber of Commerce Album, page 5.

Like its competitor the Union Bank, the Northern Crown expanded to rural and suburban areas. Among places selected for branches were Red Deer, Alberta; Qu’Appelle and Manor, Saskatchewan; Melita and Beausejour, Manitoba; and at least one suburban Winnipeg location. While the Northern designed its branches in a variety of styles, the identical buildings at Qu’Appelle and Melita displayed some of the most distinctive small bank architecture produced in early twentieth century Canada.

Announced in 1906 and probably an effort of the firm of Blair and Northwood, the Qu’Appelle branch bore a resemblance to the Regina regional office. [30] Extending two storeys in height, it shared with Regina a small pediment, second storey stonework in the image of pilasters, and upper floor vertical windows. But here the similarities ended. Instead of a colonnade the architects borrowed from the work of Louis Sullivan and specified a grand arch extending the width of the entire main floor flanked by two buffalo head ornaments. Topped by a second storey entablature and highly decorative balustrade, the building conveyed an image of strength and stability. [See Figure 6.] The blend of neo-classical and Sullivanesque elements with the buffalo head symbol suggests that the Northern sought to establish a corporate image based on an identification with the Prairie West and architectural innovation, but with a respect for conservative design.

Figure 6. Northern Crown Bank, Melita, Manitoba, 1967.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Melita-1.

The evident costliness of the materials that were used may have led the Northern Crown to abandon the unique Melita/Qu’Appelle type. The edifice at Beausejour, Manitoba was simply a square box with a pedimented portico at its main entrance. [31] In Winnipeg at the corner of Portage and Sherbrook the Northern Crown Bank (now demolished) stood unadorned in its neo-classical simplicity except for an entrance flanked by a pair of two storey high unfluted Ionic columns. [32] [See Figure 7.] In Red Deer, Alberta the Northern Crown’s building, a two storey brick pilastered structure with a heavily ornamented pedimented portico, large radiating voussoirs over the main floor windows, and a highly adorned and substantial cornice could have passed as a branch of the Royal Bank or Bank of Montreal. [33]

Figure 7. Northern Crown Bank, Portage and Sherbrook Streets, Winnipeg, circa 1979, now demolished.
Source: Photo by author, circa 1979.

At the height of its prosperity the Northern Crown Bank failed to produce a cohesive corporate architecture. However, it had erected distinctive buildings in Regina, Qu’Appelle, and Melita. The early small bank designs of this institution are among the most original of their kind. The later Northern Crown designs were less successful aesthetically.

As a post-World War I recession followed the heady earlier days of settlement and growth, the expansion of financial institutions into the Prairie West and across Canada ended. Banks started to compete with one another for a fixed or declining market. The smaller and regional banks, including the Bank of British North America, Molson’s, Merchants, Ottawa and Hamilton, were absorbed by the big four—the Royal Bank, Canadian Bank of Commerce, Bank of Montreal and Bank of Nova Scotia. The Northern Crown was the first to succumb. It was in financial difficulties as early as 1914 as a result of questionable loans and declining values of its stocks and bonds. It was taken over by the Royal Bank in 1918. [34] The Union Bank survived an additional seven years. Having expanded its banking facilities for an anticipated post war boom, it too became a victim of the recession. In 1925 the Union Bank was absorbed by the Royal. [35]

The Union and Northern Crown Banks left behind an interesting architectural legacy. To compete with the larger banks, both Winnipeg-based institutions erected structures which differed in some respects from the period’s accepted colonnaded neo-classicism. Buildings of the Union Bank still stand in Ottawa and Winnipeg while the Northern Crown’s banks in Qu’Appelle and Melita remain local landmarks.


* Definitions of Architectural Terms

Neo-Classical: Buildings based on Greek and Roman architectural orders which were constructed in the late nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth. These buildings were distinguished by pedimented porticos flanked by a series of columns.

Romanesque: A transitional style between Roman and Gothic which enjoyed a revival in the nineteenth century. It was based on the rounded arch. Door openings and windows are topped by semi-circular arches.

Sullivanesque: A style based upon the architecture of Louis Sullivan (b. 1856, d. 1924). Facades frequently possess huge rounded openings. Relief ornamentation can appear almost anywhere including below the cornice (decorative frieze).

Tudor Revival: A style based on the architecture of fifteenth and sixteenth century England. The style featured steep-sided gables and bay windows.

Sources: John J. G. Blumenson, Identifying American Architecture (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977); Marcus Whiffen, American Architecture Since 1780—A Guide to the Styles (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1969).

The author wishes to thank Randy R. Rostecki for his useful comments and suggestions.

1. See C. P. Liebich, “The Architecture of Bank of Montreal Buildings,” Canadian Banker, vol. 44, no. 1, October, 1936; Walter R. Blackwell, “Bank Architecture and the Bank of Toronto,” Canadian Banker, vol. 45, no. 1, October, 1937; James Nicholl, “Buildings of the Canadian Bank of Commerce,” Canadian Banker, vol. 45, no. 2, January, 1938; John M. Lyle, “Dominion Bank Architecture,” Canadian Banker, vol. 45, no. 3, April, 1938.

2. The ideas presented in this paragraph have been developed in David Spector, Monuments to Finance—Three Winnipeg Banks, vol. 1 (Winnipeg: City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee, December, 1980), pp. 3-12; Monuments to Finance—Early Bank Architecture in Winnipeg, vol. 2, (Winnipeg: City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee, 1982), pp. 3-15.

3. See David Spector, Monuments to Finance, vol. 2, p. 7.

4. See Ronald Rudin, Banking en francais —The French Banks of Quebec, 1835-1925 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), p. 75.

5. Spector, vol. 2, p. 7.

6. Ibid.

7. “Banks and Banking,” The Colonist, (Winnipeg, Manitoba), vol. 12, no. 8, January 1898, unpaginated.

8. Neepawa - An Architectural Walking Tour, (Winnipeg: Manitoba Culture, Heritage & Recreation, 1987), unpaginated.

9. “Banks and Banking”; “Union Bank of Canada,” Carberry Express, 10 April 1902.

10. “New Sky-Scraper for Main Street,” Winnipeg Morning Telegram, 2 August 1902.

11. “Bank of Montreal-Toronto Branch,” The Monetary Times, 24 December 1886, pp. 728-29.

12. See Spector, vol. 2, pp. 27-28.

13. “Palatial Premises - Magnificent New Building of Canadian Bank of Commerce in Winnipeg the Most Complete in the Dominion,” Manitoba Free Press, 25 October 1900.

14. See Spector, vol. 2, pp. 33-35.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. “Bank Designed in Glazed Terra Cotta,” Construction (Toronto, Ontario), January, 1912, pp. 62-64.

18. “New Union Bank Building, Ottawa,” Construction, August, 1919, pp. 229-32.

19. Ibid.

20. David Spector, “Edmonton Bank Architecture, The Neo-Classical Age, 1904-1914,” Alberta History, vol. 43, no. 1 (Winter, 1986), pp. 16-18; “New Union Bank, Vancouver, B.C.” Construction, July, 1921, pp. 206-09.

21. See Saskatchewan Archives Board, Regina, Photograph Collection - Union Bank, Indian Head (RB-105), Union Bank, Humboldt (RA-160), Union Bank, Kindersley (RA 9376-9); Glenbow Foundation Archives, Calgary, Photograph Collection- Union Bank, Hanna (NA-3596-167); David Spector, vol. 2, pp. 62-65; 80-81.

22. Saskatchewan Archives Board, Regina, Royal Bank of Canada. Architectural Drawings, Union Bank of Canada, Yorkton, May, 1906.

23. See Minnedosa - Valley Views (Minnedosa: Centennial Committee, 1982), pp. 36-37; Glenbow Foundation Archives, Photograph Collection, Union Bank, Wainwright (NA-3774-175).

24. “New Bank being Formed,” Toronto Star, 18 April 1903; “Two Strong Banks Welded,” Winnipeg Morning Telegram, 6 January 1908.

25. “Another Bank being Formed,” Toronto Star, 18 April 1903; “Two Strong Banks Welded,” Winnipeg Morning Telegram, 6 January 1908.

26. “Head Office of the Northern Bank,” Winnipeg Telegram, 21 August 1905.

27. “The Northern Crown Bank,” Winnipeg Telegram, 11 October 1910.

28. See “Third of Million Month’s Buildings,” Regina Standard, 5 September 1906; “Architects and Engineers,” Winnipeg Saturday Post, 8 June 1912; “G. W. Northwood City Architect,” Winnipeg Tribune, 15 December 1959 in Manitoba Legislative Library Scrapbook, B11, p. 264.

29. “Third of Million Month’s Buildings.”

30. “Elevation of Northern Bank at South Qu’Appelle,” Winnipeg Telegram, 11 August 1906.

31. Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Photograph Collection - N4972, Beausejour - Northern Crown Bank, c. 1913.

32. See Spector, vol. 2, pp. 91-93.

33. Glenbow Foundation Archives, Calgary, Photograph Collection, NA-3774-148, Photograph of Northern Crown Bank, Red Deer, Alberta, pre 1918.

34. “A Bank Merger?” The Monetary Times, 14 January 1916, p. 9; “Royal Bank Absorbs Northern Crown,” The Monetary Times, 15 March 1918, pp. 25-26.

35. Spector, vol. 2, p. 36.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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