The Original Starchitect; Many of the city's landmarks came to be because John M. Lyle seized an opportunity
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 30 May 2009)

Toronto's careless habit of forgetting its past has made John M. Lyle far more obscure than he deserves to be. Many of us know two prominent monuments to his career but few know that he was among the most influential builders of the city. Lyle played a major role in creating Union Station, which after 82 years remains a busy terminal as well as a landmark, and designed the Royal Alexandra Theatre, which for generations was Toronto's one professional stage and then became the keystone of the King Street entertainment district. For four decades, almost up to his death in 1945, Lyle was a star among architects, the profession's dapper, articulate and socially connected statesman and advocate.

While designing scores of local buildings (and quite a few elsewhere in Canada), he campaigned relentlessly for better architecture and planning. Eric Arthur, the legendary author of Toronto: No Mean City, called Lyle a preacher who fired audiences with enthusiasm for more beautiful architecture.

The cruelty of time has hidden or demolished many of his accomplishments, but this season he's the subject of an accomplished biography -- A Progressive Traditionalist: John M. Lyle, Architect (Coach House Books, $45), by Glenn McArthur, who serves as not only author and photographer but also designer.

Lyle came by his preacher's instincts honestly, having grown up as the son of a Presbyterian minister. Born in 1872 in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, he was six years old when his family immigrated to Hamilton. At 20, he went off to Paris for four years of immersion in French culture and study at the École des Beaux-Arts, which had been teaching artists and architects its version of high style since the 17th century. He then settled in New York and began a flourishing career.

In 1904, Lyle heard about plans for Union Station in Toronto and idly imagined that he would like to be part of it. But it was a historical disaster that brought him home, the first Toronto disaster of the 20th century and in property loss the most calamitous ever. A few days after hearing about Union Station, he read in the New York papers that a fire had destroyed a great swath of downtown Toronto -- 122 buildings, 86 of them large structures. The city would need new buildings, Lyle realized, and therefore new architects. By 1905, he was in Toronto, setting up his office at 14 Leader Lane, just east of downtown Yonge Street.

Within a year he had his first major commission, the 1,525-seat Royal Alexandra, which he later recalled as "the prize job of that period." He marshalled the Beaux-Arts flourishes, framed his design in a loose version of Late French Renaissance and immediately rose toward the top of his profession. McArthur calls him a "progressive traditionalist," which means, among other things, that he never abandoned traditionalism but never failed to grasp new technical developments. The Royal Alexandra was the first air-conditioned building in Canada, with basement fans that drew air from large, ice-filled tanks and forced it through the building.

Lyle collaborated with other architects on Union Station, but his pride was the elegant Beaux-Arts interior, the Great Hall, 80 metres long and 27 metres high, as noble a space as Toronto was to see for a long time. Today, alas, its virtues are obscured by a clutter of ill-placed and badly chosen signs, but if you look straight up, and somehow ignore the ground-level muddle, you can imagine what Lyle learned in Paris.

He liked and practised several neoclassical styles, showed no taste for narrow ideologies, and had little patience for the modernism that was slowly conquering the world. He believed architecture should progress, but only at a measured pace. In the 1920s, however, he started to invent what he considered an authentic Canadian style by adding to his buildings images appropriate to Canada -- animals, flowers and native designs. Squirrels, beaver and bears began showing up as relief sculptures. He put animal motifs on several of the banks that became his specialty; seven different banks chose him at various times and he did a dozen branches for the Dominion Bank alone. But in Toronto, you can see his most earnest Canadian style in the Runnymede Public Library at 2178 Bloor St. W., where stylized totem poles showing a raven, a bear and a beaver flank the front entrance, beneath a black slate roof inspired by Quebec designs, beside outer walls of limestone from the nearby Credit Valley.

A Progressive Traditionalist proves Glenn McArthur a highly effective photographer and a dedicated researcher, but the story behind his book indicates that he's also something of an entrepreneur, as many authors today need to be. He spent five years writing and photographing, then four more years raising the money to get his work into print. An enormous effort, but eminently worthwhile.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image