York & Sawyer

YORK & SAWYER, architects of New York City, contributed two of the most refined and elegant designs for bank headquarters to be found anywhere in Canada. These striking monumental works include the headquarters for the Royal Bank of Canada in Montreal (1927-28), and the headquarters for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Toronto (1929-31); the latter was completed in collaboration with the Toronto firm of Darling & Pearson. Edward Palmer York (1865-1928) was born in Wellsville, New York and received his architectural education at Cornell University. Upon graduation in 1889 he joined the New York office of the eminent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. It was there that he met his future partner Philip Sawyer (1868-1949), who was born at New London, Connecticut and who had attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, training in the atelier of M. Redon. In 1898 they formed a partnership and became the masters of the American Renaissance style, with York attending to business matters and Sawyer executing much of the design work in the office. Inspired by the monumental work of Roman and Italian Renaissance architecture they frequently employed heavily rusticated walls and sweeping arched entrances in their best known works, including the New York Historical Society, Central Park West, New York City (1904), the Bowery Savings Bank, 42nd Street, New York City (1922-23), and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (1925).

In Canada, their scheme for the Royal Bank Headquarters in Montreal was based on an elegantly simple concept of a massive rusticated stone base built out to the streetline, surmounted by a tall smooth shaft that was clad in stone and terminated by a pyramidal roof and lantern which presented a distinctive and memorable silhouette on the Montreal skyline. It was, at the time of its completion in 1928, the tallest building in the British Empire, but this claim was short-lived as Sawyer developed plans for an even taller tower for the Bank of Commerce in Toronto. His initial proposals, as published in the Architectural Forum (New York) in June 1928 suggested a banking pavilion on King Street with a tall, slender office tower set back from the street. The final resolution of the design incorporated a single office tower rising from a seven storey base containing a dramatic Bank Hall modeled on the interiors of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The exterior was embellished with appropriate symbols carved in stone representing industry and thrift, but without the heavy rustication employed on the earlier tower design in Montreal. With its graceful stepped configuration and outdoor rooftop observation level, the Bank of Commerce became the architectural symbol and icon of Toronto, and remained the tallest building in the British Empire for nearly 35 years until the completion of the Toronto Dominion Centre in 1964.

Edward P. York did not live to see the completion of the Toronto work and died in New York City on 30 December 1928; Sawyer remained active for another twenty years, and died in New York on 21 May 1949 (obituary for York in the New York Times, 31 Dec. 1928, 15; obituary for Sawyer in the New York Times, 22 May 1949, 88; biography on the firm in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects, 1982, iv, 460-61).

YORK & SAWYER (works in Canada)

MONTREAL, QUE., (with S.G. Davenport) Royal Bank of Canada Headquarters, St. James Street at St. Peter Street, Montreal, 1927-28 (C.R., xli, 25 May 1927, 512, illus. & descrip.; Architecture [New York], lviii, Dec. 1928, 321-30, illus.; Const., xxii, Feb. 1929, 34-60, 68, illus. & descrip.; Montreal, Les Banques, 1980, 86-91, illus.; dwgs. at Royal Bank Archives, Montreal)
WINNIPEG, MAN. (with Arthur A. Stoughton) James Richardson & Sons Tower, Portage Avenue at Main Street, foundations built 1929, but project later cancelled (Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 19 July 1929, 1 + 5, illus. & descrip.; 5 Oct. 1929, 1, descrip.)
TORONTO, ONT., (with Darling & Pearson) Canadian Bank of Commerce Headquarters, King Street West at Jordan Street, Toronto, 1929-31 (Montreal Daily Star, 13 Jan. 1928, 18, illus. & descrip. of the early design for the tower; C.R., xlii, 16 May 1928, 497, illus. & descrip.; Architectural Forum [New York], xlviii, June 1928, 792-93, illus.; lii, June 1930, 797, illus.; R.A.I.C. Journal, viii, April 1931, 134-53, illus. & descrip.; W. Dendy & W. Kilbourn, Toronto Observed, 220-23, illus. & descrip.; Money Matters-A Critical Look at Bank Architecture, 1990, 166-8, 217-19, illus.; dwgs. at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Archives, Toronto)