Built within 10 years of the birth of hockey, the building that
houses the Esso Great Hall is a quiet place in which to reflect
on the richness of our past. Construction of the building began
in 1885, during a period of great prosperity and optimism in
Canada's future. Originally a bank, the building reflected the
importance of banking in the formation of a country in much the
same way that it now reflects the importance of hockey in the
building of a culture.
This florid example of rococo architecture was designed by the
Toronto firm of Darling and Curry, which also created the
similarly august Toronto Club a few blocks away. Used by the
Bank of Montreal as a head office until 1949, the building
continued to serve as a branch until 1982, when it closed for
the last time.
The building remained largely unused until its
restoration by BCE Place (now Brookfield Place) for use as the Hockey Hall of Fame (except for the
rumoured presence of Dorothy, the ghost of a former teller who took her
own life after a failed love affair with the bank manager).
Entering the Esso Great Hall, you find yourself in a room that
was once the largest bank branch in Canada. Measuring 70 by 70
feet, the room rises to a 45-foot-high stained glass dome.
Rendered in the best traditions of classical symbolism, the
dome is the largest of its kind in Toronto. Constructed by
Joseph McCausland and Sons, it features 24 fanned panels that
depict allegorical dragons guarding gold from eagles. Around
the outside are a cornucopia of fruit and flowers. In the
centre, eight circles bear emblems representing what were then
the seven provinces and Canada. The task of restoring the
stained glass to its original glory was given to Andrew
McCausland, the great-great-grandson of builder Joseph
McCausland, whose son Robert was responsible for the original
Richly modeled detail abounds in the Hall, framing the mezzanine
on the west side. This was the former boardroom, behind which
was the bank manager's private apartment. Many of the interior
carvings are by the Toronto firm of Holbrook and Mollington,
based on architect Frank Darling's drawings.
The square plan of the interior is translated by diagonal corner
arches into an octagon on the outside. The huge arched windows
of plate glass, extravagant for their time, signal the size of
the interior. To the left of the south portico stands the
massive stone figure of Hermes, who has carried the weight of
the building's chimney on his shoulders for more than 100 years.
Four tall piers support a pediment on each of the two main
facades, which carry on the pantheon theme begun in the bank's
main Montreal office. Near the top of these piers, the lavish
architectural detail continues with carved masks and sculpted
Below each of these masks are carved elements that symbolize
the arts and industry. On the east side, a telegraph pole
represents communication and the railways, while a tableau
represents industry, literature and painting. On the south
portico, coins and ledgers represent banking, a lute and
clarinet stand for music, columns and tools for architecture
and sheaves of wheat for agriculture. The most striking of
the city's 19th-century bank buildings stands today as one of
its most beautiful restorations. It confirms a commitment to
architectural preservation on the part of the City of Toronto,
and Brookfield Place.