Postcards That Showcase Classic Canadian Architecture

Mike Smith

Postcards That Showcase Classic Canadian Architecture

The first time I saw the term “social history” applied to antique postcards was in the “S” section of an early edition of Britain’s Picture Postcard Values handbook. This all-colour handbook, which has been around for more than 40 years, contains lists and images of mostly British antique postcards sorted by subject, and then provides estimated card values based on current trends.

If high values are any indication, one of the most popular series of postcards in Picture Postcard Values’ social history section is one called “London Life,” which was published by London’s Rotary Photographic Co. around 1907–8. As the series title suggests, these cards show Edwardian-era Londoners from all walks of life going about their busy lives. Other series in the social history section of the handbook remind us of the beauty of much of London’s urban architecture. In fact, the architectural beauty of European cities in general is one of the reasons why Europe is so popular with tourists. With this in mind, I thought I’d showcase four antique postcards that highlight some of Canada’s architectural triumphs.

Of all the wonderful buildings reproduced on antique postcards, I have to admit that Alma College in St. Thomas is my all-time fave (see Figure 1). Designed by Hamilton architect James Balfour and opened in 1881 as a girls’ private school, the building was simply magnificent. I use the past tense here because after closing in 1996 it became derelict and was burned down by two teenage arsonists in May 2008. This irreplaceable structure could have been saved as an Ontario heritage building but foot-dragging politicians and greedy developers are a lethal mix when it comes to protecting our architectural heritage.

Figure 1 – The magnificent Alma College, which burned down in 2008, is shown on this circa 1908 Stedman Bros. postcard.

European castles in Canada? That’s what I thought when I first picked up an early postcard of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal (see Figure 2). This famous Montreal landmark was built in 1893 with large financial contributions from two of Canada’s most famous Scottish immigrants, Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona) and George Stephen (Lord Mount Stephen). The Royal Vic, as it is known to Montrealers, was designed by English architect Henry Snell in the Scottish Baronial style, and has been functioning as a research hospital under McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine since 1920.

Figure 2 – The Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal is shown on this circa 1905 postcard by Ottawa’s Picture Postcard Co.

Opened in 1892 as the Harbord Street Collegiate Institute or H.C.I. (see Figure 3), this grand structure is still being used as a school but has suffered through some extensive renovations. Sadly, the impressive towers, ornate gables and multi-faceted roof shown in the postcard are long gone. Like most school-age kids, I’m sure students who attended H.C.I. before the renovations didn’t give the building a second thought. Since I spent most of my student life, with the exception of kindergarten and college, in drab, flat-roofed “shoeboxes,” I think H.C.I. was something to behold. Note that according to Wikipedia, some its famous students were comedy legends Wayne & Shuster, actor Kiefer Sutherland, CBS news correspondent Morley Safer and Bank of Canada Governor Louis Rasminsky. 

Figure 3 – A Valentine & Sons circa 1907 postcard of Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate Institute. This high school has been in operation since 1892.

I must admit, I never tire of postcards of our parliament buildings in Ottawa, especially those printed before 1916. Built between 1859 and 1866, some claim that these buildings are the best examples of Victorian High Gothic style architecture anywhere on Earth. As shown in Figure 4, the original “Victoria Tower,” which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1916, was something to behold. This devastating fire, reported as starting from “something smouldering in a wastebasket,” burned throughout the evening of February 3, 1916. Eventually, the fire consumed the Victoria Tower, Senate chamber and House of Commons. Fortunately, though, the majestic Library of Parliament was spared. Since the First World War (1914–1918) was in full swing at the time, rumours of German sabotage were immediately investigated but soon ruled out.

Figure4 – A pre-1916 image of the “Dominion Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, Canada” on a circa 1908 government-issue postcard.

I don’t want to take anything away from our beautiful Peace Tower, but I have to admit that I prefer the ornateness of the Victoria Tower. By the way, the postcard of the parliament buildings shown here was printed in England for prospective British immigrants to Canada. It was part of a huge media campaign during the Laurier era (1986–1911) to lure homesteaders to the Canada. As a result, during that period the population of the Canadian West increased from 300,000 to 1.5 million inhabitants. One of the more positive outcomes was that two new provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were created in 1905. Ah, the days when politicians actually earned their salaries.

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