Royal Bank Building
Architects: York & Sawyer
Traditionally, the Royal Bank of Canada had its headquarters in Halifax. In 1907, the institution decided to transfer to Montréal’s financial district, on rue St-Jacques (St. James Street). Requiring more space for its operations, the bank commissioned the New York firm of York & Sawyer, specialized in bank architecture, to design a spacious new building. York & Sawyer worked with S.G. Davenport, Royal Bank’s in-house architect. Between 1920 and 1926, Royal Bank’s growth leads to the purchase of all the buildings on the block bounded by Saint-Jacques, Saint-Pierre, Notre-Dame and Dollard streets. The Royal Bank Building, built between 1926 and 1928, became the highest skyscraper in the British Empire. Among the other facilities of the building are a lounge, a smoking room, meeting and reception rooms, a clinic, dining rooms, and a cafeteria.
The administrative offices and the operational banking hall occupy the building’s first five storeys, while the bank’s vaults are located in the basement. Various Canadian and U.S. companies rent space in the tower. In 1962, the Royal Bank moved its headquarters to Place Ville-Marie, but kept its branch on rue Saint-Jacques.
The Royal Bank Building occupies an entire, almost square, block on rue St-Jacques, in the heart of what was once Canada’s most important business district. The 22-storey skyscraper was built with a steel structure, with grey limestone facing –the lower part, with limestone from Queenstown, Ontario, has acquired a buff tone over the years. In 1928, it was the city’s tallest building. It is notable for the setbacks imposed by city bylaws for buildings higher than 10 storeys.
Seen from the street, the building presents three major sections: the powerful podium, the middle part of the tower, and the pilasters at the top of the tower. The block at the building’s top is set back too far to be visible from the ground. These divisions, coupled with the architectural detailing visually understate the building’s height. The stone facing creates a false impression of massive carrying wall, camouflaging the presence of a steel skeleton.
This American-style skyscraper, with its modern engineering and infrastructure, is enveloped with stonework that recalls bygone epochs. The podium shows three stylistic influences. First, its very form and its three tall arched openings evoke the Florentine palazzos of the Renaissance. Second, the broken backs of the arches, gothic-inspired, recall Florence’s medieval period. Finally, at the top of the podium, the neo-classic colonnade refer to ancient Roman styles, as do the pilasters at the top of the middle part of the tower, which is less elaborate than the podium.
This sophisticated eclectic historicism, resulting from the combination of elements inspired by different epochs, was one of the dominant architectural movements in vogue in North American downtowns in the 1920s.
The tower seems to be no more than an office building sitting on top of a bank. The monumental entrance of the principal façade clearly suggests a corporate headquarters, and even gives the impression that the entire building is occupied by the bank. The portal also contributes to the prestigious image that benefited the tenants of the office spaces.
Significant exterior decorative elements
The key bricks of the small rectangular openings at street level represent iconic figures such as Mercury (Hermes, for the Greeks), patron god of trade. The two bronze tambours of the monumental entrance portal are topped with griffons, mythic beasts of long past ages, that support the bank’s monogram. The framing of the doors, in Levanto marble, features bronze decorative motifs representing examples of Canadian and British coins. The ensemble is topped by the United Kingdom’s coat of arms (at the time, also adopted by Canada).
Higher up the façade, stone bas-reliefs of Canada’s provincial coats of arms frame the colonnade at the building’s corners.
Reference: Ville de Montréal, grand répertoire Inventaire, fiche bâtiment.