People Who Shaped Toronto: F. Darling, J. A. Pearson

Toronto Life
Flavelle Mansion by Wikimedia Commons
Flavelle Mansion
by Wikimedia Commons

The next instalment of the People Who Shaped Toronto series describes the life and career of two prominent Toronto based architects who substantially contributed to the development of Toronto’s commercial and banking architecture in the beginning of the twentieth century, Frank Darling and John A. Pearson. Their co-operation began in 1889 when Pearson became a member of the highly recognized architecture firm of Darling and Currie. After three years, Pearson became a full partner, and soon he and Frank Darling blasted off their exceptionally flourishing career with their own firm, which lasted from the early 1890s until 1923. Darling and Pearson was one of Canada’s most prominent commercial architectural firms, which was recognized mostly for their progressive designs of bank buildings. Their significant combination of Beaux-Arts and Classical Revival styles with their own ideas formed a completely new and unique Canadian approach toward commercial development in the early twentieth century.

Frank Darling

Darling was born in Scarborough, Ontario on February 17th, 1850 to the family of William Stewart Darling, a respected rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity. He received his education at Upper Canada College and at Trinity College School. Before taking up architecture, Darling experimented and tried out a few other subjects and professions such as bank telling and general studies. After graduation, he started to work as an apprentice in the architectural firm of Thomas Gundry and Henry Langley in Toronto. By that time, Darling was absolutely sure that architecture is the right profession for him. In late 1869, he decided to leave Toronto and started to study architecture in Great Britain under one of the greatest architects of that time, George Edmund Street. Before returning in 1873, he also spent some time co-operating with Arthur William Blomfield. These three years had a significant influence on Darling’s perception of architecture. The main aspect that he learned from his British colleagues that is visible in most of his works is that historic architecture, particularly Gothic revival style, could be the basis upon which all other styles and functional requirements could be adapted.

Early Career

Convocation Hall by Wikimedia Commons
Convocation Hall
by Wikimedia Commons

In 1873, Darling returned to Canada and started his own business. After a year on his own, he entered into a partnership with Henry Mcdougall. His first contracts included churches for the city’s Anglicans (St Matthias, St Thomas, and St Luke) as well as the convocation hall (1877) and chapel (1884) of Trinity College. His first projects, built in bricks, were designed in a way reflecting his British colleagues, mainly George Edmund Street.

After a few partnerships with various Toronto architects, Darling formed a partnership with Samuel Currie, a Port Hope native, with whom he achieved huge success. Currie preferred to leave Darling more space, which is one of the main reasons why their partnership worked so well. One of their first large-scale designs was the plans for the Ontario Legislature Building competition in 1882. Even though their project won first place, delays and back-room agreements meant that the commission was given to someone else. Nevertheless, their brilliant project received acknowledgment in the architectural society and soon brought them a chance to work on their best known work together — the Bank of Montreal building. It’s one of the city’s earliest and best examples of the Beaux-arts style. This masterful piece of art, located on the corner of Front and Yonge, was done in a newly stylish classical mode, in which a precisely ornamented stone façade introduced an astonishing glass-domed hall. It was a huge success for both Darling and Currie, and the building remained a Bank of Montreal branch until the early 1980s when the bank moved to a new location. After standing empty for ten years, the building was renovated and nowadays houses the Hockey Hall of Fame.

John A. Pearson

John Pearson was born in Chesterfield, England on June 22nd, 1867. Since both his father and grandfather were builders, Pearson was predestined to work in the construction industry. At the age of 16, Pearson apprenticed to a local architect. He received his education at Wesley College, University of Sheffield. However, Pearson didn’t like the way architecture was practiced in England. He was frustrated with the English attitude of “old boys with old ways“ and wanted to explore new architectural styles and possibilities. In 1888, at the age of 21, Pearson came to New York, where he planned to unleash his creativity. He soon made many connections in Toronto, in particular with architect Henry Sproatt, and therefore decided to move there permanently. Their progressive approach and innovative ideas caught the attention of Frank Darling and his partner, Samuel Currie, with whom they established a new company. Darling and Pearson instantly became very good friends. They shared an appreciation of British and American architecture yet concurred that Canadian architecture had to go its own way.

Darling and Pearson


In 1892, Darling and Curry won the contract to build the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children. During the construction of this project, Darling and Curry took into partnership two new associates: John Pearson and Henry Sproatt. The Victoria Hospital building was designed in Richardson Romanesque style and coated in red terra cotta. Samuel Curry and Henry Sproatt consequently left and the company was reduced to only Darling and Pearson. This successful firm lasted for another two decades beyond Darling’s death in 1923.

Sanford Fleming Building by Wikimedia Commons
Sanford Fleming Building
by Wikimedia Commons

Darling and Pearson were very different in outward manner and personality. Darling was more quiet and considered to be the more artistic one, since he produced most of the sketches of their buildings. As Stephen Beszedits writes in his book Eminent Toronto Architects of the Past, “The artist in Darling frequently overshadowed the practical architect,” and, “He tended to pay scant attention to routine office administrative matters which bored him.” John Pearson, also a brilliant architect, was the more outgoing one who could easier establish new connections at high society social events. Many high-profile contracts were given to Darling and Pearson thanks to Pearson’s outgoing personality. This perfect combination of creativity, architectural talent, and networking skills helped them to create a legacy that had an enormous impact on the look of Toronto.

Their success began in 1898, when their firm was commissioned by the Canadian Bank of Commerce to design and build a number of bank branches across Canada. Their bank architecture became widely acknowledged for its balance of English and North American trends. Most of Darling and Pearson’s banks were designed in Beaux-arts style with Romanesque features. In Toronto alone, they designed at least eleven Canadian Bank of Commerce Branches, including the now abandoned building at 197 Yonge, as well as many others such as the Metropolitan Bank at Dundas and Ossington (1903), the Standard Bank at King and Jordan (1909-1910), the Imperial Bank at Queen and Roncesvalles (1910), and the Bank of Montreal at Yonge and Queen (1909-1910).

Darling and Pearson was one of the first Toronto architectural firm that designed skyscrapers. Their Union Bank (1903) in Winnipeg was the highest building in the whole British Empire during those days. They continued in this challenging trend of exceptionally tall buildings and designed the Dominion Bank headquarters at King and Yonge. This Beaux-arts style building with Renaissance Revival features stands at 51 storeys. It’s considered one of Darling and Pearson’s finest works. As Marta O’Brien, an architectural historian, writes, “With its granite base and white glazed terra cotta shaft and top storeys, it is the quintessential Beaux-Arts style skyscraper — using classical elements in a new and modern way.” This great example of Darling and Pearson’s mastery in combining modern early 20th century features with classical styles still stands and is nowadays commonly known as 1 King Street West.

Sigmund Samuel Building by Wikimedia Commons
Sigmund Samuel Building
by Wikimedia Commons

Darling and Pearson’s successful co-operation with the Canadian Bank of Commerce brought them financial and social success as well as support from the heads of these corporations. Some of the best Toronto businessmen, including railway tycoon Sir William Mackenzie, meat packer Sir Joseph Flavelle, and Bank of Commerce president, Sir Edmund B. Walker, hired Darling and Pearson to design their mansions. Furthermore, Darling and Pearson’s firm was chosen to design some other important projects thanks to these connections with people from Toronto’s business and social elite. Their new commissions during this period included Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto (1904-1907), the Royal Ontario Museum (1909-1914), the Toronto General Hospital (1909-1913), the Winnipeg Grain, and Produce Exchange (1909-1910), new buildings for Dalhousie University in Halifax (1912-1915), and the headquarters of Sun Life Assurance in Montreal (1916-1918).

As a side project, John Pearson worked as lead architect in the reconstruction of the Centre Block and Peace Tower after the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa burned down in 1916. On this project, Pearson collaborated with Montréal-based architect, Jean-Omer Marchand, who was considered the most talented French-Canadian architect of that time. At the end of his long and flourishing career, Pearson was the first architect who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Architecture from the University of Toronto in 1932. He continued to work in architecture after Darling’s death, until his retirement in 1935. He passed away at his home at 210 Forest Hill Road in 1940.

Frank Darling was a widely recognized member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Ontario Association of Architects, and the Toronto Guild of Civic Art. He was the first Canadian architect who was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He died in May 1923, after eight months of failing health.

The tremendous architectural partnership of Darling and Pearson lasted until May 19th, 1923, when Frank Darling died. After Frank Darling’s death, his nephew joined the firm and Barry Cleveland became a full partner. The company was renamed Darling, Pearson and Cleveland and carried on even after Pearson’s death in 1940. Nowadays, the firm is still working as Toronto-based Stanford Downey Architects Incorporated.

Not only did Frank Darling and John Pearson form a building legacy that substantially shaped the look of Toronto as well as other Canadian cities, but they also influenced many generations of young architects and are responsible for the progression of the Classical Revival and Beaux-arts styles that played an important role in Canadian architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of their buildings are important landmarks that combine a quiet charm with refined taste.

The Most Notable Buildings

Alpha Delta Phi Toronto Chapter House (1894) – 94 Prince Arthur Avenue, Toronto

University of Toronto Faculty of Law (Flavelle House, 1901) – 81 Queens Park Crescent W, Toronto

197 Yonge Street (1905) – Toronto

Convocation Hall, University of Toronto (1906) – 31 Kings College Circle, Toronto

University of Toronto Sanford Fleming Building and Sigmund Samuel Building (1907, and additions to the latter in 1912)

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene (1908) – 477 Manning Avenue, Toronto

Toronto General Hospital (College Wing, now the MaRS Discovery District building, 1911) – 200 Elizabeth Street, Toronto

Canadian Pacific Building (1913) – 69 Yonge Street, Toronto

1 King Street West (1914) – Toronto

Royal Ontario Museum (original building, 1914) – 100 Bloor Street West, Toronto

Parkwood Estate (1916) – 270 Parkwood Street N, Oshawa, Ontario

Summerhill-North Toronto CPR Station (1916) – 10 Scrivener Square, Toronto

Art Gallery of Ontario (original building, 1916) – 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto

101 College Street (1919) – 101 College Street, Toronto

Varsity Arena (1926) – 275 Bloor Street West, Toronto

Private Patients Pavilion (Thomas J. Bell Wing), Toronto General Hospital (1930) – 200 Elizabeth Street, Toronto

Canadian Bank of Commerce Building (now Commerce Court North, 1930) – 199 Bay Street, Toronto

One thought on “People Who Shaped Toronto: F. Darling, J. A. Pearson

January 22, 2018 at 10:43 am
Jolene Brenner says:

I own an oil painting of a black woman, and the artist signature is F. Darling.

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