“We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”John Rusking
“Go around the block again. The entrance has to be here somewhere,” she said. “This is definitely the address.”
“I just wish there weren’t so many one-way streets,” I added.
Last August, my granddaughter Fiona and I made a rather quick trip to Toronto. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had been condensed from two plays… a six-hour-two-ticket commitment to a big more manageable single, 3-hour production. The new version could only be seen in New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, Tokyo, Hamburg, and Toronto. Broadway might have been closer, but we are more comfortable and familiar with Toronto, so our plan was hatched. As soon as tickets went on sale, we’d be ready to pounce. The box office opened, and I was ready with my credit card. I chose our theatre seats carefully, but in my haste to secure lodging, I inadvertently booked us into the wrong hotel.
“There must be a front door somewhere. Let’s go around again.”
Night was falling, and we were deep in the heart of the city. Fiona, the patient navigator, and I, the frustrated and very tired driver, were anxious to get out of the car and settled into our room. We were in an area with which I had limited prior experience and was not at all acquainted with our hotel on the corner of Yonge and King.
“This looks like an alley. Do you think it’s the entrance?” we wondered aloud as I pulled onto the narrow side street.
Finding our hotel amid the forest of concrete and glass, eventually, parking and checking in was the welcome culmination of a very long day of driving. Fiona and I both enjoy the benefits that cities provide, but we’re basically small-town girls, even though we live in the capital city of Vermont. We are more accustomed to structures left from the Victorian era than the tall, imposing structures of the 20th century. We dragged our small suitcases into the empty elevator, pushed the button, and rode in silence to the thirty-ninth floor. The doors opened onto a bank of elevators next to an enormous window that looked out onto the adjacent buildings. Our view was filled with a quartet of huge Art Deco faces smiling directly at us! What an unexpected surprise. They were magnificent!
I was mesmerized. As luck would have it, our room was also opposite these smiling gentlemen. My first instinct was to grab my camera. These new friends were willing subjects. Smiling patiently as I took shot after shot. Upon closer inspection, I realized that in addition to the quartet I had originally seen, there was an entire men’s chorus of twelve visible concrete heads and an additional four on the far side of the building for a total of sixteen.
I had so many questions. What was the significance of these enormous faces, and even more puzzling to me…why were they constructed so far above any passersby on the ground?
The Canadian Bank of Commerce Building was built between 1929-1931. At the time, it was the tallest building in the entire British Commonwealth. It retained that distinction until the early 1960s. Although towering and impressive, it is now somewhat dwarfed by the slender concrete, steel, and glass structures that surround it. As Toronto’s first skyscraper, it must have been an imposing presence. Until it was replaced by the CN Tower, it was from here that curious Torontonians would arrive to see the city spread before them like a patchwork quilt. The arched openings at the 32-floor observation deck…no longer open…also gave tourists an up close and personal look at the massive bearded heads, albeit from an unusual angle.
I was drawn to these steadfast gentlemen and their perpetual smiles. From my vantage point at nearly eye level, I could see that the 16 men shared two distinct and alternating faces with subtle differences indistinguishable at street level. With a little Google sleuthing, I discovered that they shared four names as well: Courage, Observation, Foresight, and Enterprise, and were said to symbolize the forever watchfulness of the bank.
Great buildings that move the spirit have always been rare. In every case they are unique, poetic, products of the heartArthur Erickson
I appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the natural world, but I am also drawn to the stories told and the mysteries not yet unfolded of great works that humans have built and sustain. I imagine the council fires where ancient visionaries first pitched the idea of building Mesa Verde, Stonehenge, or Donottar Castle. Knowing my cautious nature, I’d probably have been among the skeptics. “You want to build what? Where? With what?” And yet our forebears built cathedrals, castles, bridges, and towers that many thought impossible.
So, why did they place these heads so high above the city traffic below? Google couldn’t help me with that, but perhaps it’s like lacy underwear. Few, if any, other people see it, but you know it’s there. After all, does beauty need a reason? Maybe beauty is the reason.
It was the magic of Harry Potter that drew us to Toronto on this trip, but if we are observant, pay attention, and are open, we can find magic and beauty all around us without the use of a magic wand or whispered incantation. How much I am missing, I wonder, by keeping a steady forward gaze? I must remind myself to anticipate, be aware, and expect to find gifts of wonder, beauty, and delight that others have created for me to discover and appreciate.
Sometimes, booking the wrong hotel can be the right thing to do.