View of rear facade
05 . 01 . 2014

London Modern, for your consideration

AUTHOR Dave LeBlanc

‘This is the building that started it for me,” says librarian and architecture enthusiast Sandra Miller. “When I first moved to London I thought, ‘This is an interesting building, what’s the story?’”

London City Hall is indeed interesting; it’s another example of the importance given to Canadian civic buildings in the Modernist period. Designed by award-winning, local architect Philip Carter Johnson (1913-1976), the soaring 12-storey, white-marble building with a distinctive, ‘floating’ black-granite pod and splashes of colour via glazed brick at the base projects cool confidence and a forward-looking attitude.

Yet, “people hate it; I don’t know why,” she continues. “One of the councillors called it a ‘sow’s ear,’” she laughs.

Likely it’s the general hate-on for the Modernist period (roughly 1945-1975), which many perceive as cold or uninteresting. Or, perhaps, it might be more specific: despite Mr. Johnson’s love of Italian piazzas, the one he created here “never took off, it’s always been this wind-blown, empty mess.”

Certainly it’s not because the building may have contributed to the architect’s early demise, since that’s an anecdotal tidbit with which most Forest City folk are completely unaware.

Similar to the sad story of how delays, debates and cost overruns caused Toronto city hall architect Viljo Revell to

suffer a fatal heart attack before his masterpiece opened,

Regina-born Mr. Johnson, says Ms. Miller, also experienced heart trouble while London’s was in its final days of construction.

“He was sent home in an ambulance [but] he insisted that it stop at City Hall, and they wheeled him out of the back so that he could look at the building and make sure work was continuing to his standards.” Ms. Miller, it should be noted, heard that story directly from Mr. Johnson’s widow, who celebrates her 100th birthday this year.

It’s stories like these that make Jane’s Walks so very special. And on Sunday, May 4, at 1 p.m., Ms. Miller will share many more when she leads “Forest City Modern” for Museum London (see for more details).

With a librarian’s eye for detail, archivist’s mind, activist’s spirit and wacky sense of humour – all topped by a pile of red curls – Ms. Miller pulls no punches when it comes to her love of this period. It’s a love that started approximately 15 years ago and has since motivated the 50-year-old to host “MidMod” architecture movie nights at the London library, join Docomomo Ontario (DOcumentation and COnservation of the MOdern MOvement) and speak out when buildings are threatened (she recently wrote to the London Free Press about proposed changes to the mostly original ground floor of London City Hall).

During the 11/2-hour walk, Jane’s Walkers will learn of London’s only confirmed Uno Prii-designed building, a hotel/apartment complex with a “colourful history” known as the Jack Tar Building at 186 King St.

“Right from the outset [it was] plagued – cursed if you will – with bankruptcy, fraud charges, construction liens, suspected arson, and there’s been a revolving door of ownership, literally, from day one,” she says. Originally planned as a Sheraton hotel for 1961, the building finally opened as an office building with apartment units in 1964, and then went through various incarnations – the Park Lane Motel, a Ramada Inn and a student residence –to become the “funny kind of mix of things” it is today. To compare the way the shabby building looks now to the archival photo in Ms. Miller’s hand is, of course, tragic.

What isn’t tragic in this, the financial hub of Southwestern Ontario, are the many banks that still proudly wear their Modernist clothes: walkers will stop at the corner of Richmond and King streets to admire the grid-like, precast concrete suit that adorns the handsome 1963 Toronto Dominion Bank by Toronto’s Bruce Etherington, who moved to Hawaii at the height of his career (Mr. Etherington’s firm designed approximately 900 banks for TD). A peek inside reveals the 86-foot mural by Toronto-area artist/sculptor Count Alexander von Svoboda, who has lived a life richer than fiction (which Ms. Miller will tell walkers about).

“I love it,” says Ms. Miller about the broad-shouldered, 1958 Bank of Montreal at the corner of Dundas and Wellington streets by local firm O. Roy Moore; here, the mysteries of stone cladding known as “Bankite” will be revealed. Ms. Miller will also tell the tale of the largest windows created and installed in Canada (in 1960) at architect Peter Tillmann’s Bank of Nova Scotia at 420 Richmond St.

Being an insurance town, the Jane’s Walk also features stops at the 1927 Beaux-Arts London Life Insurance building to view the highly compatible 1964 addition by Toronto’s Marani, Morris & Allan, and the striking turquoise spandrels panels on London’s first curtain wall at the 1957 Crown Trust building at 200 Queens Ave. “This is our Modernist jewel,” finishes Ms. Miller, adding that Tom Tillmann, son of the original architect, Peter Tillmann, moved his firm into the seventh floor a few years ago.

Luckily this building, as well as every other on the tour, now have some protection as part of London’s new downtown Heritage Conservation District; Ms. Miller’s partner, Michael Baker, worked as a consultant with the city to ensure this, as he “has a real weakness for Modernism.”

Hopefully, after this Jane’s Walk, Forest City natives will feel weak in the knees, too.

For a full list of Jane’s Walks taking place from May 2-4 – including the many in Toronto – visit


Crown Trust Building


London City Hall