The Dominion Public Building: Aesthetic Design

Aesthetic Design

Aesthetic Design

Aesthetic Design



"The London Dominion Public Building is an impressive essay in what was called, at the time, "the modern style, the new classicism or modern classicism".19 This stylistic approach is essentially a variant of the Art Deco style. The latter, named after the Exposition des arts decoratifs et industriels, held in Paris in 1925, expressed a romantic response to the machine era. The Art Deco style espoused a severe and dynamic handling of massing and an eclectic treatment of decorative motifs which derived from ancient Egypt, archaic Greece, Assyria, and precontact North and South American Indian civilizations.20 In her Art Deco in North America, Eva Weber has provided a clear and simple schemata for the style, dividing it into three subcategories: "zig-zag," "streamlined," and "classical moderne."21 It is the third category into which the London Dominion Public Building falls. Classical moderne was the most conservative variant of the Art Deco style, "blending a simplified and monumental modernistic neoclassicism with a more austere form of geometric and stylized relief sculpture and other ornament.”22


By the 1920s this style had supplanted Beaux-Arts classicism, previously favoured for large, official structures. Well-known American architects such as Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and Paul Philippe Cret were building in the classical moderne manner, as were architects John Lyle, Ernest I. Barott, and Ernest Cormier in Canada. As in the London Dominion Public Building, the surfaces of their buildings were sleek and their massing self-contained, with fenestration sharply inscribed and often inset to create a precise pattern of light and shade.


Retaining the classical format of base, shaft, and capital, the London federal building rises from a single storey base in stepped-back volumes. The middle section, or shaft, is defined by multistorey piers which separate the deeply recessed windows. This vertical thrust is contained at attic level by horizontal banded moulding and a smooth cornice. Nevertheless, the stepping-back of the massing on the side elevations and in the corner piers on the facade, and the strong verticals of the window treatment emphasize the height of the building. This effect was underscored by placing the entry on the narrow Richmond Street end, and by giving that elevation an extra two storeys so that an impression was created of a stepped-back skyscraper with a long extension to the rear.

Comparable examples of large federal buildings designed in the classical moderne manner include the Dominion Public Building in Halifax (1935-1937), the Vancouver Post Office extension (1935-1936), and the Hamilton Dominion Public Building (1935-1936). Of these, only the Halifax Dominion Public Building conveys a sense of drama similar to that of the London Public Building. There are, however, differences. While it shares with the London example the vertical emphasis and stepped massing on its facade, the design is more frontal, allowing the side elevations to reveal the box-like core of the structure. The public building erected in Winnipeg in 1935 is more similar in plan since it is sited on a wedge-shaped lot and designed with its entry on the narrow end of the wedge. Its architects conveyed a similar vertical emphasis but employed a simpler massing and a decorative programme derived from Gothic rather than classical ornament. Many other examples of federal buildings designed in the classical moderne manner survive, but all are simpler in plan and detail and smaller in scale. The creative use of stepped massing, which emphasised the sleek, streamlined qualities so admired at the time, and the high quality of its stylized ornament and interior decor (discussed under Craftsmanship and Materials) mark the London Dominion Public Building as a distinctive structure within the federal inventory."


19.- Janet Wright, Building in the Bureaucracy: Architecture of the Department of Public Works, 1927-1939, Masters thesis, Queen's University, 1989, p. 92.

20.- Ibid., p. 93.

21.- Eva Weber, Art Deco in North America (London: Bison, 1985), p. 12.

22.- Ibid., p. 12.


Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office | Report: 89-90


Dominion Public Building, 457 Richmond Street, London, Ontario


Shannon Ricketts, Architectural History Branch



A documentary project by Juan Andres Bello, with the support of The London Heritage Council