If asked to imagine an iconic Prairie building, most would immediately think of the grain elevator and likely struggle to come up with others.
There is, however, another uniquely Prairie building that sprung up at a rate of dozens per year in the early 1900s: the Canadian Bank of Commerce’s "Prairie-type" bank branch.
The Canadian Bank of Commerce, now known as CIBC, is as old as Canada itself. Its first branch opened in Toronto on May 15, 1867, six weeks before Confederation. By the end of the century, its western footprint was sparse, with branches only in Winnipeg, Yukon and British Columbia.
The growing economic might of the Prairies and its impact on the Canadian economy could not be ignored by bank headquarters. In September 1902, a fact-finding delegation was sent to explore the region and its prospects. It returned with predictions for a bright future.
Victor Ross, author of an official history of the Canadian Bank of Commerce published in 1922, noted bank officials felt, "It was indeed necessary that the bank should put forth all its energies, if it was to keep pace with the phenomenal development taking place (on the Prairies), stimulated by both immigration and railway construction."
By the end of 1902, branches were established in Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat, Alta., and Moosomin, Sask., with many more scheduled for the years to come.
The bank’s plan to follow the new Grand Trunk Pacific rail line across the West after it began construction in 1905 faced one huge hurdle. Most of these new branches would be in newly created communities in sparsely populated regions, which meant it would have to compete with other businesses, municipalities and school boards for the materials and manpower required to erect the buildings.
'They have justified themselves, having proved durable beyond all expectations, commodious, popular and credible in architectural effect' — bank historian Victor Ross on the Prairie-style structures in his 1922 book
To solve this problem, the bank turned to a construction method that was starting to make inroads across the country: prefabricated buildings.
Many credit Timothy Eaton as being the Canadian pioneer of prefabricated houses and other buildings, but he was actually very late to the game, only entering the market in 1910. Companies such as Vancouver–based B.C. Mills Timber and Trading Company began selling them in 1904, and Toronto-based Canadian Aladdin, a subsidiary of an American firm, followed suit the next year.
Though B.C. Mills tended to sell only in the West, bank officials tried out one of its houses as a bank branch in the mining town of Cobalt, Ont., in 1905. The house featured B.C. Mills’ innovative, patented wall assembly that allowed joints to be locked into place, thus shielding the interior from the worst a Canadian winter could throw at it. Impressed with how the house held up, the bank began talks with B.C. Mills to be its supplier of branch buildings.
The bank then turned to Darling and Pearson of Toronto, which was quickly becoming its architectural firm of choice for branch buildings and eventually its Toronto headquarters and western headquarters in Winnipeg, now known as the Millennium Centre. It was tasked with creating an attractive yet imposing design with many of the same neoclassical elements expected on a big-city, stone-and-brick building that could be replicated in wood.
Darling and Pearson returned with a trio of designs.
One had the look of a suburban cottage home, which ended up most often reserved for larger communities for use as a neighbourhood branch. At least one still exists in Winnipeg as a convenience store on Logan Avenue at Blake Street in the Weston neighbourhood.
The other two designs, which became known as the "Prairie-type," were slight variations of a two-storey, 2,800-square-foot building recognizable by the oval window in its gable.
These buildings were certainly imposing, often initially dwarfing the townscape around it. Their pilasters and decorative porticos gave them a touch of elegance early Prairie communities were not known for.
The main floor contained the banking hall and manager’s office, with a concrete-encased vault at the rear. The upstairs had a generous-sized living quarters that could be used by the bank manager and his family or as communal housing for the bank’s junior staff.
This residence helped the bank overcome an unforeseen complication faced in many of these new communities: a severe housing shortage. In extreme cases, the bank had a cottage-style branch shipped and erected elsewhere in the community to act as a staff dormitory.
The architects’ plans were forwarded to B.C. Mills’ plant in Vancouver, where the buildings were built and the panels were numbered, then disassembled. A couple of kits were always kept on hand so they could be quickly dispatched when the bank required them. They would then be loaded onto a pair of standard box cars with a set of instructions and shipped to the site.
While in transit, the masonry foundations for the building would be built, and the bank branch could be up and running within days of the kit’s arrival.
It is believed about 70 Prairie-type prefabricated branches were built across the West between 1906 and 1912. Though they were referred to as the "Prairie-type," some were erected in British Columbia as well. It is unclear how many of them are still standing.
One Manitoba example is in the town of Rivers, located 40 kilometres northwest of Brandon.
The Bank of Commerce set up shop in Rivers in rented premises in 1908 and its B.C. Mills building was constructed on Main Street in the summer of 1910.
Rivers struggled during the Great Depression, and after yet another crop failure in 1935, the bank announced it was leaving town. The building then served as a municipal hall, a commercial building and an apartment block. In 2009, it was converted into a single-family home. Recently, the home was put up for sale and may carry on serving the community in another capacity.
In Elkhorn, which lies about 100 kilometres west of Brandon, near the border with Saskatchewan, the community’s first Bank of Commerce branch opened in 1910 but was destroyed by fire two years later. A replacement was shipped out an erected in October 1912.
The Elkhorn building is a rare example of a B.C. Mills building that remains a CIBC branch to this day, though it was announced earlier this year it will close for good in August. Municipal leaders are hoping to strike a deal with an area credit union to take over the building.
The era of the Prairie-style Bank of Commerce branch came to an end in 1911, when B.C. Mills decided to get out of the prefabricated building business. (The company must have still had an inventory of kits, however, because the second Elkhorn branch was erected in late 1912.)
The main reason behind the company’s decision is believed to be that as Prairie communities matured, so did their own lumber and building industries, which led to a slump in the demand for prefabricated structures shipped in from other provinces.
The bank, too, was starting to move on. In January 1910, it hired its first in-house architect and concentrated on replacing original branches in regional hub communities and cities with larger structures.
Bank historian Ross reflected fondly on the building frenzy of the Prairie-style branches: "They have justified themselves, having proved durable beyond all expectations, commodious, popular and credible in architectural effect."
Thanks to the Bank of Commerce, now CIBC, and the robust construction of the B.C. Mills Timber and Trading Company, we have another Prairie icon to keep an eye out for on our summer travels.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.