Mutual Life Head Office

On August 14, 2012, the Ontario Heritage Trust and Sun Life Financial unveiled a provincial plaque at Sun Life Financial in Waterloo, Ontario, to commemorate the Mutual Life Head Office.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    The head office of The Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada (now the head office of Sun Life Financial's Canadian operations) was completed in 1912. Designed by Canadian architect Frank Darling, of the Toronto firm Darling and Pearson, the impressive Renaissance Revival style building is ornamented with features such as the two-storey fluted, paired Ionic columns supporting a large segmental arch above the main doors, elaborate window surrounds, and a parapet with a balustrade. It is clad in light brown and yellow Roman brick and embellished with projecting pedimented bays and quoins. Many of the decorative details on the façade are made from imported English terra cotta. Situated within a Beaux Arts designed landscape, the building is a unique and iconic corporate pavilion. The monumental scale of the building and its rich ornamentation symbolize the importance and stability of Waterloo’s first life insurance company and reflect the town’s early 20th century prosperity and sense of civic pride.

Historical background

In May 1912, the new head office of The Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada opened for business in Waterloo, Ontario. Easily the most impressive building in Waterloo, it was situated on a 2.7-hectare (6.8-acre) lot at the corner of King and Union streets, on the boundary with Kitchener.1 Built in the “modern Renaissance” style, the building was a symbol of the company’s success and of Waterloo’s growing reputation as one of the most important insurance centres in Canada. The building was widely admired; as a reviewer in Construction magazine wrote: “Waterloo may be justly proud of the Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada building, which is typical of the progressive spirit in that community.”2 This “progressive spirit” is often traced to the region’s Mennonite and German communities, who emphasised communal activity, mutual support and initiative. Being somewhat removed from the institutions and companies that dominated other Canadian communities, inhabitants of Waterloo were accustomed to taking initiative and developing institutions of their own.3

The Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada had its beginnings almost five decades prior to its 1912 head office relocation. In 1868, the year after Confederation, the company was incorporated as The Ontario Mutual Life Assurance Company. The company was founded by several prominent and respected members of the community – Isaac Erb Bowman, MP, Moses Springer, MLA, Cyrus M. Taylor and J.W. Walden, MD.4 The company was organized around the “mutual” principle to ensure that the capital of the company belonged to its policyholders, not to (generally foreign) shareholders.5 The Ontario Mutual Life Assurance Company began business in 1870, issuing its first 500 policies.

Over the first 10 years of its existence, the company occupied several rented quarters in the centre of Waterloo. In 1880, the company moved into its first purpose-built premises at the corner of Albert and Erb streets (at the Waterloo market square), where it remained for over 30 years. The company had applied for incorporation by the Canadian Parliament in 1877 so that operations could be extended throughout the country. This expansion began in 1883, and over the following five years, company agents were appointed in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories (which included Alberta and Saskatchewan until 1905) and Newfoundland (then a separate colony of Great Britain). In 1900, to mark the new century and to reflect the success of its nationwide operations, the company changed its name to The Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada. By 1908, it was apparent that its office building could no longer house the growing company, and arrangements were made to sell the existing building and select a new location for a larger building.6 In December 1908, the Board of Directors invited the Canadian architect Frank Darling (1850-1923) to Waterloo to provide advice on the various options.

Frank Darling was a partner of the award-winning Toronto-based architectural firm Darling and Pearson, which designed a number of impressive classically inspired buildings across Canada. Some of the firm’s notable buildings included numerous branches of the Canadian Bank of Commerce (including the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Toronto – at the time of its completion the tallest building in the British Commonwealth), Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, the Toronto General Hospital and the magnificent headquarters of the Sun Life Assurance Company in Montreal.7

Darling, the son of a rector, was born in Scarborough, Ontario in 1850. After graduating from Trinity College in Toronto, he apprenticed at the Toronto architectural firm of Thomas Gundry and Henry Langley. Between late 1869 (or early 1870) and 1873, he trained in London, England at the offices of George Edmund Street, one of the most important architects of the era. While in London, he also worked briefly with Sir Arthur Blomfield, architect to the Bank of England. Darling’s training in England instilled in him an understanding of how historical forms could be adapted to the needs of modern life.8

On his return to Canada, Darling settled in Toronto where he entered into a partnership with Henry MacDougall, and later Samuel George Curry. He was elected as the first Honorary President of the Toronto Beaux-Arts Club.9 In 1885, Darling designed the Bank of Montreal building in Toronto, an impressively monumental beaux-arts-style building.10 Beginning in 1893, Darling began a 30-year partnership with the British-born architect John Pearson (1867-1940).11 (Pearson is best known for collaborating with Jean Omer Marchand on the rebuilding of the Centre Block and Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in 1916.) Darling was admired by his peers; in 1886, he was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and, in 1895, he was the president of the Ontario Association of Architects. By the time he received the commission for The Mutual Life Assurance Company building, Darling was considered one of the most notable architects of the British Empire.12 In 1916, he became the only Canadian architect to be awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Darling was also the recipient of two honorary doctorates (University of Toronto, 1916; Dalhousie, 1923).13 For the Board of Directors of the Mutual Life Assurance Company, Darling was the obvious choice to design the new headquarters.

During his visit to Waterloo in December 1908, Darling visited four “town” sites and six “country” sites proposed by the Board of Directors. After his visit, he provided them with a comprehensive list of the merits and limitations of each site. He noted that some of the proposed sites were too small to allow further expansion, too irregular in shape, lay too low or were too sloping, or, in some cases, were situated too close to manufacturing sites (which were fire hazards). Of the “town” sites, Darling deemed the Devitt Block on King Street the most suitable. He had serious reservations about the location, however, as he believed it was situated too close to Snider’s grist mill to the south, a potentially serious fire hazard. He found one of the “country” sites – the Randall property – to be ideal, despite being located outside the centre of town. The site was suitably elevated; with land sloping away from it on all sides, it possessed good views and the grounds had plenty of mature trees (obviating the need for much landscaping). There were no buildings nearby to pose a fire hazard, and there was ample room on the site for future expansion. He also pointed out that it was far enough from the hustle and bustle of town to mitigate any noise and dust.14

When the Devitt site proved too expensive, the Board of Directors settled on the Randall site and promptly selected Darling as their architect. Darling chose a style that was an eclectic mixture of elements from the Renaissance revival and beaux-arts styles. Defining features of the building include prominent columns and arches, and symmetrical, monumental proportions.15 During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, versions of classicism were favoured by banks, trust companies and insurance firms for their symbolic qualities – money, power, integrity and stability.16 While Darling and Pearson’s initial estimate for the building was $201,000, the final cost was $212,964.68.17

Darling designed an impressive building, well situated within the spacious grounds. The building was surrounded by an eight-foot-high wrought-iron fence with brick pillars. From King Street, on the north side of the property, visitors passed through a set of wrought-iron gates, flanked by large, ornamental stone pillars, onto an oval forecourt flagged in hexagonal stones. The stone forecourt led to the main entrance of the building. Raised on a high foundation of Ohio sandstone, the imposing two-storey (plus small attic) building was clad in thin light brown and yellow Roman brick, and accented with panelled quoins. Befitting its status as the headquarters of Waterloo’s first life insurance company, the building was embellished with numerous carved details, many of which were made from light terracotta imported specially from England (construction was slightly delayed when the firm of Doulton and Company of England failed to ship the material in time).18

The King Street façade contained the building’s most impressive features, including a large, central projecting portico. Broad, granite stairs led to recessed panelled oak doors, which were flanked by pairs of fluted Ionic columns on massive bases. The columns were surmounted by an entablature decorated with floral and foliate carving and a large segmental (curved) pediment. The tympanum area of the pediment was decorated with floral and foliate carvings that supported a large, blank cartouche. The main doors were also surrounded with foliate carving and surmounted with a smaller blank cartouche (in Darling’s original drawings for the building, the letters “ML” were to be incised on this cartouche). Directly above the main doors, large arched windows and glass doors led to a small balustraded balcony.19 Three large, sash windows stood on either side of the central portico. Each of the windows on the ground floor level of the north elevation had moulded terracotta pediments with small cartouches engraved with a capital “M,” while the second-floor sash windows were slightly less ornate. Above a series of small attic windows (set into the ornamented entablature), the building was surmounted by a projecting cornice supported on modillion dentals, and was topped with a parapet wall with intermittent balustrading.20

The east elevation of the building (the Union Street façade) continued the same Renaissance revival style as the north elevation. At each end, panelled grey stone quoins accented two large pedimented pavilions. Between the pavilions were six sash windows with moulded pediments and monogrammed cartouches (identical to those on the front). The richly ornamented entablature, projecting cornice, parapet and intermittent balustrading all continued along this side.

The building measured approximately 33 x 39 metres (110 x 130 feet) and provided 1,446 square metres (16,063 square feet) of working space for the staff of 24 men and 14 women. The interior was as lavishly appointed as the exterior. As Construction magazine noted in 1914, the marble-lined entrance hall led through triple-arched openings onto a corridor that featured “plaster panels set between pilasters of verde antique marble and marble tiled walls.”21 The offices that surrounded the corridor featured mahogany woodwork, along with plaster and white oak finishing. Undoubtedly, the centrepiece of the building was the enormous two-storey main office or “Great Hall.” The grand space was capped with a gigantic, clear glass skylight, providing “an abundance of light”22 (it has since been replaced with a frosted, ultraviolet-protective glass plate).23 Ornate plasterwork featuring foliage, floral patterns, wreaths, monogrammed cartouches and panels flanked the skylight. The Great Hall was surrounded on two levels by corridors. Access to the corridors was provided through two-storey arched openings flanked by Ionic pilasters raised on large plinths. The second-level gallery openings featured ornamental iron railings embellished with the intertwined letters “ML.” The board room, located on the second floor, was impressive, featuring oak panelling, an elaborately carved fireplace (which again contained the company monogram), and a richly decorated plaster ceiling.

On completion of the building, the general manager, Mr. Wegenast, is reputed to have remarked: “Gentlemen, we will never fill it.” Less than 10 years later, he was proven wrong and it was necessary to enlarge the building. This time, the Toronto firm of Sharp and Horner were selected to design the addition.

Andrew Sharp and Herbert Horner met at the firm of Darling and Pearson in Toronto in 1902. Scottish-born architect Andrew Sharp had studied at the Glasgow School of Art and worked as an assistant to Sir John J. Burnet, one of Glasgow’s most important architects, before emigrating to Canada in 1900. In 1902, he joined the firm of Darling and Pearson, where he spent seven years working as chief designer under Darling’s supervision. During his time at the firm, he became adept at the design of bank buildings. Toronto-born architect Herbert Horner completed most of his architectural training at Darling and Pearson, where he began as a draftsman in 1900. From 1907 to 1910, he oversaw a number of the firm’s commercial and institutional projects in Winnipeg and Regina. He worked for the Commission of Inquiry into the Canadian Northern Railway between 1911 and 1916, before enlisting in the air force (he designed all the Royal Flying Corps buildings in Canada). In 1919, at the end of the First World War, he opened an architectural firm with Andrew Sharp. During the four years of their partnership, the firm of Sharp and Horner built a number of banks, churches and the 1921 addition to the Mutual Life building.24

Sharp and Horner extended the Mutual Life building to a total of 33 x 60 metres (110 x 200 feet), adding approximately 21 metres (70 feet) to the east side and 33 metres (110 feet) to the west side, an addition that necessitated the modification of some portions of the original building. The extension provided the company with an additional 1,378 square metres (15,307 square feet) of working space.25 Sharp and Horner’s addition to the building was designed to harmonize with the existing structure, and wherever possible they duplicated the architectural motifs employed by Darling. The building was extended by six more sash windows and terminated with a pedimented pavilion, all of which are joined to the original building with an ornate entablature and continuous cornice. The form of these elements is virtually identical to those in the original building. The masonry and terracotta ornamentation, however, does not contrast with the brickwork as strongly as in the original building. Sharp and Horner’s addition also includes a small fourth floor above the cornice, capped with a copper-covered mansard roof.

To accommodate the addition, several modifications had to be made to the interior of the original building. At the south end of the main office, three large windows were reduced in size and raised to provide space for two large vault doors on the main level. In order to harmonize the new windows with the older structure, ornamental grillwork matching that of the older side galleries was added to each window.

The new addition provided almost as much working space as the original building. It included more offices for the company’s various departments as well as several vaults, a special committee room and a large assembly room. Sharp and Horner continued the original corridors throughout the length of the new addition. The addition also included a number of conveniences, including a push-button elevator, a mail chute, improved heating and air circulation, and a telephone exchange. Outdoor tennis courts and lawn-bowling greens were provided for the employees and their friends. It was clear that the Mutual Life Assurance Company was a thriving enterprise.

Throughout the course of the 20th century, the company continued to grow and evolve, and further additions to the building were completed in 1927, 1939, 1954, 1967, 1976 and 1987. In 1988, the company became part of The Mutual Group. In 1999, it was demutualized and became The Clarica Life Insurance Company and, in 2002, it was acquired by Sun Life Financial.26

Since its completion in 1912, the building has been a prominent historical landmark, standing not only as a testament to the importance of the insurance industry in Waterloo, but as a symbol of Waterloo’s prosperity and sense of civic pride. Designed by one of Canada’s pre-eminent architects, it was considered to be “one of the most attractive office buildings in the country at that time.”27 It continues to be one of the most outstanding architectural features of the City of Waterloo. In 1979, the façade of the 1912-21 building was designated for its historical and architectural significance by the City of Waterloo, under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act.28

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Katie Cholette, PhD in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2012

1 W.J. Cowls, A Century of Mutuality: 1870-1970, (Waterloo, Mutual Life Assurance Company, 1970), 50-51.

2 “Waterloo, Ontario,” Construction: A Journal for the Architectural, Engineering, and Contracting Interests of Canada, Toronto: H. Gagnier, Limited Publishers (April 1914) VII, no. 4,127.

3 From 1863 onwards, Waterloo differed from other Ontario cities and towns by the presence of insurance companies organized on the “mutual” principle, whereby the capital of the company was that of its policyholders rather than that of shareholders. The first of these was the Waterloo County Mutual Fire
Insurance Company, established in 1863. Its decision to apply the mutual principle to life assurance was the first of its kind in Canada and the success of the fire insurance company demonstrated its efficacy. Kenneth McLaughlin and Sharon Jaeger, Waterloo: An Illustrated History 1857-2007 (Waterloo: City of
Waterloo), 72. One commentator notes, however, that despite the “co-operative spirit” of the area, many people distrusted the insurance business and agents had to work hard to impress upon them the benefits and insurance. J.W. Cowls. A Century of Mutuality: 1870-1970. (Waterloo: Mutual Life Assurance), 20.

4 Cowls, A Century of Mutuality, 18-19.

5 Kenneth McLaughlin and Sharon Jaeger, Waterloo: An Illustrated History, 1857-2007 (Waterloo: City of Waterloo, 2007), 72.

6 The Dominion Life Assurance Company purchased the building for $21,500, including furnishings. Krystal Rycroft, “Application to Ontario Heritage Trust for Provincial Plaque,” (Waterloo, Sun Life Financial, 2011), n.p.

7 Kelly Crossman, “Frank Darling,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto and Montreal: University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2000), n.p.

8 Ibid.

9 “History to the People,” Doors Open Waterloo Region, 6.

10 Ibid.

11 Janet Wright, “John Andrew Pearson,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (2nd ed.) (Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers Ltd., 1988), 1635.

12 “History to the People,” Doors Open Waterloo Region, 6.

13 Crossman, “Frank Darling.”

14 Letter from Frank Darling (Darling and Pearson) to George Wegenast (General Manager, Mutual Life Assurance Co. of Canada), 22 December 2008. Sun Life Financial Assurance Company Archives.

15 More specifically, the building’s “modern Renaissance” features include panelled grey stone quoins, fluted ionic columns, an ornate entablature and a strong cornice capped with a balustrade.

16 Kalman, Concise History of Canadian Architecture, 496.

17 Krystal Rycroft, “Application to Ontario Heritage Trust for Provincial Plaque,” (Waterloo, Sun Life Financial, 2011), n.p.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 “Mutual Life Building, Waterloo, ON.” The City of Waterloo, accessed 27 March 2012.

21 “Waterloo, Ontario.” Construction, 127.

22 “New Extension to Mutual Life Building, Waterloo, Ontario,” Construction: A Journal for the Architectural, Engineering, and Contracting Interests of Canada. Toronto: H. Gagnier, Limited Publishers (October 1921) XIV, no. 10, 289.

23 “History to the People,” Doors Open Waterloo Region, 7.

24 The firm lasted until 1923 when Andrew Sharp emigrated to California. Horner subsequently set up independently in Toronto. “Andrew Sharp.” Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950, accessed 11 April 2012. “Herbert Horner.” Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950, accessed 11 April 2012.

25 Cowls, A Century of Mutuality, 51. Construction magazine reported that the addition was approximately 80 x 110 feet. “New Extension,” Construction, 293.

26 McLaughlin & Jaeger, Waterloo: An Illustrated History, 72.

27 Ibid., 110.

28 Bylaw 79-188.