In 1931, the view from the observation deck of the newly completed Canadian Bank of Commerce stretched out as far as the eye could see in all directions. In 2017, the view from the historic building now known as Commerce Court North, is a very different one. Although the sheer grandeur of the building, and the lofty perch it afforded, has long been eclipsed by the taller Financial District towers that now surround it, a rare visit to the iconic observation deck—which has been closed to the public for decades—is more of a treat than ever. 

Commerce Court North, image by Jack LandauCommerce Court North, image by Jack Landau

While the 34-storey tower's 1931-1962 reign as the tallest building in the British Commonwealth is long elapsed, the structure's history and one-of-a-kind architecture still make a trip to the top a special occasion. And despite the very different context, the views are still spectacular.   

Looking northeast, image by Jack Landau Looking northeast, image by Jack Landau

The observation deck is now surrounded by Canada's tallest buildings, image by JThe observation deck is now surrounded by Canada's tallest buildings, image by Jack Landau

Designed by acclaimed American bank architects York and Sawyer with the Toronto firm of Darling and Pearson acting as architects of record, the building soared above the young city's skyline for decades after its completion, staking a presence every bit as commanding as the CN Tower today.

The building in 1930, alongside an R100 airship, image via Toronto ArchivesThe building in 1930, alongside an R100 airship, image via Toronto Archives

In the latter decades of the 20th century, however, the opulent Art-Deco tower was subsumed into the Financial District's high-rise canyon. In 1967, the tower's height in the Toronto skyline was surpassed for the first time by the Mies van der Rohe-designed TD Centre.

A corridor of giant heads, image by Jack LandauA corridor of giant heads, image by Jack Landau

As safety standards changed, liabilities rose, and new mechanical equipment was installed in the building's penthouse, the observation deck itself was closed to the public in the 1970s. Shortly thereafter, a handrail above the edge was removed, leaving each of the giant heads with pierced ears. 

Down the barrel of the corridor, image by Jack Landau Down the barrel of the corridor, image by Jack Landau

These days, getting outside amongst the 16 iconic 'giant heads' means cutting a path through what's now an HVAC room, which abruptly lets out to the deck. While it ain't exactly a romantic entrance, it lends that first step onto the observation deck a sense of whimsy that's hard to come by in Toronto. Opening the door feels like setting foot in some strange bankers' Narnia. 

A giant head among glass and steel, image by Jack Landau A giant head among glass and steel, image by Jack Landau

Briefly re-opened to mark CIBC's 150th anniversary, the UrbanToronto team was lucky enough to join a small group of private visitors touring the space. Our video of the tour provides a more complete look at the observation deck, which wraps all the way around the tower:

Completed at the height of the Great Depression, the elaborate, ornamental building, now stands as a testament to the splendours, excesses, and paradoxes of the 1920s. At street level, the high ceilings of the banking hall—now a private CIBC banking facility—are plated in gold.

The banking hall, image by Jack LandauThe banking hall, image by Jack Landau

80 years later, the bank prepares to move some 15,000 employees into its new headquarters at the (soon-to-be-renamed) Bay Park Centre, where the new architecture of wealth will leave behind another record, of another time.