Doors Open London

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September, 2019

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One of the benefits of attending an event like “Doors Open London”: is that you get to see inside buildings that usually aren’t open to the public, or most areas of the building aren’t. The Canada Life Building across from Victoria Park in downtown London is one of those buildings. Canada Life was the first domestic life insurance company in the country and has been in operation since 1847. This imposing building is one of the huge art deco structures sprinkled throughout downtown. I never would have thought the public would be able to go into this private business but it turns out we can.

Just to the right when you go through the main entrance is a little museum that the public can enter at any time. Who knew? The first things you notice in the lobby though are the beautiful original light fixtures and the stunning Italian marble on the walls. Built in 1926, it is a gorgeous building. Turn around and check out the stained glass window above the front doors – two knights who are said to be protecting both the company and its clients. Look up and check out the plaster work on the ceilings as it is very ornate. Look for the little details like the old logo on the door handles – the company used to be called the London Life Insurance Company and this was the head office.

To get back to the museum, there are a number of small exhibits about the history of the company and its connections to the community over the years. The exhibits change a bit over time but the ones on display that day included: a meteorite that landed in Dresden, a small community about an hour southwest of London, on July 11, 1939; the history of the London Life Men’s Club and Women’s Club and the work they’ve done in the community; the story of the Canada Life Beacon on top of the Canada Life Building in downtown Toronto; the story of the company’s mascot, the Canada Life Pelican; the building of the Auditorium in 1928; and how Leighton McCarthy, then president, helmed the company through the great depression in the 1930s.

What was different on this occasion was that the public was allowed to go upstairs to the auditorium. There were staff volunteers on hand to ensure we stayed where we were supposed to be and to answer questions about the building and the artwork on display in the hallways. One photo of the workers was memorable as the manner in which the photographer took the landscape style picture, a gentleman from one end of the photo was able to run to the other end behind his coworkers and be in the photo at the other end as well.

There was an astronomical exhibit on display in the Auditorium with connections to other buildings participating in the Doors Open event: Eldon House and the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory. John Harris, owner of Eldon House, used astronomical instruments to help map the Great Lakes. With all the material on display it was difficult to get a picture of the full Auditorium but it is a very impressive hall.

My hope is that in other years more of these old masterpieces will be opened up to the public. I’d love to see inside the art deco post office building! The lights outside that building are amazing. It would be sad though if none of the interior has been preserved.

Denise Bridge

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