Sam Carter

ECORATIVE ARCHES AND GATES in Canada, created over centuries, celebrate and commemorate significant people, events, resources, and spirit of place. A remarkable number of these structures still exist while others were temporary or have been demolished, usually in the name of progress. Arches and gates were created for occasions ranging from viceregal visits to commercial events, crafted by both sophisticated and folk artists. Many interpreted iconic, stereotypical Canadian images, some for patriotic or educational purposes, while others were purely celebratory in nature.

Like other decorative arts, arches and gates in Canada originated primarily from European and Asian influences. The Romans have been a major source for the classical forms so widespread in the European tradition, while the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, perhaps the best-known commemorative arch in the modern world, may serve as a general model.

French and British styles influenced the design of early gates of fortresses and cities in French and English Canada alike. Eventually, a fusion of French chateau and Scottish baronial styles, perfected for the Canadian Pacific Railway, became known as the “Castles of the North,” and was recognized as a distinctive Canadian style applied to architecture and decorative arts throughout the country as found in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, and elsewhere, in vestigial and on-site reconstructions.

Ancient Chinese, Korean, and Japanese sources have also inspired numerous gates across Canada. These examples interpret traditional Asian decorative motifs and structures created with the use of local materials and tools, by Canadian makers. Other more authentic Asian gates were built in Asia and then reconstructed by teams of artisans sent to Canada. Most of these structures celebrate harmony and friendship between Asian and Canadian cities and their people. A recent issue of Canada Post commemorative stamps of Chinatown gates illustrates in very small format the variety and interest of these structures in cities across the country.

The Golden Arches of McDonald’s, symbol of the global fast-food restaurant chain, may be the best known of all commercial arches in Canada and around the globe. Originally, three-dimensional yellow plastic arches were part of the restaurant chain’s first architecture, now seen worldwide as its iconic brand. The first McDonald’s outside of the United States opened in Richmond, British Columbia, in 1968.

Within the Canadian historical context the city arches and gates of Canada were usually grand structures destined to welcome royalty, heads of state, government dignitaries, and celebrities, or to mark holidays and special occasions. These fancy forms were financed by federal, provincial, and municipal governments or by local businesses and community groups.

“The New Governor General of Canada— Entry into Montreal” (1878) and “La Réception Vice-Royale à Ottawa, L’ Arc de Triomphe du Service Civil, Place du Parlement” (1878) are excellent examples of the busy, ornate bric-a-brac associated with “birthday cake” Victorian styles, somewhat similar to French beaux arts models in their eclectic, exotic splendour. The first illustration, the Montreal Snow Shoe Club members, dressed in colourful Canadian voyageur costumes, created a Living Arch to welcome Lord Dufferin, new Governor General, to Montreal. In Ottawa, the reception and gate, with flags and banners flying, trumpeted a welcome and paid homage to the viceregal couple very differently by emphasizing the colonial ties of the country to Britain.

The Entrance Gate, Citadel Hill, Halifax, Nova Scotia, begun in 1749 with the arrival of colonists from Britain, is shown here on a colour postcard from about 1917 which documents the work of archaeologists, historians, architects, masons, etc., over many decades to return the citadel to its original mid-19th century appearance.

Porte Saint-Louis, Quebec City, situated at the ramparts of the city, dates back to at least 1694, and is shown here as it appeared in 1878 from a postcard published about 1930. The present structure dates from 1935.

The Old Fort Garry Gate with Dog Train, Winnipeg, Manitoba (1822), from a postcard circa 1910, is all that remains of the vast, stone-walled complex that was Fort Garry, erected by Scottish employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company who brought the stone construction to Western Canada.

The Princes’ Gates, at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto, built in the beaux arts style to celebrate Canada’s 60th anniversary of Confederation, were originally to be called The Diamond Jubilee of Confederation Gates, but the name was changed when it was found that the Princes were touring Canada the year of its dedication. On August 30, 1927, the Prince of Wales and Prince George opened the Princes’ Gates. A statue at the top of the gate depicts the “Goddess of Winged Victory,” holding in her hand a single maple leaf.

The Royal Military College Memorial Arch in Kingston, Ontario, designed by architect J. M. Lyle, was completed in 1924. The elegant style is a forerunner of modern design with simplified classical architectural references. “To the Glorious Memory of the Ex-Cadets of the Royal Military College of Canada Who Gave Their Lives for Empire” is inscribed in relief on the stone arch.

Indigenous Haida West Coast wooden post and beam gate-like architecture has inspired West Coast Modernist designs. Canadian architect Arthur Erickson used concrete in place of wood for his renowned Aboriginal-inspired Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia. Adjacent to the concrete and glass MOA is a facsimile reconstruction of a Haida village with a wooden mortuary totem in the form of a gate, a rare form among Aboriginal totems of the West Coast.

ILLUSTRATIONS FOR THIS ARTICLE were collected from several early Canadian news-magazines of the late 1800s and postcards mostly from the first half of the 1900s. They appear here in tribute to the artists, engravers, and photographers of both periods and provide a glimpse of the vast range of Canadian decorative arches and gates pictured in the steel engravings published by The Canadian Illustrated News (1874-1878), The Graphic (1878), and L’Opinion Publique (1878), as well as many of the postcards based upon colour photographs of Canadian sites, printed at first in the early years of the 20th century in the UK, Europe, and the United States followed by the Canadian trade soon after.

Although mostly crafted from local wood, stone, and other natural building materials and tools by established Canadian artisans as well as newcomers to Canada, the historical gates and arches shown here reflected these colonial sources within the broad context of an indigenous material culture and local practices. This diverse mix of materials, motifs, and precedents combined to create Canadian decorative arches and gates very much in the spirit of a particular time and place, in a decorative style we may call “Canadian mosaic design,” set within an era of postmodern fragmentation and structural eclecticism.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.
Sam Carter is professor emeritus at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver, British Columbia
Photographs by Debbie Adams

Princes’ Gate,
Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto.
Postcard, circa 1960
Images courtesy Sam Carter