Benjamin Brown

The first Jewish architect in Toronto, Benjamin Brown, has left a lasting impact on the city.

Benjamin Brown was born in Grodno, Lithuania in 1888 and immigrated to Toronto around 1896 with his family.  His inclination for the visual arts eventually led him to the Ontario School of Art and Design, but decided to pursue architecture instead. He was the only Jewish student in the architectural department for his entire four years, completing his degree in 1913.

Brown’s big break would come in 1919 when businessman and community leader Mendel Granatstein commissioned him to design his new 3-story home at 42 St. George Street in Toronto.   Mr. Granatstein was also a founding member and long-time president of Beth Jacob Congregation, the synagogue that Brown was ultimately commissioned to build.

Brown considered Beth Jacob Synagogue to be his crowning achievement. It was the first synagogue in Toronto to be designed by a Jewish architect. That a synagogue of this magnitude and grandeur was entrusted to such a young and relatively inexperienced architect speaks to Brown’s talent and reputation and the Jewish community’s increased confidence in its new generation of emerging professionals.

By the mid-1920s, Brown entered his most active period, with many prestigious and large-scale projects, including industrial, communal, commercial and residential buildings. He was selected to build a number of large factory lofts and by 1930, Brown’s trifecta of graceful loft buildings—the Commodore, the Tower, and the Balfour—were complete. Significant community commissions included the Brunswick Talmud Torah and the Primrose Club.

By 1934, the economic slump of the Great Depression disrupted Brown’s career trajectory. Commissions still came, but they were smaller and mostly alterations or minor additions. An alteration to a rooming house around 1935 is a telling marker of the period. Fewer clients were requesting the large statement buildings that had defined his early career. He officially retired in 1955 and died in 1974.

Through our research, we have discovered that Brown designed or significantly altered no fewer than 170 buildings over the course of his40 year career. During that time he helped shape Toronto’s social and physical landscape.

View the map of Benjamin Brown’s commissions around Toronto.

Archivist Notes

The collection of Brown’s drawings is endlessly fascinating. Surprisingly, so much can be gleaned by examining floor plans, elevation drawings, even mechanical schematics! Brown’s work not only illustrates his buildings but also what was happening in the community, in industries like the garment trade, and in the services that were being built to sustain Jewish life. While Brown’s story isn’t well known, his buildings are hard to miss. Drawing a line between the two proves the power of archives to fill in the blanks. Following our exhibition on Brown in 2016, Dave LeBlanc, architectural writer for the Globe and Mail, remarked that “With this exhibit, Benjamin Brown takes his rightful place alongside Edward J. Lennox, John M. Lyle, Frank Darling, John Pearson and other Toronto city-builders of the first half of the twentieth century.”

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