Old City Hall in Toronto

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Toronto's Old City Hall was home to its city council from 1899 to 1966 and remains one of the city's most prominent structures. The building is located at the corner of Queen and Bay Streets, across Bay Street from Nathan Phillips Square and the new City Hall in the centre of downtown Toronto. The heritage landmark has a distinctive clock tower which heads the length of Bay Street from Front Street to Queen Street as a terminating vista.

Old City Hall was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984.


Toronto's Old City Hall was one of the largest buildings in Toronto and the largest civic building in North America upon completion in 1899. It was the burgeoning city's third city hall. Designed by prominent Toronto architect Edward James Lennox, the building took more than a decade to build and cost more than $2.5 million. Work on the building began in 1889. It was constructed of sandstone from the Credit River valley, grey stone from the Orangeville area, and brown stone from New Brunswick. Angry councillors, due to cost overruns and construction delays, refused E.J. Lennox a plaque proclaiming him as architect for the completed building in 1899. Not to be denied, Lennox had stonemasons "sign" his name in corbels beneath the upper floor eaves around the entire building: "EJ LENNOX ARCHITECT AD 1898".

An annex to this building, Manning Chambers, was built by Lennox at the northwest corner of Bay and Queen Street. Completed in 1900, the 5 storey building was later demolished to make way for the current Toronto City Hall. Manning Chambers was built for and named after former mayor Alexander Manning. York County offices were also located in Old City Hall from 1900 to 1953. With the establishment of Metropolitan Toronto, the county seat moved to Newmarket, Ontario (and to the Old Newmarket Town Hall and Courthouse).

A public square was originally planned in front of the city hall called Victoria Square. The space would be an urban square with diagonal walkways meeting at a central statue of Queen Victoria, its proposed namesake. The plan never came into being and a smaller space was allocated in front of the building by Queen Street. The City Beautiful movement influenced Toronto planning as well in the early 20th century, and a plan was formulated for a grand thoroughfare from Queen Street at City Hall to Front Street that would have been called Federal Avenue. It, too, was never built, though the City Beautiful movement did influence the urban design principles of nearby University Avenue.

At the foot of the front steps on Queen Street is the Cenotaph, erected in 1925 to honour Torontonians who died in the First World War fighting for Canada, and later also in honour of Torontonians who died in the Second World War, the Korean War, and Canadian peacekeeping operations during Remembrance Day ceremonies every November 11.

Four gargoyles were placed on the corners of the Clock Tower in 1899, but they were removed to the effects of the weather on the sandstone carvings in 1938. In 2002, bronze casts of the gargoyles were reinstalled. The replicas are not duplicates as the original designs were lost. The gargoyles are similar to those on the Peace Tower in Ottawa. Two grotesques and antique lampposts at the base of the grand stair case inside were removed in 1947 and sold. They were reclaimed by the City and reinstalled in the 1980s.

In spite of its large size upon completion, Old City Hall proved to be inadequate for Toronto's growing municipal government within a couple of decades of completion. Under Mayor Nathan Phillips, Toronto City Council launched an international design competition for a new city hall and public square across Bay Street and completed a striking Modernist city hall and public square in 1965. Soon after in the 1960s, plans were made to start construction of the Toronto Eaton Centre. The original plans called for Old City Hall to be demolished and replaced by a retail complex, and a number of skyscrapers around a large plaza, leaving only the cenotaph (or in one plan, the clock tower) in the front. Public outcry forced authorities to abandon these plans, and the Eaton Centre would be built around the landmark civic building and also the Church of the Holy Trinity (which was originally planned to be demolished). Old City Hall then became a dedicated courthouse.


Old City Hall can be described as a massive square quad with a courtyard in the middle. Situated at the front elevation, its clock tower was placed off centre to provide a terminating vista for Bay Street. In spite of this seeming asymmetry, the balance of the design is still existent throughout. Ultimately, even though the clock tower was off centre, balance was achieved through the repetition of the subtle details of measure and pattern. For example, to the right side of the main entrance a narrow circular tower rises 21.4 meters from grade. It is cut precisely in half by the roof line; it extends above the roof line by 10.7 meters and is also 10.7 meters from the roof line to the base of the main tower. Further on, the east and west pavilions, although quite different in their designs, are very similar in shape. The double-storied oriel of the east tower is exaggerated to counter the weight of the double tower of the west pavilion. The subtle balance is able to stand out at the main entrance of the building and prevent it from being overshadowed by the clock tower. The exterior rock-face wall was built in a series of courses, in variable sizes separated by carved bands. Grouped columns are repeatedly used to accent the windows.

Romanesque Revival style

Old City Hall was designed by architect E.J. Lennox in a variation of Romanesque Revival architecture known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Developed by Henry Hobson Richardson, this variation is considered more masculine, and it highlights bulk and massiveness as well as different sculptural features. The Romanesque style originated in Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries and had characteristics such as square towers, asymmetrical massing, stone carvings, round arches, and heavy stonework. During the mid 1800s, this style was revitalized in Western architecture. H.H. Richardson contributed dormers, circular towers with conical roofs, and the use of different coloured stone for the revival style that bears his name. Carvings of humans and animals were also part of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Lennox was interested in and was influenced by Richardson’s work and travelled to the United States while he was planning his design for Toronto's third city hall in the late 19th century.

These influences can be seen at Old City Hall with many its many arches and towers. Also, the use of different coloured stone contributes towards the Romanesque style of design. The exterior and interiors of Old City Hall are crafted with great detail. On the clock tower, four stone gargoyles were placed near the top of the tower. Near the building’s entrance, there are several grotesque faces carved in stone. Lennox included his own resemblance next to the other carved faces which, tradition has it, represent city councillors. Lennox's own face is identified as one of the caricatures by his handlebar mustache.

The entire building has ornamentation derived from ancient Roman art. There are structural decorations used by the different colors of stone. The stone carvers did not complete work until a year after opening day, as there were many decorative pieces. The stonework on the entrance was restored in 1999.

Made primarily of sandstone, Old City Hall features a two-tone facade. One tone is made of light brown-grey sandstone from the former Beaumont Quarries (now known as Dorchester Sandstone Quarries located in Westmorland County, New Brunswick). This tone is accented with darker reddish-brown sandstone known as Sackville Sandstone (also located in the Westmorland County of New Brunswick). The transportation of the stone employed the use of over 1,360 rail-car loads, equivalent to a nine-mile long train, to bring the material to the site. In addition to the stone, 8,354 barrels of concrete were used to hold everything together.

What is interesting about the sandstone is not just the variations in colour, but also the textural characteristics of the stone. Observation of the building’s profile shows it is cut stone with a rock-faced texture application. Despite the roughness of the sandstone, it is not perceived to be jagged, but rather heavily weathered. The raw state of the sandstone reinforces the natural state of the material and greatly heightens the overall sense of mass that the building exhibits. The scale of the stone pieces greatly contributes to the sense of mass as well, conveying the sense that the building was literally carved from the rock and placed where it currently resides.


Within the three large oak doorways of the main entrance are steps leading to a two-storey main hall. In the arcade upon entering the building from the main entrance on Queen Street, there are murals designed by George Agnew Reid detailing Toronto’s pioneers and angels related to their experiences. On the far left is a mural of Mackenzie, Allan, Macdonnel, Ryerson and Scadding depicting farmers and workers. The spandrel portion of this arcade has four angels painted on it. The first is discovery saying “hail to the pioneers,” the second is fame, saying “to their names and deeds,” the third is fortune which says “remembered and forgotten,” lastly is adventure saying “we honour here.” On the right side of the arcade is another mural depicting Galinee, Simcoe, Tecumseh, Brock, Osgoode, Baldwin, Laura Secord and Strachan depicting pioneers.

Together these murals depict early history of Toronto with the angels representing the four achievements by these pioneers. Directly opposite are a grand staircase and an extraordinary stained-glass window designed by Robert McCausland, the renowned Toronto stained glass artist. The monumental 16 ft. by 23 ft. window entitled The Union of Commerce and Industry, depicts civic progress and the "upbuilding" of Toronto. It is organized in three arches and features 12 life-sized figures amidst scenes of the city's waterfront and a depiction of Toronto's second city hall on Front Street East. A marble war memorial is positioned below the window, dedicated to victims of the Second World War. Also in the vicinity is the 4.5 m (15 ft.) wide divided stairway, leading to a landing branching east and west to what used to be the county and city divisions of the building. Stucco pillars were shaped by Italian craftsmen. Surviving original interior include detailing in wood, plaster, iron, bronze and marble, including a mosaic floor laid by Jacomo Bespirt and family, columns with plaster capitals, faux-marble finishes, woodwork, wrought-iron grotesques and gas lamp standards, and door knobs bearing the city’s old coat of arms.

The columns from the inside are made out different kinds of marble. The marble of some of these columns came from Italian quarries. The columns on the first floor were also having the marble in the middle parts and on the top parts of the columns, their made out of some sort of bronze material with different kinds of craftsmanship designs. The main hall in its day was said to be the city's grandest indoor space, amazing visitors. Today, exhibit cabinets that display a collection of photographs and artifacts are found on the main floor of the entrance lobby. Also, when court is not in session, the former Council Chamber, with its spectator gallery above and late 19th-century ambiance, is open to the public.

Clock tower

Old City Hall features a large, 103.6 metre-tall (340 ft) clock tower that is a terminating vista for Bay Street south of Queen Street West and is also prominently visible from Queen Street and Nathan Phillips Square. The clock room houses three bells, the largest of which weighs 5443 kilograms. There is one small and unofficial inscription just below the coat of arms on the bell, which reads “J.K.Oct.18, 1900”. Four garnished stone gargoyles sat at the upper corners of the clock tower; these ornaments were removed to the effects of the weather on the sandstone carvings in 1938, but bronze casts of the gargoyles were reinstalled in 2002.

The clock originally functioned manually; it was automated in 1950s. In 1992, the clock was stopped for the first time in more than a century to perform maintenance and repairs. The maintenance consisted of painting the metallic components of the clock: its bronze, brass, iron and steel.

Future plans

Currently the building is leased by the provincial government and is used as a court house for the Ontario Court of Justice. The City of Toronto has served notice on the province that its current lease at Old City Hall will not be renewed past 31 December 2016. The city spent $77 million on renovations completed in 2005 to restore the exterior and the 103.6 metre-high clock tower. Over the next two years, the city will spend $7.2-million on interior repairs to be completed in 2012. There is speculation that the building will be used as a museum for the city of Toronto.

So far there is no official plan to move the court operations elsewhere.

Appearances in cultural works

Artist William Armstrong painted a watercolour painting of Old City Hall prior to its completion. The building features prominently in the novel Old City Hall, by Robert Rotenberg. For the 2009 Luminato arts festival, artist Kurt Perschke brought Redball Project to Toronto and temporarily installed a giant red ball in locations around Toronto's downtown core, including inside the central arch of the main entrance to Old City Hall. In terms of popular culture, the building is sometimes used to film movies and television shows, such as This is Wonderland, Flashpoint, Street Legal, Covert Affairs, and Dirty Pictures.

See also

  • Toronto City Hall–current city hall
  • St. Lawrence Market–first city hall incorporated into market hall
  • Allegheny County Courthouse–influence for Lennox's City Hall design: both buildings have interior courtyards and a similar tower design

Further reading

  • Dendy, William, and William Kilbourn. Toronto Observed: Its Architecture, Patrons, and History. Toronto, Canada: Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, 1986. Print.

External links

Source en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_City_Hall_(Toronto)