Old City Hall

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4-min read | Last updated on July 16, 2019

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Every 15 minutes, the bells of Old City Hall’s 104-metre clock tower ring the time, turning everyone’s head to this masterpiece of Romanesque Revival architecture. It’s 2019, exactly 120 years after the building’s completion, and the moment has come to write its next chapter; a task that new city hall, just across the street, is hard at work completing.

From its founding in 1793 as the Town of York to the 1880’s when the question to build a new temple to municipal governance was posed, Toronto’s city administration had taken office in just two buildings. The first city hall comprised half a dozen rooms and sat atop a farmers’ market, with all the odours and food waste that such a location entailed. Of course the place had been envisioned as the “Town Hall”, a large meeting room where the arts, religion and political activity could collide, not as a functioning government house. At the market’s construction in 1831, there simply wasn’t demand for a city hall; the Town of York lacked a municipal government and was administered by the province and its magistrates directly. This all changed as Toronto was incorporated as a city in 1834.Sadly, the Town Hall was destroyed by the First Great Fire of Toronto in 1849 and replaced by St. Lawrence Hall a year later.

In 1845, city hall moved to its first purpose-built structure, on Front St, immediately west of Jarvis St. The city’s offices consisted of a three-storey central building with two-storey wings on its east and west sides. It hosted the council chamber, the mayor’s office, a police station, a basement jail and shops at street level. By 1880, Toronto had a population of 86,000 and its needs had outgrown the minuscule Front St City Hall. It was time for the city to live up to its then motto “Industry, Intelligence, Integrity” and make a bold statement to establish itself as a first-class metropolis, now free from British dominance. As an aside, Toronto’s motto changed to the current “Diversity Our Strength” in 1998 following the amalgamation of Etobicoke, Scarborough, York, East York and North York with the former City of Toronto. If you have any interest in checking out the remains of “Second City Hall”, stop by St. Lawrence Market South where its facade and second floor (known as the “Market Gallery”, admission is free on Fridays) survive at the property’s north end, framed by the 1902 market.

To fulfill its grand vision, Toronto picked local architect E. J. Lennox in 1886. The new structure would consolidate the functions of a city hall and that of a regional courthouse, in replacement of the York County Courthouse (erected 1852) on Adelaide St which was, too, running out of space. A full city block, northeast of the intersection of Yonge St and Queen St, on the fringe of “The Ward”, the slum of the days, was set aside for the project. Construction began in earnest in August 1889 and was completed ten years later 1,250% over budget.

Lennox was deeply influenced by the work of American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, father of the “Richardson Romanesque” style, and so was his design for Old City Hall. The use of rock-face and coloured sandstone, round arches, turrets, cylindrical towers, pitched roofs, dormers and gabbles, are all peculiar to this architectural style reminiscent of 11th and 12th century French, Spanish and Italian Romanesque. Some of Old City Hall’s distinctive features are its entrance way which comprises three archways and clusters of pilasters, its numerous grotesques and a 104-metre-off-centred bell tower meant to terminate the Bay St vista. Inside the building’s lobby (and past airport-like security) one can admire the mosaic floors and the grand staircase which used to separate the courthouse quarters (west) from that of city hall’s (east) and in the middle of which stands an impressive stained glass window. The building’s front frieze reads “Municipal Buildings” while that on the east and west sides are respectively engraved with “City Hall” and “Court House”.

Although Old City Hall was one of the largest buildings in Toronto upon completion in 1889, a 2018 report ordered by the city suggests that of its 406,000 sqft, spread on four floors and an attic, only 170,000 sqft (42%) are actually usable as office space for city employees. The culprits? The residual 58%, made up of large corridors, a lobby, a mezzanine, courtrooms and high ceilings, all essential to the building’s operations as a city hall and as the York County Courthouse, but unfit to set up cubicles. A similar assessment was made shortly after city hall moved into the building and within half a century it was in dire need of a new home. Eventually, decision was made in 1956 to build Toronto’s forth and current city hall across the street, with plenty of office space, and the municipal government relocated there in 1965. Since 1984, Old City Hall is a National Historic Site.

Today, Old City Hall is home to municipal and provincial courthouses. In 2015, the City of Toronto made public its intent to claim the building back for its own use. The courts’ leases will not be renewed past December 31, 2021 at which time these institutions are expected to move into St. Lawrence Market North, a proposed building at the northwest corner of Front St and Jarvis St. The city will tentatively repurpose Old City Hall as a Museum for Toronto, a branch of the Toronto Public Library, a wedding chamber and complementary event space.

Don’t be deterred by the metal detectors at the building’s entrance! Old City Hall is a functioning courthouse and in that respect is open to the public. A word of caution though: pictures are restricted inside the facility, especially in courtrooms.

Looking to access the building via public transit? Take the TTC subway or Queen St streetcar routes and get off at Queen Station or at the corner of Queen St and Bay St (surface transportation only).

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