Toronto residents get to admire its elegant Renaissance Revival facade as they stroll on King St but does anyone really know what’s behind the walls of 1850 St. Lawrence Hall?
The history of this architectural gem can be traced all the way back to 1803 when the plot of land bordered by King St to the North, Church St to the West, Jarvis St to the east and Front St to the south was earmarked for commercial use as ‘Market Square’. The settlement quickly erected wooden shelters to house a farmer’s market on the site. By 1831, these proved inadequate for a growing town of 3,000 and it was replaced with a permanent rectangular building. The new brick structure, innovative by design, was laid out as a central open-air marketplace flanked on its four sides by retail stores and butcher stalls. Archways on King St, Jarvis St and Front St allowed for patrons and goods to enter the complex while a second level on the King St fronting was reserved for public gatherings including art, political and religious performances, christened the “Town Hall”.
In 1834, the City of Toronto was incorporated that is, it gained a government of its own vs. being directly under the supervision of the province of Upper Canada, its magistrates and Lieutenant Governor. The municipal government took its quarters in the Town Hall and adjoining retail space on the ground floor turning it into the city’s first city hall. In 1845, the city’s administration moved out of what felt very much like a Roman forum of the 19th century to a new purpose-built facility immediately south of the property across Front St. Besides the council chambers, a police station and a basement jail, limited commercial activity took place at the back of the “new” city hall in the form of a small fruit, vegetable and poultry market to relieve Market Square. With the city vacating the original Town Hall, the space regained its use as a concert, lecture and public assembly scene. For some time, plans were drawn to redesign the market’s main facade on King St but never materialized, at least not in the manner intended.
In 1849, disaster struck in the early morning hours of April 7 and the Town Hall at the northern end of the market property, along with St James Cathedral and most nearby building bordering King St, were reduced to ashes in what is now referred to as the First Great Fire of Toronto. Plans were hastily made to replace the lost market building and earlier designs to modernize it before the accident by architect William Thomas revived and altered into St. Lawrence Hall, as we know it today. The following year the facility was up and running. Much like the Town Hall two decades earlier, the venue opened as a large event space like there was no other in town at the time. The Great Hall, on the third floor provided room for as many as 1,000 people under 36-foot ceilings, ideal for balls, exhibitions, operas, music and political rallies. King Edward VII, Sir John A Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, and William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first Mayor and Upper Canada Rebellion leader, all made appearances at St. Lawrence Hall. The building’s second floor saw office use while the ground level hosted shops as well as an arcade corridor connecting the reconstructed and now-enclosed market to the south to King St. There, pedestrians and carriages could gaze at the elegant Renaissance Revival facade adorned with a portico, a domed bell tower and a French mansard roof; a far cry from its nondescript predecessor.
Sadly, by the end of the nineteenth century the venue had gone obsolete after larger and better equipped meeting spaces flourished around town and slowly fell into disarray. In 1967, in commemoration of Canada’s centennial, St. Lawrence Hall was restored to its former glory, except for the shopping arcade which was remodelled as a lobby for the upper floors, thanks to the strong ideological and financial backing of a few prominent local architects. That year, it was designated a National Historic Site by the Federal Government nudging away the spectre of demolition that had been raised upon it for years once in for all. Of note, during the renovation process, the entire east wing collapsed onto itself and was rebuilt brick by brick in less than a year.
Today, after having housed offices and rehearsal rooms for the National Ballet of Canada between 1948 and 1996, St. Lawrence Hall continues to serve the purpose it was built for with each level entertaining its original function. The third floor Great Hall and connecting rooms are now almost exclusively used for private parties such as weddings and corporate events.
St. Lawrence Hall is a 10-minute walk from King subway station. For door-to-door transit service, catch the King St streetcar routes (503/504) and get off at the King St E and Jarvis St. We recommend that you cross King St to St James Park for great views of the building. While there, feel free to navigate around the flower beds, gazebo and fountain. If you’d like to check out more places in the vicinity, make your way west to St. James Cathedral, south to St. Lawrence Market or east to Old Toronto and the city’s first post office.
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