Nathan Phillips Square, its concrete arches, pond turned skating rink, the Toronto Sign, the imposing silhouette of City Hall in the background: it all makes for the perfect picture and everyone’s there to strike a pose… or ten. Far from this postal card backdrop, in the late 1800’s, the area then known as St. John’s Ward, or just “The Ward”, was one of the least desirable in the city and one that the municipality sought to eradicate for close to a century.
Upper Canada was only a couple years old when Lieutenant Governor Simcoe decided that the province needed a new capital. To say the least, much of the political class was not thrilled at the idea of starting fresh again and it would take some convincing to get them to move to whatever site he chose for the new town. Toronto was surveyed in 1793 and decision was made to transfer the capital there temporarily until 1796 when it would move again to a location tentatively in the London area. Simcoe incentivized his people to follow him with generous land and title grants. In fact, the area bounded by today’s Queen St (then known as Lot St), the town’s northern limit, and Bloor St was sliced into 41 lots ranging in size from 100 to 200 acres for that very purpose. Dr. James Macaulay, a surgeon by trade who had served as a Queen’s Ranger, received one lot and by 1799 through trades with fellow landowners, he controlled the area bordered by present day Chestnut, College, Yonge and Queen streets. Over the following decades, the property was subdivided and a working class neighbourhood emerged out of it: “Macaulaytown”.
By the 1850’s, Macaulaytown had become a destination of choice for newcomers, offering affordable accommodation a stone’s throw away from the lake, transportation and work establishments. The first waive of immigration brought Blacks fleeing enslavement in the United States via the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes to safety. Slavery had been abolished across most of the British Empire in 1833. Blacks were quickly followed by Eastern European Jews and Irishmen running away from respectively persecution and the Potato Famine. Eventually, early immigrants were joined by Italians and Chinese starting in the 1880’s. By that time, the area, which had adopted the nickname of “The Ward”, had rapidly become one of the densest, most impoverished and diverse in the city. Its population was often the victim of racist slurs and in certain instances barred from or relegated to some professions. Then, to make matters worse, some landowners sought to capitalize on the late century’s housing shortage and turned to land speculation, building ramshackle structures in backyards and alleyways and converting single family homes to rooming houses.
As the 1800’s drew to a close, the Ward was no less than a slum and the city started to grow concerned about its insalubrity. Officials felt that there was no better way to address the issue than to encroach on the neighbourhood’s turf. The Federal Government opened the Toronto Armouries on University Ave in 1894 while Old City Hall welcomed its first visitors five years later in 1899 on Queen St, the enclave’s southern limit. Following the reduction in residential space and worsening living conditions, the Jewish population gradually relocated to Kensington Market. Meanwhile, the city didn’t back down on its “clean-up” attempt and in 1911 introduced “Federal Avenue”, a scheme under which a wide thoroughfare would link Union Station (under construction at the time) to Queen St, which end would be terminated by lavish and large public buildings. Of the plan, only one building saw the light of day: the Registry Office (1917-1964), northeast of Osgoode Hall. After WWI, Italians, in turn, moved out of the Ward en masse to settle in present-day Little Italy on College St. From that point on and until the 1950’s the neighbourhood was known to all as Toronto’s Chinatown. Federal Avenue was somewhat revived in 1929 as “Cambrai Avenue” but failed to garner public support and eventually the extension of University Ave south from Queen St to Union Station in 1931 put the last nail in its coffin.
Two decades later, it was again a public project that dealt a final blow to the Ward: Toronto City Hall. Most of the area south of Dundas St was cleared for the development and some streets (south ends of Chestnut St and Elizabeth St, west end of Albert St) were removed from the grid. Chinatown was forced out and took its quarters on Spadina Ave.
The brainchild of Mayor Nathan Phillips, Toronto City Hall opened in 1965 after ten years of planning and construction. It was designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell who sadly passed away just ten months before the building’s completion. The complex incorporates a one storey podium atop which sit two curved towers of different heights (27 storey – 99 metres – for the east tower and 20 – 79 metres – for the west one) joined in their centre by a circular council chamber (sometimes referred to as the “saucer”). The podium features a 35,000 sqft grass rooftop since 2010. At the foot of it is Nathan Phillips Square, a major site for political gatherings and public events and since 2015 the host of the famous 3D Toronto Sign. The square also features a small concrete pond which doubles as a skating rink in the winter months. The entire City Hall and square footprint is surrounded by elevated walkways with various entry points including bridges to the Sheraton Centre to the south and to a residential building at the northern edge of the site. They offer great views of the area and a clear panorama for pictures.
Toronto City Hall is a must-see and a must-go if you’d like to take home some pictures in front of the 3D Toronto Sign or of nearby Old City Hall and Osgoode Hall. In the winter months, its urban skating rink makes for a perfect afternoon or early evening.
Access to City Hall via public transit is through the Queen Streetcar and line 1 subway (get off at Queen or Osgoode stations).
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