Monday, September 23, 2013

# 41 ~ Toronto's "Old" City Hall, Then and Now

One of Toronto's most iconic landmarks celebrated a “birthday” last week. It was on September 18th, back in 1899, that our “Old” City Hall opened, on Queen Street at Bay Street. It's long since been surpassed in height by the soaring skyscrapers that have cropped up downtown, but our 1899 City Hall still soars with distinction over Bay Street. It was Toronto's last great architectural project of the Victorian age, and despite being threatened by demolition over the years, it gave proud service as the centre of Toronto over several decades in the twentieth century.

THEN : "Old" City Hall circa 1900, when it was still new.
The building was, of course, the child of Toronto's famed architect, Edward James Lennox. Lennox would later give Toronto the King Edward Hotel and Casa Loma, along with a number of other buildings, but it was his work on our City Hall that would help Toronto ring in a new century. What finer work for an architect to set his mark on a city than to construct the home of municipal government, that would surely also serve as a gathering spot for its residents? But, the construction of the new city hall building would not be completed without difficulty.

Planning for the new building had begun during the final years of the 1880s, and originally, the building was just going to serve as a County Courthouse. By 1887, though, the initial budget of $300,000 was running short. So, a new lot of funds totalling $750,000 was granted, and the decision was made to also make it the new City Hall for Toronto. Within two years, that money was nearly gone, too, and in 1889, a further $600,000 was approved. By the time that the building was completed, the cost would hit the $2 million mark. There was plenty of animosity between Lennox and the city officials over the soaring cost of the building.

When the building was complete, it became evident that Lennox had taken his revenge, in a notorious bit of Toronto design. There are a number of faces carved into the pillars at the top of the main stairs of the building, which lead up from Queen Street. They are all, save one, comically grotesque figures, with exaggerated features, bulging eyes, and protruding tongues. It's said that Lennox had each one of these designed to represent one of the municipal officials who gave him a hard time. The one exception was a “self portrait” of Edward James Lennox, and was put in place to make him seem like the only respectable or intelligent figure when set amongst those who governed over us more than a century ago.

NOW : With the opening of the 1899 City Hall, architect Edward James Lennox immortalized himself, in more ways than one.  His image graces the columns near the main entrance to City Hall.  He is seen here, at the top centre.
NOW : The esteem in which Lennox held those city officials with whom he worked has been immortalized, too.  It's said that each one of these grotesque faces represents a city official who pestered Lennox about when the grand new municipal headquarters would finally be completed.

It was also custom at the time for an architect to be allowed to carve his name in such an elaborate work, but because of the anger that city officials felt towards Lennox, they denied him that privilege. He went ahead and put his name on the building, anyway. Around all four sides of the building, hidden amongst all the elaborate designs and carvings, runs the legend “Edward James Lennox, Architect”. The letters are spread out around the entire building, and can be hard to make out, but they're there, and Lennox had his architectural legacy.
Referring to the building as “Old City Hall” is actually something of a misnomer. When Toronto was incorporated as a city in 1834, the early city council met in rented facilities on top of a former St. Lawrence Market building, on the southwest corner of King and Jarvis streets. In 1845, a new addition to the market was completed on the south side of Front Street, and the first purpose built City Hall was constructed on top of it. When the Queen Street City Hall opened up in 1899, this area above the market was abandoned, and left closed to the public for more than seventy years, until it reopened as a museum and gallery space. Known today as the Market Gallery, it holds about three different exhibitions each year, on the various cultural, historical and artistic artifacts that are held within Toronto's archives. The Market Gallery is open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 o'clock in the morning to 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and admission is free, though donations to the work of the gallery are kindly accepted.

THEN : The reception room of the Mayor's Office in the really old City Hall, 1898.

THEN : The council chamber of the real "Old City Hall" in 1898.  This city hall was above the south St. Lawrence Market from 1845 until 1899.  It survives today as the Market Gallery, an exhibition place for Toronto's art, history and culture.
THEN : City council meets above St. Lawrence Market in 1899.  The next council would meet in the new City Hall building.  In this photograph, no one seems to be paying particular attention to Mayor Clarke.
Mayor E.F. Clarke had laid the cornerstone for the building on November 21, 1891, and almost eight years later, in September of 1899, the official opening ceremony began at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Mayor Shaw unlocked the main door with a golden key. Martial bands from the Governor General's Body Guards, the 48th Highlanders, the Royal Grenadiers, and the Queen's Own Rifles played from noon until 10 o'clock at night. One bit of accompanying music was not ready yet. The bells at the top of City Hall had yet to be installed, and now would be rung for the
first time until December 31, 1899.

THEN : The opening ceremonies of the 1899 City Hall, September 18th, 1899.
The building served as Toronto's city hall until the “New City Hall” was completed next door in the mid-1960s. The 1960s were a time when thousands of our older buildings were disappearing, and being destroyed in favour of great slabs of concrete. In the years between the construction of this new city hall, and the opening and expansion of the Eaton Centre through the 1970s, there were calls to demolish our 1899 city hall. Fortunately, it was saved, and in 1984 the building was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
THEN : Bay Street looking north to City Hall in 1924.

THEN : View of City Hall from Elizabeth Street, 1924.
THEN : City Council, 1915.
THEN : City Council chamber.
THEN : During the First World War, City Hall was often home to assemblies and displays that tried to shore up patriotism and support for the war effort.  Here, an early tank is put on display for curious Torontonians.

THEN : Torontonians get a taste of trench warfare outside City Hall.

THEN : A spontaneous rally outside City Hall to celebrate the end of the Great War.
THEN : City Hall lobby, 1936.
It's nearly that time of the year again ... Old City Hall is a stop on our “Haunted Streets of Downtown Toronto” tour. Beginning Friday, October 4th, we will be running ghost tours each and every night, seven nights a week,
straight through until Thursday, October 31st.

In those four weeks, we'll have the Haunted Streets of Downtown Toronto every night at 7 o'clock, and the Ghosts of the University of Toronto tour every night at 10 o'clock. On Friday, October 25th, Saturday, October 26th and Thursday, October 31st, we will also have the Ghosts of the University of Toronto tour at midnight. Additionally, for a few nights near the end of October, our final stop on the Haunted Streets of Downtown Toronto tour – Mackenzie House Museum – will be briefly open to visitors to let them have a look inside.
Some nights are just about sold out so contact me at to make your reservations now!