A History of Toronto's City Hall In 1 Minute

©Paulo Barcellos Jr./Wikicommons
©Paulo Barcellos Jr./Wikicommons
Photo of Culture Trip
13 June 2016

The Old City Hall, located off Queen and Bay St in the heart of downtown Toronto, is the city’s third city hall building, completed in 1899 by E.J. Lennox, a prominent Toronto architect during that time. In response to the need for a larger space, Lennox spent three years designing the building, finishing in 1888 — the final plans included a new, larger City Hall and a court house. Starting construction in 1889, the building took 11 years to complete, with the final addition of the bells to the tower just before the turn of the century.

Although the craftsmanship was some of the best in the country, the building cost the city over 2.5 million dollars — progress was slow, the walls were thick and difficult to excavate and lay, and disputes went on between the contractor and Lennox over high costs and scandals that occurred during construction — which made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada where Lennox lost. Although Lennox’s work is still debatable over such issues, the Old City Hall, built in Romanesque Revival style, still boasts impressive architectural details like the carefully placed and crafted gargoyles (overseen by stonemason Arthur Tennison) and the detailed stone carvings — which some suggest were caricatures of councillors whom Lennox had argued with during its construction. He even placed figures that looked like him along certain areas of the building, stamping his name into the stonework for eternity. Lennox was known as a boisterous man, and so these details came as no surprise.

He continued with his efforts to compete with what America had to offer architecturally, adding a large bell tower that stood over Bay Street as well as many intricate details in the interior: a handcrafted mosaic floor imported from the US, shiny marble walls, beautiful murals (done by George A. Reid) and a stained glass window made by Robert McCausland. He even added the city’s old coat of arms to the doorknobs and etched beautiful details into the handrails of the building. After the City Hall was completed, it was named the largest structure in the city — during that time — and also the largest municipal building in North America. Until 1965, the City Hall operated as the Council Chamber and housed courtrooms along with municipal and legal offices.

July 2012 Toronto Old City Hall Court House | © George Socka/Wikicommons | Old Toronto City Hall and York County Court House | © Preeteesh Singh/Flickr | A watercolour painting of the Third City Hall by William Armstrong done prior to its completion in 1899 | Public Domain/Wikicommons

With the construction of the new, fourth City Hall in 1965, the Old City Hall faced demolition threats until it was saved by a group of community activists called ‘Friends of Old City Hall’ who protested to preserve this historic landmark. In 1989, Old City Hall was declared a National Historic Site; it now solely operates as a courthouse, and remains intact in its original state.

📅 Old City Hall: Mon-Fri 8:30am-4:30pm

Culture Trip Toronto

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