“Second to None”: Toronto’s Old City Hall

Old City Hall in 1920 © Library Archives Canada MIKAN no. 3655909
Architect Edward James Lennox’s likeness carved into column above entrance to Old City Hall © Robert G. Hill, Architect, Toronto.

For the week of Monday, September 17, 2018.

On September 18, 1899, Mayor John Shaw officially opened Toronto’s Old City Hall, on the corner of Bay Street and Queen Street West, in the heart of the growing downtown core. At the time, Toronto was just starting to emerge as an important economic centre in North America. 

Beginning in 1884, the City of Toronto invited architects from around the world to submit designs for a new city hall. The proposed budget was a mere $200,000, and fifty architects applied. The winner was architect Edward James Lennox of Toronto, who found inspiration in H. H. Richardson’s Allegheny Courthouse in Pittsburgh, considered one of the finest Romanesque Revival designs in North America. The final cost of the building totaled $2,500,000, due to the addition of a courthouse to the design. Mayor John Shaw justified the high cost of the building at its opening ceremonies in 1899 by saying it would serve as a “splendid, permanent mark and sign of the strong will of Toronto’s citizens.”

The building itself is regarded as Toronto’s most remarkable example of Romanesque Revival architecture in the 1880s. Sometimes called “Richardsonian Romanesque” after the work of H. H. Richardson, this movement emphasized robust masonry structures with massive, round-arched entrances, deeply inset windows, and short circular towers with conical roofs. Old City Hall was built primarily with local Credit Valley sandstone because of the material’s resemblance to Romanesque masonry in northern Italy. Brown New Brunswick sandstone was used for the trim. The building’s main feature, the clock tower, was positioned to line up with Bay Street and make room for the magnificent, centrally positioned main entrance.

By the time Old City Hall was replaced with a new Modernist building in 1965, Toronto’s downtown was undergoing major transformations, some of which threatened Lennox’s masterpiece. Local protests, however, not only stopped developers from tearing it down, but laid the groundwork for the Ontario Heritage Act of 1975. Old City Hall remains a symbol of a "golden age" in Toronto’s architecture and a monument to the 19th-century city.

Old Toronto City Hall is a designated national historic site. 

Parks Canada launched This Week In History 20 years ago! Check out @ParksCanada and visit Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada website.