Toronto’s Third City Hall

By Marta O’Brien, originally published June 9, 2008

Marta O’Brien blogs about her love for Old City Hall

I’m pleased to be one of the bloggers for the new Heritage Toronto web site and I hope you’ll enjoy my entries about Toronto’s architecture.

As an architectural historian, instructor, and walking tour leader, I am often asked to name my favourite building in Toronto. My favourite old building is Toronto’s Third City Hall, better known as Old City Hall, which opened in 1899.

Toronto-born architect Edward James (better known as E. J.) Lennox won the competition held to find the best design for a new city hall. It was 1886 and 32-year-old Lennox had been in architectural practice for 10 years.

Lennox’s City Hall is a perfect example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style – a variation of Romanesque architecture developed by America’s preeminent 19th-century architect, Henry Hobson (H. H.) Richardson. The Romanesque style originated in 11th- and 12th-century Europe and featured heavy stonework, round arches, square towers, asymmetrical massing, and intricate stone carving. This style was revived in Western architecture during the mid-1800s.

H. H. Richardson’s contributions to the Romanesque Revival included dormers, circular towers with conical roofs, and the use of different coloured stones. Elaborate organic carvings of foliage, lions, dragons, and human faces are also hallmarks of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. While planning his design for Toronto City Hall, Lennox travelled the U.S. to study existing municipal buildings. He was most impressed by Richardson’s work: Lennox’s design was influenced by Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Like Richardson, Lennox chose his stone carefully. After exploring Ontario stone deposits looking for the best materials, he and members of the city building committee selected Credit Valley sandstone trimmed by darker brownstone from New Brunswick. The stone walls are loadbearing. Next time you walk by, look at how deep the window sills are – especially at ground level.

I love the intricate carved stone that provides rich visual rewards no matter how many times I look at this building. I’ve taken over 40 photographs of Old City Hall and I still don’t have all of the details worth capturing.

The original red clay roof tiles were replaced with copper due to weight concerns. The doors are oak. The cenotaph in front of Old City Hall is made of granite from the Canadian Shield and was erected in 1925 to honour the many Torontonians who gave their lives in World War I.

Vista is not considered enough in contemporary architecture, so it’s always a treat to see the view up lower Bay Street end with the Old City Hall tower. The clock tower is 106.3 metres (300 feet) high. Happily the tower’s gargoyles were replicated and replaced at the four corners of the clock tower a few years ago.

Lennox’s subtlety and playfulness in having his name and face carved into the stone is wonderful. E. J. was justifiably proud of his design and wanted to erect a plaque on the building declaring himself as the architect. City councillors refused his request; they were angry with him over the many cost overruns and delays. Lennox had the last laugh when he instructed the stone masons to carve “E. J. LENNOX ARCHITECT AD 1898” on the stone corbels beneath the eaves (accompanying photograph shows an E). The grotesque and comical faces carved into the column capitals flanking the main entrance arches are said to be caricatures of the city councillors Lennox fought with during the long construction process. The only accurate likeness is Lennox himself.

The interior is also spectacular. Marble wainscotting, murals by renowned Ontario artist George Reid, mosaic tile floors, and a gorgeous stained glass window on the grand staircase landing are just a few of the features that have survived over a century. Stop in when you have a chance; the building is open to the public.

Since the opening of “New” City Hall in 1965, Old City Hall has been leased to the province as court space. The Eaton Centre developers proposed demolishing Old City Hall: I’ve seen drawings indicating that only the clock tower would have remained, surrounded by glass office towers. A grassroots organization called the Friends of Old City Hall pressured city councillors to save the entire building. The Friends cleaned part of a wall to show everyone the beauty of the old stone. Old City Hall – unlike many heritage buildings in the 1960s and 1970s – was saved.

Marta O’Brien is an architectural historian who enjoys sharing her photographs and knowledge of Toronto’s architectural history through continuing education courses at Ryerson University, George Brown College, and the University of Toronto. Through Citywalks, Marta develops and conducts walking tours featuring distinctive neighbourhoods and districts in Toronto. Marta is a member of the Heritage Toronto Board.

Photos by Marta O’Brien

This entry was posted in Toronto's Stories. Bookmark the permalink.