Toronto History

Old City Hall

Old City Hall, a showplace of history and exquisite craftsmanship, celebrated its centennial birthday in September 1999. During a week of festivities which included public tours, musical performances and the unveiling of a new time capsule, residents and visitors alike gained a new appreciation for this important city landmark.

Toronto's third City Hall took almost 20 years to plan and implement and began with an original budget of $600,000 and was completed for approximately $2.5 million. The stone, grey from the Credit River Valley in Ontario and brown from New Brunswick, took more than 1,360 train-car loads to deliver - the equivalent of a train nine miles long. Additionally, 8,354 barrels of cement were used.

Following the opening of Toronto's fourth and current City Hall, Old City Hall was threatened with demolition during the planning of the Eaton Centre. A group of concerned citizens and community activists, known as the "Friends of Old City Hall", convinced the City to preserve this important landmark, that complemented Osgoode Hall and the new City Hall. Old City Hall was declared a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1989.

Toronto's Third City Hall

Toronto's Old City HallResponding to the need for larger quarters, Toronto's civic officials began the task of designing and building Toronto's third city hall. The successful architect, Edward James Lennox, took three years to design the impressive Old City Hall (1886-1888) that needed to address the two separate uses of the building - the City Hall and the court house. It was erected over the next 11 years (1889 - 1899) at a cost of more than $2.5 million. It was not only the biggest structure in the city at that time, it was also the largest municipal building in North America.

Four years before the building was officially opened, Arthur Beales photographed the building under construction, illustrating Lennox's slow progress - five storeys in six years. The basement walls are exceptionally thick (the base of the tower is 7 feet 9 inches) and borne by still more massive footings (12 feet 9 inches in places) that took especially long to excavate and lay. The cornerstone, unmarked and 6 by 4 feet in size, had been laid in November 1891 by Mayor Edward Clarke.

Impressive architectural detailing surrounds and fills this remarkable building. Master stonemason Arthur Tennison oversaw the placement of the gargoyles. Originally gargoyles spouted from many points, including the angles off the centrepiece on the north facade, the square turrets flanking both side entrances, and the main clock tower.

Above the monumental Queen Street entrance, in Romanesque Revival style, are grotesque stone carvings, which contemporaries suggested were caricatures of councillors. Here and in the corbels just below the roof, Lennox left his own mark. He included himself in the caricatures on the west side of the centre arch, and in the corbels, in the link portions of the building, Lennox incorporated his name in the stonework.

The interior is also a showplace of craftsmanship. The mosaic floor was patterned in Buffalo and carefully laid, and some walls are covered with neatly matched marble. Lennox's fine detailing extended itself to wardrobes, worktables, handrails, and even the doorknobs that bear the city's old coat of arms. Visitors can still admire the painted murals (first floor) by George A. Reid and the stained glass window produced by Robert McCausland symbolizing the Union of Commerce and Industry.

Although it originally housed the Council Chamber, courtrooms, municipal and legal offices, the building now operates solely as a courthouse. The old city Council Chamber is now courtroom 110 and retains much of its turn-of-the-century decoration.

Following the opening of Toronto's fourth, and present, City Hall in 1965, Old City Hall was threatened with demolition during the planning of the Eaton Centre. A group of concerned citizens and community activists called, "Friends of Old City Hall", convinced the city to preserve this important landmark, that complemented Osgoode Hall and the new City Hall. Old City Hall was declared a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1989.

Old City Hall's centennial time capsule is a clear plexi-glass container 91 cm x 30 cm (3 feet x 1 foot) so visitors can easily view the capsule's contents. Installed to mark Old City Hall's 100th anniversary on September 18, 1999, it will provide insight into the building's and city's past. The capsule contains a CD ROM of Toronto City Council's July 1999 meeting, the front page of the September 18, 1999, Toronto Star newspaper, a gavel from Mayor Mel Lastman's desk, the proclamation commemorating the anniversary, a TTC transfer, a gavel from the provincial courts and a coin collection. Located on the main floor of Old City Hall it will stand the test of time, as the original time capsule has.

According to architect Edward James Lennox's original notes, he too made provision for a time capsule. On November 21, 1891, Edward Clarke, a member of the Ontario legislature and Mayor of Toronto, laid the stone that covered the copper box. The stone was placed in the southwest corner of the tower, in the third course of cut stone work, lying about three feet six inches above ground level and 30 feet above the foundation. The original capsule contains:

  • a scroll on vellum describing the event and the names of the aldermen and civic officials of the day
  • a scroll from Warden William A. Pagsley from the County of York, listing County council members and officials
  • an 1891 city directory
  • copies of the four morning and two evening newspapers, and
  • a copy of Toronto of Old by Bishop Scadding.

Due to the placement of the original time capsule it is unlikely that the contents will be viewed in the near future. However, the second time capsule, unveiled at the official ceremonies, can be viewed by residents and visitors whenever they tour Old City Hall, Toronto's third City Hall.

Old City Hall watercolour

A watercolour was commissioned to generate interest, excitement and support for the ambitious undertaking of building Old City Hall. The large watercolour (approximately 37 inches x 57 inches) was intended to publicize the design for the municipal building which combined a courthouse with a City Hall.

Although the architect Edward James Lennox provided and signed the drawing for the watercolour, the well-known artist, William Armstrong, supplied the background and coloured the image. In the bottom left corner of the watercolour a small figure can be identified, carrying a sandwich board sign with Armstrong's initials, providing him with a credit as the watercolourist.

Old City Hall watercolour - by William Armstrong

The Return of the Gargoyles

Old City Hall GrotesquesWhen Old City Hall opened in 1899, it contained two large (5 feet high) grotesques, located at the foot of the main staircase. These elaborate pieces of wrought iron, each in the form of a griffin or other mythical beast, were produced by the Toronto Fence and Ornamental Iron Works.

The grotesques remained at Old City Hall until 1947. In that year, they were removed during renovations for the installation of the war memorial. The grotesques remained unclaimed and unwanted, until Henry Dobson Antiques Ltd., purchased them.

In an effort to return the works to the Toronto public domain, the Metropolitan Corporation bought the grotesques in the late 1980s. In commemoration of Old City Hall's 100th anniversary, the grotesques have been restored.


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