City Hall

City Hall 20th Anniversary

Find out more about the history and the events surrounding the 20th Anniversary of City Hall.

News release issued by the City of Toronto to mark the
20th Anniversary of Toronto City Hall

September 9, 1985

At the end of the week-long extravaganza of ceremonies, banquets, dances and parties that marked the opening of Toronto's present City Hall in September, 1965, an exhausted Mayor Phil Givens was heard by a reporter to exclaim: "Toronto will never be the same again."

Nothing the Mayor could have said on the occasion would prove to be as prophetic. Rising majestically between two icons of the City's nineteenth century architecture - Osgoode Hall to the west and Old City Hall to the east - the new City Hall defined modern Toronto, in its anticipated role as the ideal metropolis of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. It showed the world that the City was ready to abandon its "Hogtown" image forever.

Controversy surrounded the project from its beginning. The City recognized the need for a new civic administration building as early as the 1940s. The old City Hall, opened in 1899, inadequately housed the ever-growing numbers of municipal employees required for the operation of a City as large as Toronto. That inadequacy intensified with the establishment of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto in 1953.

City Council approved funds for the acquisition of land for the new building and for an adjacent civic square in 1946. The chosen site generated the first wave of opposition to the building. The proposal required the demolition of two of the City's best-known landmarks - Shea's Hippodrome, a former vaudeville house on Bay Street, and the provincial government's handsome Beaux Arts Registry Office at the Albert and Chestnut Street intersection.

A newspaper reporter interviewed architecture students, who articulated the feelings of many Torontonians during the debate over the site. One denounced the neo-Classical Registry as "a 50-year old copy of a 2000-year old building"; another demanded to know why "a building valued at $200,000 should interfere with the plans for a $7 million-odd project." As a result, discussion of City Hall plans foreshadowed the great municipal political issues of the decades that followed: the conflict between factions supporting new development regardless of cost and those wishing to preserve the City's architectural past.

In a 1955 referendum, voters rejected the City's own design proposal for its new headquarters. Led by Mayor Nathan Phillips, an undaunted City Council decided to conduct an international architectural competition to determine the best concept for the building. This method had already found success in public building design in Toronto - the Old City hall resulted from a similar selection process.

News release issued by the City of Toronto to mark the
20th Anniversary of Toronto City Hall .. continued

Council chose an eight-member jury of eminent architects from Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Italy to review design submissions. Professor Eric Arthur, dean of architecture at the University of Toronto, designer of Osgoode Hall renovations and Hamilton City Hall, and later author of Toronto: No Mean City, the definitive study of Toronto Victorian architecture, served as professional adviser and chairman of the jury.

The competition rules underscored the importance of a city hall to this - and to any - municipality:

"In the eighteenth century, the cathedral and the town hall frequently dominated the urban scene both physically and spiritually. Our present City Hall is largely overshadowed by commercial and financial buildings, but it still dominates by its presence. It differs in that respect from those centres of civic administration in North America where the "hall" is just another office building. One of the reasons for this competition is to find a building that will proudly express its function as the centre of civic government. How to achieve an atmosphere about a building that suggests government, continuity of democratic traditions and service to the community is a problem for the designer of the modern city hall. These were the qualities that the architects of other ages endeavoured to embody in the town hall of their times..."

The search was on for a building that could symbolize the new City Toronto hoped to become. It would decorate the Toronto scene, just as the Old City Hall had punctuated the City's early twentieth century skyline, and just as its clock tower still commanded the northward vista along Bay Street from Union Station. It would also be planned for public accessibility to emphasize the democracy of its activities. The opportunity to design such a structure attracted 520 entrants from 44 countries.

Viljo Revell, a 48-year old Finn, won the $25,000-plus-commission prize with his distinctive City Hall design. Revell was not registered as an architect in Canada, therefore all of his work had to be performed in affiliation with a Canadian firm. John B. Parkin Associates were selected as Revell's affiliates and that firm still acts as the consultant architects on important architectural issues involving the building.

The September, 1958 announcement of the winners' names created its own controversy. Two of the jurors dissented from the majority opinion of the judging panel and suggested adoption of alternate submissions.

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20th Anniversary of Toronto City Hall .. continued

But the winning design delighted councillors, architects and most Torontonians. Mayor Phillips declared the design "monumental, breath-taking". Alderman Frank Clifton reacted more practically. "This is going to get Toronto talked about and visited. It'll be worth thousands of dollars in advertising," he said. A newspaper columnist termed the proposal "beautiful", and with "the zestful verve people hope for in modern design."

Not everyone was pleased, however. Internationally renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright sneered, "Every graveyard in Canada, if it could speak, would say 'amen' to the slab (of Toronto's City Hall). Well, that's what this building says for Toronto. You've got a headmarker for a grave and future generations will look at it and say: 'This marks the spot where Toronto fell.'"

But neither Toronto nor its new City Hall fell. Both soared. Clearance of the site proceeded, construction commenced in November, 1961, and work was completed in 1965.

But, along the way, there were still hurdles to cross. The Province agreed to rent space in the new building for a Land Titles office, so the old Registry building could be demolished. Then, Council balked at the choice (and the cost) of furniture appropriately designed for a modern office complex. An uproar also raged over the skyrocketing cost, which rose from an original estimate of $7 million to an eventual $30 million.

One of Council's rare acts of solidarity regarding its new home occurred in 1961, when the open space in front of the structure was named "Nathan Phillips Square." The name recognized the Mayor's contributions in implementing the new project and also honoured his unprecedented thirty-six years' service in municipal politics.

Phillips, often dubbed the "Mayor of All the People" later personally donated the Nathan Phillips Square sundial, which is dedicated to Torontonians "in appreciation of the opportunity to serve." Phillips retired as Mayor before the official opening of the building.

In September, 1965, Torontonians were finally introduced to their new City Hall and the City celebrated for a week. Governor-General Georges Vanier officially opened the building at 2:00 p.m. on September 13. Unfortunately, the festivities were marred by the absence of Revell, who passed away a few months before.

A full slate of activities took place on Nathan Phillips Square to salute the completion of the new building. The week's programme was capped when more than 60,000 people attended "Toronto A Go Go", featuring the sounds of Bobby Curtola, Little Caesar, David Clayton Thomas and other then-rising musical stars.

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20th Anniversary of Toronto City Hall .. continued

The new building was unlike any other building Torontonians had seen. It failed to fit into preconceived notions of how an office building should appear.

Viewed from the air, its domed Council Chamber and curved twin towers most resembled an eye between two eyelids. The imagery was appropriate in several ways. In Revell's Finland, the eye represents the tradition of democratic rule. Moreover, the City Hall and Square were intended as the focal point of the City, an accessible, open area where citizens could gather - an important goal for a City whose very name meant "meeting place".

During the initial weeks, hundreds of people took guided tours of the imposing building. They oohed and aahed over such details as the number of parking spaces in the garage below the Square (2400), the total length of the aluminum strips in the lobby ceiling (604 km.), or the number of metal discs in the Council Chamber cordon (3,416).

Even after its completion, City Hall continued to attract controversy. One furore centred on the choice of artwork for the Square. Revell had been acquainted with British sculptor Henry Moore, and suggested that one of his friend's works would complement the flowing lines of the City Hall. A sum of $100,000 had been reserved for the acquisition of a sculpture for the Square, but Council members doubted whether an abstract piece would be acceptable to City residents. They rejected the architect's suggestion, preferring more traditional artwork because, as one Alderman mysteriously explained, "We've got to sleep with ourselves."

A major promoter of a Moore sculpture was Mayor Phil Givens. After defeat in Council of the proposal, he led a public campaign to buy Moore's "Three-Way Piece Number Two" for the City. A private subscription fund raised the necessary $100,000 and "The Archer" as the piece was more commonly known, was acquired and installed on Nathan Phillips Square in 1966.

Many Torontonians were displeased by the purchase, and registered their displeasure at the polls. Several weeks after the installation, Givens was defeated by William Dennison. Later, Givens said that he would not have favoured delaying acquisition of the Moore until after the election. "Sure, I would have saved my political hide," he recalled, "but I don't regret it. Toronto was just a big overgrown village, and I wanted to give it a touch of greatness."

News release issued by the City of Toronto to mark the
20th Anniversary of Toronto City Hall .. continued

The City's Sesquicentennial year, 1984, saw a further addition. The Peace Garden was erected to symbolize the City's hopes for world peace and disarmament. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau turned the first sod for its construction on Sesqui Eve , March 5, 1984. Its eternal flame was kindled by His Holiness Pope John Paul II and the garden was officially dedicated by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II later that year.

In 1965, when the building was opened, Toronto seemed poised on the brink of change. As Alderman Clifton predicted, the building did indeed "get the City talked about." It represented Toronto's hopes and aspirations and its confidence in its future.

The years following its opening were marked by an unprecedented surge in development in Downtown Toronto. Old landmarks disappeared; in their place, new ones arose. The boom of the 1960s and '70s saw the construction of many architecturally innovative buildings. Few would have appeared if the present City Hall hadn't led the way. Mayor Givens was proven right - nothing was ever the same and the face of the city was transformed forever.

Today, as the building approaches its twentieth anniversary, it remains popular with both residents and tourists. Eight tour groups are guided through the building every summer weekday, and many of the groups consist of more than thirty visitors.

A celebration of the twenty City Hall years is scheduled for the evening of September 13. The event will be a re-creation of the sights and sounds of the 1960s, featuring the music of Robbie Lane and the Disciples. The City is inviting everyone to get out their mini-skirts and bell-bottom trousers and dance the night away.

After the party is over, the building will undergo yet another transformation. Renovations will soon begin on the first two floors of the building. The recently completed Aldermen's offices were the first phase of this renewal project, which was made possible when the Registry Office moved out of the building in December.

"The touch of greatness" offered by the addition of the Archer and the City Hall it ornaments has long been achieved. In the future both these and other changes may improve or alter the effect of the present structure, but, undoubtedly, all changes will be debated fiercely and add to the City Hall tradition as the focus of controversy.