Old City Hall and York County Court House, serving today as an Ontario Court of Justice courthouse, is located at 60 Queen St W (bordered by Bay St, Albert St and James St) in downtown Toronto.
In 1885, the City held an international competition to design a courthouse. The budget was $200,000, and 50 architects submitted designs. These plans fell through as the budget was too low for the vast land space to be filled. A year later, the City held another competition, and the pool of architects was much smaller. Edward James Lennox was one of them, and his design for the courthouse was the winning proposal.
Excavation for the building had begun; however, costs were again an issue. The land sat excavated for months, and during that time, City councillors determined that a city hall was also needed. In 1887, Mr Lennox drafted new plans for the dual-purpose building.
Toronto’s third City Hall is designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. During the 1890s, EJ Lennox was one of the many architects throughout Canada and the US influenced by American architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s style. This was especially true regarding town halls and courthouses, as they displayed a sense of pride, stature and dignity. Construction on Toronto’s monumental, quadrangular structure finally began in 1889.
The Bold Exterior
The facades are made with massive and richly textured sandstone – the rose from Credit Valley and the brown for trimmings from New Brunswick. Architectural highlights of the structure include a monumental off-centre clock tower with gargoyles, a centre courtyard, a triple-arched entrance on the south side that’s reached by a flight of steps, substantial window openings, towers and steeply pitched, hipped copper roofs with gable dormers.
There are also intricate stone carvings which include finials, voussoirs and grotesques. Some of the grotesques are said to be caricatures of the councillors who disapproved of and fought EJ Lennox. He came under great criticism when it was discovered that he secretly had his name, “EJ LENNOX ARCHITECT” spelled out in the stone carvings under the eaves.
The Picturesque Interior
Inside the two-storey entrance hall is a magnificent, divided staircase with marble treads and landings as well as bronze and iron detailing. Facing the entranceway, on the staircase, is an enormous, allegorical stained-glass window by Robert McCausland. The Council Chamber features a stunning gallery.
Other elements of the exquisite interior include a mosaic floor, doorknobs with the City’s crest, wrought-iron grotesques and gas-lamp standards, columns with plaster capitals, moulded beams and panelled ceilings. Many skilled tradespeople and artists were involved in creating the landmark, including George Agnew Reid, who painted the foyer murals.
After many stumbling blocks, including cost issues, disagreements, lawsuits and scandals, Toronto’s City Hall and York County Court House were finally completed in 1899. The cost was $2.5 million.
The building was in use until 1965, when the Toronto City Hall we know today was completed. Soon after, Old City Hall was threatened with demolition to make room for the Eaton Centre. All that would be left was the clock tower as a monument. Thankfully, this incredible piece of Toronto and Canada’s architectural heritage was saved by the preservationist group “Friends of Old City Hall.”
Toronto’s Old City Hall received heritage status from the City in 1973; however, it became a National Historic Site in 1984.
The building continues to serve as a courthouse for the Ontario Court of Justice. There’s been talk over the years about the majestic and finely crafted building becoming a museum.
Courtroom 33 is rumoured to be haunted. There’s a theory that it’s the spirits of the last two men sentenced to capital punishment in Canada in 1962.
In a rear stairwell, there are reports of footsteps being heard, plus judges have felt tugging on their robes. Moans have been heard in the cellars of the majestic old building, which was the holding area for prisoners. Click for more haunted tales.
Did You Know?
When the town of York became the City of Toronto in 1834, the City’s officials met in a market building located at the southwest corner of King St E and Jarvis St. Although it was temporary, it was considered the first City Hall. Today it’s home to St Lawrence Hall.
Toronto’s second City Hall, built in 1845, was at Front and Jarvis Sts, on the southwest corner and where the St Lawrence Market South building stands today. A portion of that structure still exists at the market’s entrance. At the time, it was a multi-use municipal building housing Council Chambers, the Mayor’s Office, a police station, a jail and a corn exchange.
Toronto-born EJ Lennox is responsible for many of the City’s beautiful heritage buildings. Known as “the Builder of Toronto,” a few of the buildings he designed include the Casa Loma, King Edward Hotel and the Bank of Toronto Building (at Yonge and Shuter Sts).