May 18th, 2022
Beaches Living Guide Fall/Winter 2016

Toronto City Halls

Toronto’s First City Hall
95 Front Street • Opened 1846 • currently St. Lawrence Market

The “Old” City Hall (2nd)
60 Queen Street West • Opened 1889
currently Ontario Courts Largest and tallest building in the city at the time

The “New” City Hall (3rd)
100 Queen Street West • Opened 1965 Architect, Viljo Revell

Fun Fact:
At the turn of the last century (1899 became 1900) Torontonians gathered to celebrate and civic officials at the time climbed the city hall clock tower (the tallest structure in the city at the time) to ring-in the new century.


Today, City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square is a genuine gathering place where Toronto rings in the New Year, hosts concerts and events, provides an ice rink during the winter, and this past summer, served as a wonderful welcome venue for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games. It also has been used as an outdoor sculpture gallery and a farmer’s market just like the first City Hall.

How many city hall locations has Toronto had? If you count temporary offices at 157 King Street East, now Heritage Toronto office, where the first city council met for 11 years following the city’s formation, there have been four, but only three permanent city hall buildings. Each building was specifically designed to be our city hall. Each time the design was selected by competition and the end result reflected the style and vision of the day.

City Hall and Marketplace

Within a decade, from when the town of York was officially renamed Toronto in 1834, the city’s population had tripled. Everyone agreed that the new city deserved its own city hall. Architect Henry Bowyer Lane, who had designed part of Osgoode Hall, created the winning design.

Built in 1845, the building was located at the corner of Front and Jarvis – right where the St. Lawrence Market stands today. In fact, if you stand across the street on Front and look directly at the north façade of the south market building, you can see the original middle section with the market built around it. This Georgian style building was made entirely out of red brick, with contrasting white stone.

The building housed municipal offices, council chambers, as well as the police station and a market. The centre section was 3 stories high, topped by a cupola with a clock. Council met on the second floor where there was a public gallery and the offices of the mayor and other public officials. The police station was on the main floor, with a jail in the basement. Because of flooding problems, the jail eventually had to be moved!

Extending out from the centre were two wings, 2 stories high that served as a market. It is quite fitting that when the original centre part of the building was saved from demolition, the St. Lawrence market was built around it.

Toronto’s Newest and Biggest Building

The design of the city’s next city hall was also a contest – this time, an international event where 50 architects submitted designs. Toronto architect, E. J. Lennex was hired to prepare a design for a building that would serve as both a city hall and a courthouse. Lennex was also the architect of Casa Loma.

The building design itself was not original – the city hall has a striking resemblance to the city halls in both Minneapolis and Cincinnati. Massive red sandstone from New Brunswick was used for outside along with grey stone from the Credit River Valley in Ontario. There are carved stone faces at the top of several of the outside columns and under the eaves of the building, letters spell out Lennex’s name.

A huge hour-bell weighing almost 12,000 pounds chimed every quarter hour.

There were four original carved-sandstone gargoyles at the four corners around the clock tower, which fell eventually off. In 2002, replacement gargoyles were installed.

When opened in 1899, the “new” city hall was the tallest structure on the Toronto skyline, clearly highly visible when people crossed the harbour to the Toronto Islands. The tower has provided a terminating vista for Bay Street from its completion to the present day.

Moving into the Modern Age

Toronto, once again, outgrew its city hall by the 1950s. This time, Toronto launched an international design competition. 531 designs were submitted. The winner turned out to be an emerging star of Finnish modernism, Viljo Revell.

From the beginning, the design seemed alien to Toronto, breaking all the design conventions of the day. The material was concrete instead of brick or sandstone; the two curved towers were asymmetrical, and the council chamber in the middle immediately brought to mind a space ship or a pearl. Two crescent shaped towers, the west 20 stories, the east 27 stories, accommodate offices for civil servants. Conceived to be a place “for the people”, you can walk right in the main door without having to go up an imposing set of stairs.

Within the first four days of opening in 1965, over 70,000 visitors made the trek downtown to view the masterpiece. Without a doubt, Revell had changed the face of Toronto for years to come. And unlike so many buildings, there simply isn’t another like it in the entire world!

In recognition of the support for the project given by the then mayor, Nathan Phillips, the public square opened in front was given Phillips’ name.


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