Old City Hall Toronto

Toronto, Ontario

If you look closely at the walls of Old City Hall Toronto you will see traces of a petty 19th century squabble, immortalised in stone.

- © Janine Riviere

The Demons Of Old City Hall Toronto

Engraved near the main entrance of Toronto's beautiful late 19th century Old City Hall are a series of stone faces, the likenesses of the city councillors that oversaw its construction. There is nothing unusual in this. It is a common feature of city halls of that era.

Take a look closer however and you'll notice something strange about some of the faces, demonic even. This is no accident. A squabble between the hall's architect and these particular councillors lead to them being immortalised as gargoyles.

- © Clement Lo

The Origins Of Old City Hall Toronto

In 1885, the city held a contest where 50 architects from around the world competed for the honour of designing a new courthouse. The contest was ultimately unsuccessful, the proposed $200,000 budget being deemed insufficient.

The following year a second contest was held. This time a winner emerged in Edward James Lennox, a man renowned for having already designed several buildings around Toronto.

Work began on the new courthouse shortly after but was delayed when the city council decided that a new city hall was also needed. Lennox drafted new plans for a dual-purpose building in 1887, and in 1889 work re-started.

- © Maurice Prokaziuk

The Difficult Birth Of Old City Hall Toronto

This early delay was the first of many. The building's complex design and the use of local sandstone in its construction were just a couple of the factors that contributed to it taking over ten years to build. By the time it was done, in 1899, the relationship between Lennox and the city council had broken down almost entirely. So much so that the council decided to deny the architect the customary mention on a commemorative plaque.

Lennox did not take this well.

- © Sean Smith

Lennox's Revenge

Not to be denied credit for his designs, Lennox had stonemasons sign his name beneath of the upper floor eaves all the way around the building. 'EJ LENNOX ARCHITECT AD 1898', the inscriptions say.

On top of this he redesigned the likenesses of some of the councillors that were to be engraved near the front door, having them caricatured as gargoyles. And finally he had his own face added to the mix (as a human, not a gargoyle). It can still be seen today and is identifiable by Lennox's signature handlebar moustache.

The Life Of Old City Hall Toronto

When at last it was finished, in 1899, the Old City Hall became the largest Civic Building in North America, and its 103.6m clock tower became the tallest structure in Canada. Its many arches and towers were characteristic of the neo-Romanesque style favoured by Lennox.

A cenotaph was erected at the foot of its steps, in 1925, to commemorate the sacrifice of those Torontonians who had been killed in WW1.

The building was the home of the city council from 1899 to 1966, when the council was moved across Nathan Phillips Square to the current city hall to account for its growing size.

The old city hall continues to be used as a courthouse to this day, but there are plans to convert it into a museum and retail space when the new Toronto Court House is completed (this is scheduled to be in 2023).

- © Tarq Photography

Want to learn more about Toronto and see some of it's secret & hidden sights? Check out our Toronto Scavenger Hunts, puzzle-filled urban adventures lead you through city highlights and best-kept secrets. You'll actively engage with your surroundings to unravel the clues sent directly to your phones. Take optional breaks at great cafes & pub stops and enjoy the city's finest sights.

Or learn more about historic courthouses around the world in our articles on NYC's Jefferson Market Library and Sydney' Justice and Police Museum.


What you need to know

Old City Hall Toronto
60 Queen St W, Toronto, ON, Canada
Tips before you visit