The public square we never got

Stephen Otto, one of the board members of the Friends of Fort York, slipped a print-out under Spacing’s office door a few weeks ago. It was the image above — an illustration from the January 1898 edition of Canadian Architect & Builder of the proposed Victoria Square to be situated right out front of the soon-to-be opened City Hall (today’s Old City Hall). Click on the image to see a larger version.

Having read through a handful of Toronto history books, I was aware of the square’s proposal but I had never seen a rendering or illustration until I picked up that piece of paper. The square would’ve been the northern point of Federal Avenue, a grand boulevard stretching south to Union Station, linking the two major landmarks and institutions of the day. It’s certainly a shame this never came to be. On the flipside, it certainly would’ve changed our local history and we may have never ended up with our current and amazingly unique city hall.


  1. Now that’s what I call a public square!

    Although the Nathan Phillips Square redesign could have achieved something similar if they had just opened it up. Instead, they left intact the treacherous east side and the running track.

    I dig the statue, too. This place would have made for some great free, outdoor events!

  2. Wow, can you imagine being up in a building between University and Federal and seeing two, wide, grand avenues spread out on either side of you? Amazing.

  3. Jim, Queen is the street with the streetcars on it. Victoria Square, if my interpretation is correct, would be roughly where the Starbucks at Queen + Bay is, Bay Street itself, and where the tower at the west end of The Bay is now. Federal Avenue would likely be where James St. is now, the tiny street that runs north-south to the west of the Eaton Centre.

    I think the real question is what they were planning to do with Bay St.

  4. Actually, Bay St would have been the west side of Victoria Square. (The giveaway: the old Temple building, which was replaced by the 390 Bay skyscraper in 1970-71.)

  5. If anyone wants to look at a better version of this picture take a look at:
    The early volumes of Canadian Architect and Builder are freely available there. (This picture is Plates 4a and 4b.)

  6. That is quite the re-invisioning of the east side of Old City Hall. Completely gone would be the entire future Simpsons/HBC store block… and what would have happened to Holy Trinity (which would have been in the way to the north).

    Personally, I’m glad this didn’t get built.

  7. It appears that the Square would have extended as far south as Richmond St. W. Simpson’s would have had to build elsewhere.

  8. A gorgeous square for sure, but I prefer the one we built at the new City Hall. It suits Toronto much better than the one proposed above.

  9. I wonder if that’s the Temple Building to the right in the photo.

  10. Federal Avenue, which was proposed until well after Victoria Square was, would have ran between York and Bay. The Royal York Hotel (the original 1928 building) would have been at the northwest corner of Front and Federal, the 1950s addition to the hotel was built where Federal might have gone.

    Victoria Square would not have consumed all the Simpson’s Block (the original store would have been there already) but would have negated some of the expansion and the ugly Simpson Tower that came later.

    The rendering and site almost reminds me of Phillips Square in Montreal, also anchored by a Bay store.

  11. This is a very nice space, but not large enough. It would have eventually have been overwhelmed by surrounding tall buildings. The public square that I really miss is Vimy Circle, the truly massive space planned for the foot of University Ave. It probably would have become just a big traffic circle in practice, but the opportunity was there for a very grand public gathering point.

  12. A dull, unimaginative rendering of a public square, though probably in keeping with the times: symmetrical, two crossed pathways, a huge statue of Victoria plunked dead centre, a few public benches on the perimeter, lots of flat lawn and no trees. Ugh!

    This is clearly just somebody’s quick idea of what a square in front of city hall could look like, not any actual proposal. Just as well, as eventually we would have had a civic row about what to do with the statue. (“Junk it!” “Save it!” “Relocate it!”)

    However, if a square of some kind had been built, it might have provided a dramatic opportunity for an architectural dialogue: keeping the old city hall on the north side and building the new city hall on the west side.

  13. I was under the impression, too, that it wouldn’t have consumed all of the Simpsons block; and indeed, might have led to a “Phillips Square” effect, or something surpassing it–for all its present architectural merit, the thought of Simpsons as a block-filling “Palazzo Farnese” mass just boggles…

  14. Could you imagine if the plan for this square went through and was still around today, how big the trees would be today. Just like the trees at Queens Park. Eventually someone would have planted trees in the square. We would probably not be able to see the building from this angle.

  15. Like others here, I can’t get enough of that statue!

    A friend from Scarborough suggested that such a plan could possibly be reused in the current waterfront redevelopment, albeit with a statue of the current monarch instead.

  16. Haha, while Liz is as a good as a queen as I’ve ever known, I think we would probably choose a more fitting figure to be memorialized.

  17. it’s a damn shame that it never got built. why do i cry a little inside every time i see renderings like this? although i enjoy skating there and so on, that area of town still stands as my least favourite (and most windy).

    i’d still opt for a statue of queen victoria, though. such a staunch prude deserves more sculptures of her prim features.

    elisabeth II is more yawn-inducing than staunch.

  18. “Haha, while Liz is as a good as a queen as I’ve ever known, I think we would probably choose a more fitting figure to be memorialized.”

    And Jane Jacobs would kindly refuse such honours from the afterlife.

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