In the 1890’s, long trains loaded down with beige sandstone chugged from New Brunswick to Toronto. E.J. Lennox’s magnificent Old City Hall, once the second largest city hall in North America (after Philadelphia), enriched with flamboyant romanesque details, finally opened for civic business in September 1899 after ten years of construction.
What reverence Torontonians had for the building was not shared by the harsh Canadian climate. The freeze-thaw cycle had an appetite for delicate sandstone gargoyles and finials, culminating in 1938 with a 500-pound chunk of gargoyle from the clock tower crashing through the roof of the building. A year later the weathered beasts were all removed along with other ornaments as a safety precaution. Old City Hall was becoming soot-blackened and weather-worn.
Grassroots community uproar spared the building (just barely) from a 1960’s plan which would have left only the clock tower standing like an obelisk in a sea of austere concrete. Since that reprieve, epic restorations have been carried out. A team of 30 metal workers recently spent five years replacing the copper roof, and decades of grit has been scrubbed off to reveal pristine red and beige sandstone. New gargoyles have been cast in durable lightweight bronze, restoring the tower’s original proportions and gazing out over a city much changed in their absence.
Slum houses, rear of 21 Elizabeth Street, 1913. Looking east to city hall. Hard to imagine now that New City hall and Nathan Phillips Square are built on what was once a poor part of town called The Ward, which for many years sprawled beneath the snouts of city hall gargoyles.
All photos are from the City of Toronto Archives.