Shaping Toronto: Reusing an Old City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on September 30, 2015.

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Crowd gathered at the opening ceremony of (Old) City Hall, 1899. Photo by Galbraith & Lewis. Toronto Public Library.

From Old City Hall to mall?” To some web denizens interested in heritage and urban affairs, headlines along those lines have likely induced fits of anger lately. On the surface, you’d suspect the denigration of a National Historic Site was upon us.

Take a moment to breathe.

The suggestion in the city staff report to the Government Management Committee to convert Old City Hall into a retail centre as a future source of rental income is tempered by other recommendations to replace the provincial and municipal courts when they vacate the premises. Based on analysis from real estate brokerage Avison Young, stores could be part of a multi-use facility incorporating food, event, and civic uses. Such a fate is not unusual for other cities across North America dealing with historic city halls, or even our past municipal battlegrounds.

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City Hall on Front Street, 1895. Picture by Frank William Micklethwaite. Toronto Public Library.

When the city’s second city hall opened at the southwest corner of Front and Jarvis in 1845, it was intended as a mixed-use complex to ease overcrowded, unsanitary conditions across the street at St. Lawrence Market. While Henry Bowyer Lane’s design included a clock tower that visitors recognized as they sailed into the harbour, it lacked the imagination of its successors. Architectural historian William Dendy assessed it as competent, but hamstrung by “providing for too many functions with too small a budget.” The building was outfitted with more retail space than planned, as City Council desired more rental income.

Their greed may have been hasty. Merchants felt their shops were too small. Structural faults emerged as the building settled into the ground. Lane soon left town, leading a contemporary observer to reflect that it was “a very strange building and it was unfortunate for the reputation of the architect that he had not left the province before he completed the building instead of afterward.” The city stepped in to improve the building’s structural integrity.

By the end of the 19th century, the site was too tiny to meet the needs of a growing municipal bureaucracy, and too old-fashioned to meet contemporary ideas about grand civic architecture. The city decided to integrate it into an enlarged south St. Lawrence Market. While its wings were demolished, the centre was encased within the new façade. After decades of disuse, the old council chamber was reborn during the 1970s as the Market Gallery.

Replacement proposals during the 1870s and 1880s faced Toronto’s deathly fear of spending one cent too many. When the city purchased the site that would become Old City Hall in 1884, it was intended as York County’s new courthouse. But a committee viewing of Buffalo’s combined courthouse/city hall prompted a public referendum to borrow $200,000 to build a similar duo here. Opponents such as the Board of Trade and the Globe raised the spectre of spiralling costs due to potential political corruption and argued that a new trunk sewer was more pressing. The vote failed. Years of wrangling ensued until the cornerstone for E.J. Lennox’s design was laid in 1891.

When it opened in 1899, Old City Hall joined a wave of Richardson Romanesque landmarks emerging within the city’s landscape. These included the parliamentary buildings at Queen’s Park, the Confederation Life Building at Yonge and Richmond, and Victoria College. It was also well-placed near the city’s early skyscrapers, such as the Temple Building a block south. “Its clock tower soaring above the vista from the lake,” historian J.M.S. Careless observed in his book Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History, “this edifice was a testament in lavishly worked buff sandstone to the metropolitan dignity of the High Victorian city.”

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Before Eaton’s revealed models of its proposed Eaton Centre, local cartoonist drew their own visions based on early descriptions. Here’s Andy Donato’s from the September 10, 1965 edition of the Telegram.

Such dignity was less appreciated by the early 1960s. Once the current City Hall was approved, the future looked gloomy for its predecessor. In October 1965 a delegation from Eaton’s department store proposed to buy the building for $8 million from Metro Toronto, who had purchased it from the city four years earlier. Eaton’s, encouraged by city planners, intended to transform the mega-block of Bay, Dundas, Yonge, and Queen into the Eaton Centre a complex of office towers, a hotel, shopping mall, and new flagship store. Officials on the project claimed that Old City Hall was “an insuperable barrier” which, no matter how much they tried, was a square peg in the plan. Their solution was to demolish all but the clock tower, as well as getting rid of nearby Church of the Holy Trinity because of the march of progress.

While many politicians were dazzled by the plans—Swansea Reeve Lucien Kurata said it was “so gorgeous, it’s almost sexy”—public outcry arose. When revised plans called for the full demolition of Old City Hall to make room for the podium of the closest office tower, questions were raised. A lobby group, Friends of Old City Hall, formed, performing actions such as cleaning off a portion of soot to show the beauty of the original walls. Eaton’s suddenly cancelled the project in May 1967, blaming unreasonable municipal demands. John David Eaton, head of the retail empire, bitterly remarked to an associate “let’s walk across the street and tell [Mayor William] Dennison he can shove the Old City Hall up his ass.” The irony is that the building Eaton wanted to vanquish outlived his department store.

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Old City Hall, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 651, Item 18.

While our former City Hall carried on as a courthouse, other cities across North America found mixed uses for their former municipal sites, or are struggling with solutions. Boston’s 1865 Old City Hall houses tenants ranging from heritage agencies to law firms to a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. In Indianapolis, the old building housed the state historical museum for four decades, then served as a temporary home for the city’s central library. Vacant since 2007, the city recently entered a lease agreement with boutique hotel operator 21c Museum Hotels to restore the building as arts-related spaces and a museum, and provide a physical link to a new hotel being built in the neighbouring vacant parking lot.

Like Toronto, Tacoma, Washington nearly lost its Victorian-era city hall to demolition in the early 1970s. A remodelling with space for businesses and restaurants fell prey to the real estate market collapse. Falling into the disrepair, Tacoma bought the building from a private owner for $4 million earlier this yearafter a failure to meet repair deadlines. This week, the city is showing it off to potential investors, hoping to attract office use or a hotel.

Being a National Historic Site, it’d be a difficult, protracted process to radically overhaul the building, so anyone fearing a mini-Eaton Centre can probably relax. If such plans went ahead, public outcry would alter them (though the cleaning the soot stunt might not work a second time). What is required is a strong vision which, fingers crossed, can survive the inevitable petty political wrangling. Ideally, the building would house a long-needed city museum or other historical exhibition spaces accessible to the public. Retail tenants could integrate nods to our past a la the current occupants of Maple Leaf Gardens, and include businesses offering Toronto made or inspired products. The city report hints at possible trendy office uses such as a business or technology incubator. Given its long service to the city, whatever goes in the building should celebrate Toronto while continuing to respect Lennox’s enduring design as much as possible. It’s a site with plenty of potential that would be foolish to waste.

Additional material from Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1984); Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986); Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993); The Eatons by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999); and Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008).

BEHIND THE SCENES

Shaping Toronto looks at the decisions, processes, and trends that form the city we know and love.”

Shaping Toronto was my last ongoing series for Torontoist. It was proposed by new EIC David Hains as a means of looking into the mechanics of Toronto history, how our present landscape was shaped, and what examples could we draw on from elsewhere.

While envisioned as being less labour-intensive than Historicist, my work habits prevented that. Ultimately, the series diverted too much time from better-paying gigs, and, likely in a state of burnout, I pulled the plug in March 2016. In retrospect, ending Shaping Toronto began my gradual withdrawal from the site, a process which took a year to complete.

It’s still a great concept, and maybe one of these days I’ll get around to doing something similar either on this site or elsewhere (send your pitches now!).

Vintage Toronto Ads: Discover the Mug

Originally published on Torontoist on January 11, 2011.

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Tribute, Winter 1982.

It’s December 1982. You’ve planted yourself in a seat at the York cinema on Eglinton Avenue, arms loaded with popcorn and soda for fuel while watching Sir Richard Attenborough’s epic biography of Mahatma Gandhi. As the theatre fills up, you flip through the issue of Tribute devoted to Gandhi that you picked up on the way in. The short cast bios and puff pieces don’t hold your attention long, so your mind drifts elsewhere. You observe your fellow moviegoers, none of whom appear interesting or seem like they could be potential cause for concern during the movie. After polishing off your Coca-Cola and long before the trailers start, you flip through the magazine again to keep your hands and mind occupied.

While turning the pages, an ad catches your eye, though you’re not sure what draws you to it: the young server with flowers in her hair and a burger platter in her hand, or the mug filled with a healthy-headed beverage that may or may not be alcoholic. Mental note to self: suggest The Mug to your friends as a place to go after Christmas shopping at the Eaton Centre?

And then the movie begins…

Postscript: By the end of 1985, The Mug appears to have evolved into the J.J.Muggs chain. Of the locations listed in this ad, 500 Bloor Street West currently houses Aroma Espresso Bar, while the 1 Dundas Street West branch awaits its reincarnation as Toronto’s second Joey Restaurant. The next feature at the York will be a 3D showing of My Date With a Wrecking Ball, as the building (later used as an event venue and fitness club) will be demolished to make way for a condo.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 3

Listerine Kills Germs and Body Odour

Originally published on Torontoist on July 21, 2009.

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Maclean’s, July 15, 1923.

If Listerine can freshen your breath and kill bacteria in the mouth, why can’t it do the same to the rest of your body? It’s safe!

Deodorants and antiperspirants were still in their early stages of evolution when Listerine made today’s pitch—the first commercial underarm deodorant, Mum, had arrived on the market in 1888, with the first antiperspirant, Everdry, following fifteen years later. After you read descriptions of the composition and application of early antiperspirants, Listerine’s claims begin to make sense. Early products were wet, clammy, aqueous alcoholic solutions of aluminum chloride that were poured onto a cotton ball before being dabbed on the body, a technique that Listerine’s model appears well acquainted with. Drying was a slow, sticky process that, once you got past the skin irritations and damaged clothing, reduced one’s stink.

Is That Landmark Sealed with Polysulfide?

Originally published on Torontoist on August 4, 2009.

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Canadian Architect, January 1985.

These three local towers were…

While searching for information regarding Morton Thiokol and polysulfides that didn’t involve deep scientific analysis of the chemical composition of the sealant used in these Toronto landmarks, we ran into an interesting tidbit from the current manufacturer: the sealant should have a “twenty-year service life under normal conditions.”

Makes you want to watch your head while passing by any of these structures, doesn’t it?

Why You Shouldn’t Steal a White Glove Girl

Originally published on Torontoist on September 1, 2009.

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Time, February 10, 1967.

Translation: the “temporary” relationship clause in a White Glove Girl’s contract refers to the amount of time she has remaining on this mortal plane. Until then, we’re happy to shuffle temps around from employer to employer, keeping our White Glove Girls under lock and key until the next call comes in. Sometimes we’ll let them out of the dunge…asset pool for a few minutes to take care of their “happy homemaker” duties. Anyone thinking of stealing one of our assets should be aware that we’ve spent years working on glove-tracing technology—we’ll know when you’ve stolen our assets!

A Toast to Good Hydro Services

Originally published on Torontoist on December 8, 2009.

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(Left) The Globe, November 1, 1929, (right) Toronto Star, November 19, 1936.

We’re not sure which of the images conjured up by today’s ads is more disturbing. Is it the trio of factory workers depicted in a manner usually reserved for nursery rhyme characters or World War I casualties? Or is it the deified toaster (whose cost, if translated into modern money, would start at around $228) trained to act with the utmost style and refinement for a classy late-dinner gathering?

Both ads are fine examples of the large quantity of newspaper advertising the Toronto Hydro Electric System bought during the 1920s and 1930s. Besides trained toasters, the utility’s retail arm offered customers technological marvels for the home such as electric ranges.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Live Together in Perfect Harmony

Originally published on Torontoist on July 15, 2008.

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Bravo, November-December 1982.

Imagine that you’re an advertising representative assigned to handle a spot for Eaton’s in a magazine distributed to audience members enjoying classical music at Roy Thomson Hall in 1982. The department store giant wants to spotlight their fine collection of pianos. As you struggle for ideas, you flip on the radio and hear Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder join forces to sing about the joys of piano duets and racial harmony.

A light bulb appears over your head.

Released as a single in March 1982, “Ebony and Ivory” spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Its reputation has taken a beating in recent years—a 2007 BBC 6 Music listener poll rewarded the song with the distinction of the worst duet of all time.

Other offerings on the sixth floor of the Toronto Eaton Centre store included the home entertainment department, a portrait studio, optical and hearing aids, lost and found service, and the Marine Room restaurant.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Signaling Fall at the Eaton Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2007.

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Source: Toronto Life, September, 1985.

Fall officially arrives this week, a season that signals fresh starts. While some changes signal endings, such as leaves changing colour, events ranging from the first day of school to the launch of the new slate of television shows are opportunities to forge fresh paths. Shopping malls are no exception, as stores unveil their fall wardrobes in which consumers can strut their stuff at the office or on the town.

But is the interplay of fabrics at the top of every consumer’s mind?
The clearest signal that this ad sends out is its age. The colour scheme, the half-reversed headline with a skinny font, the tilted photo with neon background, and the contrasting moods of the model add up to a pure 1980s layout.