Why Old City Hall could be the perfect grounds for a civic museum.
Karen Carter stepped into the courtyard of Old City Hall in awe.
It was Nuit Blanche, eight years back. A cultural worker with a background in history, Carter, like many Torontonians, had seen only the outside of the building. Usually locked, the heavy iron gates guarding the courtyard entrance were open, inviting the public in for one night. Carter has long forgotten the specific installation tied to the unlocking of the gates, but she still remembers the courtyard vividly. In the cobblestone path to the stonework of the wall, the scale and grandeur of the building, she saw possibilities.
“To walk in those gates and think historically about what they may have represented and what that public square may have been … My brain went everywhere,” Carter says.
She hasn’t been there again since that night. Still, she peeks in when passing by, waiting for the day the gates will be open again—this time, for good.
With construction completed in 1899, Toronto’s third city hall was the largest municipal structure in North America in the early 20th century. It was designed by Edward James Lennox in the Richardson Romanesque style, its rounded archways and intricate stone carvings a far cry from the sharp metal and concrete currently surrounding it. Old City Hall is sturdy and monumental, with brown and grey sandstone crafted into circular towers and thick walls. Above, the clock tower rings over the courtyard hidden in the centre of the building. Images of animals, foliage, and caricatures intertwine at the top of the columns that stand along the entrance.
Today, the building is home to provincial courthouses. But they are scheduled to vacate within the next decade, when a new “super court” consolidates many of the court functions throughout the city into one location at Armoury and Chestnut Streets. It’s uncertain what will take their place at Old City Hall.
In 2014, the city retained brokerage firm Avison Young to analyze and recommend potential tenants and uses for the building. Released in September 2015, the report concluded that “the highest and best use for Old City Hall would be conversion to a retail centre that contains a mix of food service, leisure, event, and civic uses.”
The report polarized Torontonians who think the historic site deserves a better fate than retail. In November 2015, city council adopted an action that would explore the possibility of housing a museum in Old City Hall before considering other options. In consultation with Economic Development and Culture, Heritage Toronto, and Heritage Preservation Services, the city plans to undertake a feasibility study, consult with the public, and report back in two years.
The conversation around Old City Hall has only just begun. But the feasibility study has reignited the long talked-about idea of a Toronto museum. For more than 50 years, the idea of opening a civic museum has been floated to no avail. Locations such as the Canada Malting silos and Casa Loma have been scouted as potential spaces in previous attempts. Despite decades of planning and work by the city, the heritage sector, and private citizens, a Toronto Museum has never come to life quite as imagined. But Old City Hall’s days are numbered, and the opportunity to build the city museum Torontonians have been waiting for could be now.
As the fourth-largest city in North America and one of the most multicultural cities in the world, Toronto is a place of many stories, with a history that spans 11,000 years. Bringing its collective story together isn’t easy. Current mainstream narratives are filled with gaps, particularly about First Nations history and the post-1950s immigration wave. Weaving together all of the events, people, and stories that have built this city would be an onerous task.
Amalgamation also creates challenges. According to Kaitlin Wainwright, director of programming for Heritage Toronto, the vision of a civic museum was put on hold when the city’s six municipalities merged and the central museums and sites of those municipalities blended together. Today, staff manage 10 historic sites across the city—from Montgomery Inn in Etobicoke to the Scarborough Museum.
A charitable agency of the city, Heritage Toronto works with local community groups and volunteers to provide city-wide programming and services. Wainwright fears that with all the focus on a singular city museum, resources will be drained from smaller local museums that are already fighting for attention.
“Too often in our public conversations that we’re having about museums, that’s ignored, that really great work is going not unnoticed but under-noticed,” Wainwright says.
For her, the best possible outcome is opening Old City Hall up to the public, as it was originally built to be. Whether it’s a museum or not is another question.
“The advantage to using Old City Hall as a museum, as a heritage space, is that the heritage integrity of the building will be maintained and that’s foremost what’s important to us,” she says. “Would Heritage Toronto want to see more resources allocated to the museum and heritage services sector within the City of Toronto? Yes, absolutely. Does that have to be through Old City Hall? Not necessarily.”
A few blocks away from Old City Hall, Carl Benn sighs over the debate he sees again and again.
“The standard response in North American society, and the Western society generally is when you have an old building and you need to find some use for it, you think about sticking a museum in it,” Benn says.
Formerly the chief curator of the City of Toronto’s Museums and Heritage Services and now a full-time history professor at Ryerson University, Benn was involved in the city’s last few attempts at creating a civic museum.
“The vision tended to be a big building with a big traditional artifacts-centred collection and telling all kinds of sub-community history and not putting enough emphasis on the big story. And then nothing happened,” says Benn, who has worked in the museum industry for more than 30 years. “In the past, we tended to start with nothing and in the end, end up with nothing.”
Creating a museum is not as simple as gathering historical materials and displaying them together in a building. The city has a reserve of artifacts, but most are part of the collections of historic site museums. Benn doesn’t believe that there are enough objects for a comprehensive museum, especially one that is truly representative of the city’s history.
“There’s a problem in that the collection and the story we want to tell don’t align and people are ignoring that problem,” he says.
At the Myseum of Toronto, staff has set out to solve this particular problem. Launched in May 2015, the Myseum takes a collaborative approach to telling the story of Toronto. It doesn’t have a collection; instead, the public are encouraged to contribute personal stories and items to be digitally archived and accessible online. Myseum hosts various pop-up events throughout the year that brings experts together with the public, and forums for those in the culture and heritage fields to share ideas and work.
Items in Myseum include a Portuguese passport that Rui got when he was 11 so that he could immigrate to Canada; a poster for the Dykes in the Streets March that Amy organized in 1981; and a plate of samosas from a Scarborough supermarket that reminds Pailagi of her childhood growing up in India. The items will stay with their owners, but the story will be disseminated.
It’s an innovative approach to an old problem, and Carter, the executive director of Myseum, knows that new ideas take time to grow. “There isn’t some master plan sitting somewhere, saying we’re going to do these three things for the next five years and then we’re going to do this. We’ve really left it open so that we can start the conversations and see how people respond to the idea,” she says.
Founded by a group of private citizens—including museum advocates such as former mayor David Crombie—the Myseum is turning to a new model that incorporates lessons learned from past failures. What they lack in space (they’re set up in a small office at 401 Richmond), they make up for in interest. Since launching, the organization has been growing steadily, boasting more than 160 volunteers and a partnership with RBC.
“We’re fuelling the notion of the Toronto narrative taking shape and asking people to engage with that conversation. What we have in this space reflects the incubatory path that we’re on and this development space of starting small. Seeing how things go and how it resonates with Torontonians,” says Carter. “So far, it’s been positive.”
Carter grew up in Scarborough during the 1980s, a diverse neighbourhood she credits to shaping her into the person she is today. Her experience as a child of Jamaican immigrants was similar to those of her classmates; this era saw many new immigrant families settling in the city’s east end. She still remembers playing in the schoolyard during recess when her friend’s mother would show up with Indian-spiced hot dogs. “I can talk about that and still conjure up the taste of how good they were,” she says with a laugh.
This is one of her stories of the city, and she knows that there are many more just like it. The test for her and the Myseum of Toronto is motivating people to share their own.
“Our challenge is the broader public—the people who get up, go to work, who are dealing with their kids and family, aging parents, just the stuff of life—and making this idea about a story, a place, an entity, an organization that’s focused on a museum to tell Toronto’s story,” Carter says. “Why do they care?”
If Toronto wants to be a great city in the future, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) says the city must take its past seriously.
“We have to map our evolution and we have to understand who was here in Toronto, who was here in Canada before the settlers came,” she says. “We have to understand all of that in order for us to know who we are as a people.”
For her, that starts with changing the city’s view toward its own history. When New City Hall was built in the 1965, Old City Hall was threatened with demolition during the planning of the Eaton Centre, spurring the peak of Toronto’s preservation movement. As development in the downtown core transformed the city’s business and commercial districts, buildings were destroyed if they stood in the way of the architectural vision. The loss of these buildings encouraged the public to call for stricter preservation of built heritage as the city crossed into the modern age.
“The City of Toronto actually needs to lead the way by making sure that we take care of our heritage structures and that we show developers that the highest and best use of place or land are not necessarily achieved by destroying a building,” Wong-Tam says.
It’s unclear exactly how much the project will cost, but it won’t be cheap. Building a museum requires a lot of money, resources, and patience. But Wong-Tam believes it’s time to invest in something we’ve neglected for so long.
“I don’t need another condominium. We don’t need another shopping mall in downtown Toronto,” she says. “What we need are cultural spaces. What we need are community spaces. What we need to do is honour the heritage as built heritage that was part of the city building of Toronto, the story of the city.”
While the vacancy of Old City Hall presents a golden opportunity to open a civic museum, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome. Most significantly, past attempts faced major funding shortages. “A big issue is once you had all the studies and all the enthusiasm, the next big step is you need huge amounts of money to build, [and that] was never there,” Benn says. Both the public and private sectors will need to fundraise. Renovations, retrofitting, and staffing, among other needs, will cost tens to hundreds of millions—all this before the museum can open its doors.
Benn also suggests that the city create a separate organization to manage the project, similar to the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games’ organizing committee. For a heritage initiative of this scale, public support and interest are paramount.
Even if all the logistics are met, several questions loom. What would a civic museum look like, and whose stories would it tell? The real challenge is finding a common thread in a city diverse as Toronto.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in November, and a class of elementary school students are huddling on the stairs leading up to Old City Hall. Clutching clipboards and pencils, they are partaking in a scavenger hunt of the building’s features.
Their teacher explains how Edward James Lennox left his mark by incorporating his name into the stone.
“A lot of people today still don’t know that and I’d like to show you where they are,” she says.
She leads the kids to the spot and asks them to point out if they were able to spot the letters. They move closer to the building, waving their hands and pointing with excitement at the find.
Heads up, a chorus of, “I see it! I see it!” soon follows. The clock tower rings out as they leave, eyes gazing at the gargoyles watching from above.
It survived its own construction. It survived its near demolition. Old City Hall still stands as it did over a century ago, a remarkable time capsule of the city’s history. It hasn’t changed—but Toronto has. The question of Old City Hall isn’t a real estate decision but an opportunity for the city to explore its identity, what it was, and what it will become. It’s a hard question, but Carter believes it’s time for an answer.
“When you are coming back to Toronto and you see the CN Tower and the skyline even from way up there, it says home to you,” she says. “Even those things are important to think about—how those landscapes, how those views say something about the city we live in, what’s worth protecting, and what’s not.”