When it opened 50 years ago “new” City Hall looked like the future, then later like the past. Now, it looks kind of like both.
This weekend, as the lingering summer tourists walk west from Yonge along Queen Street, they’ll pause as usual to take in two buildings, old and new. First, Toronto’s Old City Hall (third of its name, coming after the Older and Oldest versions), and then the “new” City Hall, whose Nathan Phillips Square hosts a 50th anniversary celebration this Sunday, September 13.
I remember seeing City Hall for the first time with my father, who, stating the obvious, explained that some people had complained of a resemblance to a UFO spaceport. That’s because it totally looks like a UFO spaceport. I would have seen it before in the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (especially famous in Toronto) where City Hall appears through an Iconian transporter window. You remember the Iconians, of course? The mysterious vanished civilization that had perfected a portal-based transportation technology, but right before the crew of the Enterprise could harness it? Anyway, until Canada’s most famous official UFO Landing Pad, in St. Paul, Alberta, was built in 1967, City Hall was Canada’s unrivalled interstellar destination.
Some think it fabulous, others think it dated, but one underrated quality of City Hall—especially given the shenanigans that have happened there in recent years—is that it is, in fact, slightly whimsical. When Conan O’Brien brought his television show to Toronto for a week in February 2004, his first stop on a tour with The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson was City Hall. They make light of it—mostly for still being called “new,” and for its deserted skating rink in the grey, slushy, holidays-are-long-gone, Toronto February weather. Imagine how disappointed the Iconians must have been, showing up with their skates sharpened.
To locals, though, the empty rink belied the vibrant place Nathan Phillips Square can be. A rock concert at its opening, nicely profiled in Bruce McDonald’s documentary Yonge Street: Rock & Roll Stories, drew 60,000 fans and nearly gave Mayor Givens a fit with its explosion of very un-Torontonian youth culture. (Those youths now own million-dollar bungalows.) Most Torontonians have spent part of a sunny summer afternoon in the square. Most civic protests seem to begin there, or end there.
Old City Hall was once to have its own public plaza called Victoria Square, with a statue of the monarch as its centrepiece (Queen’s Park, you will remember, may be named for Victoria, but instead has a statue of its founder, Edward VII). It was one of those unrealized City Beautiful plans that Commissioner R. C. Harris—well, Michael Ondaatje’s version of him, anyway—dreams about in Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion. “Wonderful things,” he says of the unrealized plans, “that were said to be too vulgar or expensive, too this, too that.” Had they been built, Conan and Scott Thompson might have strolled up a Napoleonic Federal Avenue from Union Station to Old City Hall. Instead they probably took the PATH. (Or got hopelessly lost in the PATH before finally staggering up Bay Street.)
There is always a bit of chauvinism in the time when one comes of age. Harris would likely have felt that the new City Hall was too vulgar, too expensive, too “this,” and too “that.” He might have bemoaned the Beaux Arts buildings that fell before skyscrapers in the International Style, just as Georgian “relics” had fallen before them. In the novel, Harris says, “I was practically born in City Hall,” and he, of course, means Old City Hall. His birthplace, built in a style that was itself a revival, almost fell before a retail complex. Fortunately, the Eaton Centre ultimately curled around Old City Hall and the Church of the Holy Trinity, rather than laying on top of them. It is, in fact, Eaton’s itself that is gone.
The most dated parts of an age are often its visions of the future. “New” City Hall looked like the future, then the past, and now looks kind of like both. Almost any building, given enough time, becomes lived-in. Many couples will have walked through the square on their first dates, or their last dates. Many will have applied for their marriage licenses inside the spaceport. Many Torontonians scrawled elegies to Jack Layton across the square in chalk in the waning summer of 2011—perhaps the time when “new” City Hall truly came of age. You wouldn’t do such a thing across the cenotaph next door: a place for silence, reverence, and the legacy of an empire. Nathan Phillips Square is a place for movement and expression, and maybe a little bit of chaos. The city is fortunate to have both.