What Should the Future Look Like for Old City Hall?
A city museum and store are among the ideas to move into the 19th century building.
Once threatened with demolition, E.J. Lennox’s Richardsonian Romanesque masterpiece—Old City Hall—could soon find a renewed sense of purpose as a City of Toronto Museum, accompanied by sympathetic commercial and institutional uses, in the next decade.
Currently, Old City Hall is fully leased by the Province of Ontario to house provincial courts. That lease expires in 2021, and the province will soon build a new consolidated courthouse on Centre Avenue to replace several dispersed locations, including Old City Hall. Old City Hall is open to the public, but since it’s a functioning courthouse, visitors must submit to security screening, and photography inside is generally forbidden.
The forthcoming vacancy at Old City Hall—one of Toronto’s most significant historic sites—creates an opportunity to re-imagine the building in the civic life of the city.
At Metro Hall yesterday, the City of Toronto, along with heritage and architectural consultants, presented some preliminary plans for the building’s revitalization at a public consultation, including a new City of Toronto Museum. Under these early designs, the museum would be allocated approximately 65,000 square feet, excluding corridors and shared spaces. This compares with the Museum of the City of New York. Another 100,000 square feet would be allocated to retail uses and other tenants. Some ideas included a gift shop, a cafe, and spaces for educational institutions and allied organizations, such as Heritage Toronto. A shopping mall, as reported by local media last year (ironically, early plans for the Toronto Eaton Centre called for Old City Hall’s demolition), is not what’s being envisioned for this site. The courtyard, currently a parking lot for police and court services vehicles, will be enclosed with a new glass roof for the use of visitors, tenants, and private functions.
There are still many challenges ahead: while Old City Hall remains in excellent shape, refurbishing the building from its current uses will be expensive—it will require upgrades to improve the climate control systems and make the building more accessible. The cost to refurbish the building, and what potential tenants will be willing to pay, remains unknown.
A report will be presented to Toronto City Council by Real Estate Services staff next year. If Council approves the plan, construction can begin once the courts vacate. There is always the possibility that Council will balk at funding a civic museum; in that case, more space will be allocated to commercial tenants. But given the importance of Old City Hall to Toronto’s built heritage, and the potential for a central museum to tell the city’s stories, it would be a shame to let this opportunity go by.