How Queen’s Park and Old City Hall got in the same architectural groove

How Queen’s Park and Old City Hall got in the same architectural groove
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Long before chicken wings became a Buffalo signature, Ontario turned to the bustling business and shipping hub of the Great Lakes for something more enduring — an architect of note to design a new provincial parliament.

Preferably, one that would not burn to the ground as easily as two others.

“Buffalo was where it was at for a lot of the inspiration for this place,” says David Bogart of the legislature’s protocol and public relations branch, referring to a building boom in the Queen City.

“Toronto at the end of the 19th century was kind of a backwater, and to get a building like this constructed in the post-Confederation, still-pioneer age was absolutely monumental,” he adds, noting the city’s population and building activity was south of Queen’s Park at the time.

But it took some twists of fate — including a massive fire that devoured the legislature’s west wing in 1909 — to definitively link the legislature and Old City Hall, as anyone who has walked the intricately tiled, marbled and columned halls of the two Richardsonian Romanesque buildings can attest.

This tale has its roots in 1885 during a design competition for Ontario’s seat of government. Submissions failed to wow a judging panel headed by noted Buffalo architect Richard A. Waite, so he brazenly came up with his own drawings and got the gig.

“Waite somehow convinced them ‘you know who could do this properly and under budget? It’s me.’ All the architects were so upset and who can blame them? The government’s pretty much implying that there’s no architect in Ontario who can design our legislature,” says Toronto architectural historian Marta O’Brien.

Bogart says the fix was definitely in after most architects submitted drawings in an older Gothic revival style like the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

“Waite was in good with some of the ministers and, apparently, over a back door poker game, he stuck his own design in.”

By 1893, the pink sandstone legislative building that graces Queen’s Park today was ready to open. It steered clear of mortal peril until the 1909 blaze that started on the west wing roof and consumed that entire side of the building, which also housed a library of 100,000 books.

The powers that be needed someone to make it right. Waite’s career had diminished after the turn of the century amid personal and financial troubles, and the call went local this time — to prolific Toronto architect Edward James Lennox.

Back in 1886 he had won the competition to design what is now known as Old City Hall.

Dubbed “the builder of Toronto” for his many projects that included Casa Loma, the original Toronto Western Hospital, the King Edward Hotel and St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street East, Lennox was tasked to increase the height of the west wing of the legislature to five storeys from three and to make it fireproof, according to a 1995 biography by Marilyn Litvak.

Instead of matching the wooden floors, railings and pillars in the darker east wing, Lennox followed the original floor plan and used grey and white marble in the modern classic style and mosaic floors with a colourful pattern — much the same as at Old City Hall.

The effect makes the west wing feel brighter and more open. Looking toward the roof, there is a massive stained glass interior ceiling that helps illuminate a light well that extends four storeys down to the main floor.

“The inside is more classical because by the 20th-century Richardsonian Romanesque and the other Victorian architectural styles were passe,” says O’Brien, who teaches architectural history at the University of Toronto’s school of continuing education and runs Citywalks Tours & Talks.

“Look at how well it’s stood up. Using expensive materials like tile floors and marble, that stands up really well. Imagine if the ground floor of Old City Hall was wood panelling instead of marble and how hacked up it would now be.”

The Buffalo connection didn’t stop with the original architect, says Bogart, whose department conducts monthly art and architecture tours of the legislature that note the similarities with Old City Hall.

Tile mosaic floors were contracted to DeSpirt Mosaic and Marble Co., still in business today, founded by Italian immigrant Giacomo DeSpirt from Fanna, a city in the northeast of the country in an area internationally renowned for its mosaic schools.

“The floor is very similar to the floor in Old City Hall. It’s beautiful,” O’Brien says.

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At some point over the decades, the distinctive tile floors were covered with red carpet that remained in place until the mid-1990s, when it was peeled off and glue scraped from the three-quarter-inch squares of marble to expose its full beauty.

Rebuilding the west wing 110 years ago cost $1.4 million, barely a rounding error in government finances today in a province with annual spending of almost $164 billion.

“It was over budget but to get a building with the material and quality of the craftsmanship for just over a million dollars was a pretty good deal,” Bogart says.
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