St. Clair West building was eyed as model for City Hall

Want to know what Toronto City Hall might have looked like? Think the Imperial Oil building at 111 St. Clair Ave. West.

When Toronto was looking to move city hall into a new home in the early 1950s, a near-replica of the now-heritage property at Avenue Road and St. Clair was proposed as one of two buildings to be erected at Nathan Phillips Square for use as the city’s political headquarters.

The buildings were designed to stand precisely where today’s City Hall does, with the taller Imperial Oil-looking building on the back portion and a smaller shoebox-shape building in front.

The smaller building would be for council chambers, with the larger building serving as an office tower, just as the Imperial Oil building had been used for until its recent reincarnation as luxury condos, dubbed Imperial Plaza.

The reason it never came to be, historian Mark Osbaldeston told the Rotary Club of Toronto Eglinton in a recent presentation, was a sweeping disapproval of the look.

“To say that this didn’t receive warm public embrace is a bit of an understatement,” he said, while giving a brief history of all the failed proposals for the new City Hall.

All three University of Toronto School of Architecture classes condemned the plan. In an open letter to council they referred to it as “a funeral home of vast proportions and a monstrous monument to backwardness.”

Even famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote that the plan was “a sterilization, a cliché already dated,” according to
Osbaldeston, who has written two books — Unbuilt Toronto and Unbuilt Toronto 2 — on the history of projects planned but not undertaken by the City of Toronto.

The proposition was put to voters in Toronto, who roundly denied the plan in 1955, the same year the city had commissioned three firms to work together to come up with the plan.

One of those, Mathers and Haldenby, had designed the Imperial Oil building at about the same time. Which one came first is of some dispute.

But Osbaldeston doesn’t buy the argument that the firm simply redrew the same plans and passed them off as a new project.

“Sometimes people say they recycled the plan from City Hall for (the Imperial Oil building),” he said. “If you look at the timing, the (Imperial Oil building) was already under way.

“I think it was more a stylistic thing.”

The city, led by Mayor Nathan Phillips, then held an open call for architectural submissions and received more than 500 entries from around the world. The city went with Finnish architect Viljo Revell’s design, and the iconic curved buildings opened in 1965.

Wright chimed in again on Revell’s design, saying “you’ve got a head marker for a grave, and future generations will look at it and say this marks the spot where Toronto fell.”

The City Hall that did get built turns 50 next year.

In Osbaldeston’s eyes it still looks “as modern as tomorrow.”

“I think I can say with a respect for history that, in this instance at least, Wright was wrong,” he said.

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Posted: Jun 26 2014 3:12 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto