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Tale of two buildings: Different countries, but similar styles

Sunday, February 3, 2008
By Mike Filey,

A quick look at the two photos that accompany this article might lead the reader to think they are of the same building viewed from different angles.

But on closer inspection, it’s obvious they are two totally different structures. One shows the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa., while the other is of what we now call “old” City Hall in the heart of our city. The former was constructed from 1883-88, while construction of the latter began in 1889 and took a decade to complete.

The fact that the two buildings are similar in appearance should not come as a surprise since the architect of the Toronto building, Edward James Lennox, was inspired by the work of well-known American architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

In fact, Lennox often made trips south of the border to see various Richardson projects created in a style that had become known internationally as Richardson Romanesque. A couple of those buildings were in nearby Buffalo, N.Y., but it was Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse that caught Lennox’s eye.

The young Toronto architect unabashedly used many of its architectural elements in his design for what was initially planned as Toronto’s new combination courthouse/city hall.

Today, the Pittsburgh building is still being used for its original purpose, that of a courthouse. And although Lennox’s building was initially planned to serve as both Toronto’s new city hall and a courthouse for the County of York, it actually served only a single purpose, that of Toronto’s City Hall, from the day it opened in the fall of 1899 until our new City Hall opened across Bay St. 66 years later.

The project began to take shape in 1884 when Lennox proposed replacing the old county courthouse on Adelaide St. E. with a new one at a cost of $400,000. Nothing happened.

In a second report presented to council three years later, Lennox estimated the cost of the new courthouse would now be $690,000. He also introduced the idea of building a new city hall at a cost of $570,000 to replace the old, outdated one at Front and Jarvis. He then went on to suggest that the city could save money by combining the two uses, courthouse and city hall, under one roof. This building could be built for approximately $1 million , thereby saving the taxpayer a nifty $260,000.

More discussions ensued and it wasn’t until 1889 that work on the dual purpose structure — the cost of which had by now escalated to $1,650,000 — actually began. The completion date was set for January 1893.

Progress was slow, painfully slow, with architect Lennox blaming the general contractor for the hold-ups. The delays prompted the following comment in the May 30, 1895 edition of the Globe newspaper: “It is gratifying to note that there has been as yet no fatal accidents attending the building of the new (municipal building) project although several employees have become incapacitated through old age.”

Eventually, and in an effort to get the project back on track, Lennox fired the contactor and assumed full control himself. By now the cost had mushroomed to $2 million. Four more years of work followed and when Mayor John Shaw officially opened the building on Sept.18, 1899, the cost of the long drawn-out project had risen to more than $3 million.

Interestingly, when it did open it was as Toronto’s new city hall with the county courthouse remaining ensconced in its ancient (1852-53) building on Adelaide St. E. It appears that county and city officials couldn’t agree on what proportion of the total building cost each would pay.

Among the invited guests on opening day was the proud yet frustrated architect, Edward James Lennox. Proud because his creation had become one of the continent’s architectural wonders; frustrated at the criticism he faced from the politicians and the newspapers over the building’s final cost.

And the architect’s frustration continued to grow as the city officials refused to pay the various bills he had submitted for the 15 years of work he had undertaken on the constantly changing project. The amount he billed the city totaled exactly $269,658. Of that, a mere 25% was for actual architectural work. The remaining amount covered all the extra work Lennox was forced to undertake himself once work had commenced on the new building.

The arguments over just how much of that bill the city would pay lasted for years and it wasn’t until January 1912, almost 13 years after Mayor Shaw officially opened Toronto’s wonderful new city hall, that architect/contractor Lennox, fed up with the whole matter, accepted the city’s offer of $121,615 — an amount that was less than half of what he requested

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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