No matter the time of year, Toronto is a buzzing metropolis with an endless variety of things to do and see. That being said, summer is really the best time to visit the city – explore the festivals, wander the markets, immerse yourself in the diverse coming-together of cultures. This past weekend, the city hosted Doors Open Toronto, where participating venues opened their doors and offered tours to locals and visitors alike.
This year, in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, there were 150 different buildings that were free and open to the public – everything from water treatment plants to museums and breweries. With so much to choose from, it is impossible to see them all in one weekend. This itinerary includes 3 venues that I chose to visit based on interest, history and proximity.
I recommend starting the day off with a hearty breakfast (it is needed for the day of walking ahead!). Fran’s Diner is perfect for this, combining an amazing atmosphere with reasonable prices. Not to mention good food — I recommend the chocolate chip pancakes! It is located at Yonge and College, just a few blocks away from our first stop: Old City Hall.
OLD CITY HALL (Located at the corner of Bay and Queen Street)
Old City Hall, an impressive piece of romanesque revival architecture, was top of my list to visit during Doors Open. I don’t know about you, but I love a building with a good story. Normally, this entails supernatural stories about ghosts – and this building is said to be haunted – but the real tale is about the eccentric architect Edward James Lennox.
The building, finished in 1899, took more than a decade to build – well over the agreed time and budget (the initial $600,000 price tag actually ended up ballooning to $2.5 million). In the end, the exasperated city fathers refused Lennox the right to sign his name on his building. However, E. J. saw this coming and instead instructed the stonemasons to carve “EJ LENNOX ARCHITECT AD 1898” on the corbels beneath the upper floors eaves while the building was still in construction – ensuring he had the last laugh.
It is also said that the grotesque and comical faces carved into the top of the arches at the building’s entrance represent caricatures of the city councillors who fought with Lennox during the construction. The only accurate likeness is of the architect himself. I also heard a rumour that the mayor, as Lennox’s chief antagonist, was singled out for particular ridicule. According to reports, this worthy was subjected to unflattering caricature in a stained-glass window which, for structural reasons, could not be removed. Unfortunately, though, I could not find it during my visit (so it remains a rumour).
As a functioning courthouse, we were sadly unable to take any pictures of the inside of the building, but make sure to check out the impressive stained glass window in the lobby area if you visit.
ELGIN & WINTER GARDEN THEATRE (Yonge and Queen Street)
Just around the corner from the Old City Hall on Yonge Street sits the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre. This isn’t just another old theatre, and even the resolutely un-theatrical will enjoy this venue! Opened in 1913 as the flagship for Loews chain of Canadian vaudeville theatres (hour long, variety-show-style entertainment), this edifice was a splendid example of a rare architectural species. For as its double-barrel name implies, the E&WG is not a single theatre at all, but two. The Elgin Theatre occupies the main level, while its companion, the Winter Garden Theatre, perches directly atop it. The former was beautifully restored to gilded opulence in the late 1980s; however, the Winter Garden is the real reason to visit.
After riding up in a gorgeously preserved elevator, you immediately walk into an enchanted forest – complete with a canopy of beech leaves, columns done up like tree trunks, and multicoloured fairy lanterns. An incredible amount of detail has gone into the forest atmosphere, and you can easily imagine yourself under the stars (but without the bugs).
Due to the decline in vaudeville’s popularity following the introduction of talking pictures, the Winter Garden had been closed to the public and sealed off in 1928. The lower theatre also struggled, and was gradually ripped apart and converted into an adult movie theatre. Eventually, when the theatres were going to be torn down and turned into a parking lot, the Ontario Heritage Trust purchased the venues and restored them for use as a performing arts complex. Thankfully, the theatres were able to be brought back to life and families can once again experience live theatre in the enchanted forest.
The theatre is now also used each year for movie screenings during the Toronto International Film Festival.
LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY OF ONTARIO (Wellesley St W)
It’s a bit of a walk, but the next stop is Ontario’s Legislative Building which rises above the historic grounds of Queen’s Park on University Avenue. Completed in Richardson Romanesque style in 1892, the building houses the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, as well as the viceregal suite of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and offices for members of the provincial parliament (MPPs).
In 1909, a devastating fire destroyed part of the building, and E. J. Lennox was hired to redesign the west wing. Remember him from the Old City Hall? To my knowledge, he didn’t leave any caricatures this time, but he did add an additional two floors for more office space.
While the building does not have as many stories as some other buildings, it is an incredible piece of architecture both inside and out. I absolutely recommend walking around the gardens and absorbing the atmosphere of Canadian history and politics.
SNAKES & LATTES
Now, after a day of walking, you will be pretty tired. I recommend heading down the street and checking out Snakes and Lattes, near the intersection of Bathurst and College Street. An expansion from their main location on Bloor Street, this is a really cool place to spend an evening, though it can get quite full on weekends. You do pay a $6 seating charge, but there is any board game you can imagine and you can stay for hours! I recommend coming with a group of friends, but they have games that are suitable for all numbers and ages. We personally chose to spend the afternoon playing Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit, but they really have it all. If you are not sure what game you are in the mood for, or simply want to try something new, the helpful staff will be happy offer suggestions, and are basically all-knowing when it comes to board games. Feel free to sit, play, eat and drink to your heart’s content! I recommend trying the nachos, perfect for sharing!
If you have any favourite Toronto venues, or took part in any interesting Doors Open events, then I would love to hear about them in the comments below!