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Could Toronto's Old City Hall could become a mall? According to a report to a city council committee, an analysis has found "that the highest and best use for Old City Hall would be conversion to a retail centre that contains a mix of food service, leisure, event and civic uses."

It also says that the building could contain space devoted to arts and culture, international trade, finance, postsecondary education and private offices – and that any overhaul would have to ensure public access and provide civic-event space. So Wal-Mart isn't going to be selling lawn chairs and T-shirts out of Old City Hall just yet.

But even the suggestion that the grand old pile at Queen and Bay could house some kind of shopping centre is alarming. Churches aside, Old City Hall is Toronto's leading historic building. Used since 1972 for provincial courthouses, it cries out for an imaginative reinvention that would bring more of the public inside and make it a showcase for visitors to the city. This is not it.

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Old City Hall took 11 years to build and cost the shocking sum of $2.5-million, many times the $600,000 first budgeted for the job. Architect E.J. Lennox designed it to last. The basement walls are over seven feet thick in places, the footings over 12 feet. It took more than 1,300 train cars to deliver the stone for the walls, some of it from a Credit River quarry that supplied the stone for the legislative buildings at Queen's Park.

From the outside, Old City Hall is a thing to behold, with its soaring clock tower, its jutting gargoyles and its detailed stonework. A small likeness of Lennox's face sits among a collection of carved heads above the monumental Queen Street entrance.

Few people who do not work there or have some contact with the court system ever see the inside of the building. That is a shame. It's a beautiful thing, too, with grand staircases, marble columns, mosaic floors and elaborate wrought-iron railings. The ornate old city council chamber, with its throne-like mayor's chair, is now courtroom 121. A stained-glass window in the entrance hall is by Robert McCausland and depicts the union of commerce and industry. Look at it closely and you see Old City Hall itself, surrounded by scaffolding and under construction.

Sadly, the interior has gone to seed. Ugly fluorescent lights illuminate its hallways. The baseboards are chipped, the woodwork faded. Some of its old rooms have been converted into modern government offices and courtrooms completely out of sync with the original style of the place. The interior courtyard, sometimes talked of as the future home of a City of Toronto museum, has been turned into a kind of parking lot and loading space. In short, shameless neglect has turned an invaluable piece of Toronto's heritage into a bit of a dump.

The city now has an opportunity to make something better of this misused jewel. The courts are due to move out in a few years for a new, modern home. Real estate consultants retained by the city recommend leasing the building to a reliable "capital partner," which would pay a set rent to the city and select tenants. The model is the deal with partners at Union Station, who are creating retail space in its underground concourses. Though the consultants insist the city would retain some say in how the building would be used, the risk is that it would be balkanized and cheapened.

Why not hold a competition instead, inviting applicants to come up with a creative use – museum, art gallery, university, theatre spaces, some combination of these – that would keep it at the heart of Toronto's civic life? A competition was held in the late 1800s for the design of the building, originally conceived as a courthouse. Another architectural competition decades later resulted in Viljo Revell's dramatic new City Hall across the street.

When Old City Hall opened on Sept. 18, 1899, Mayor John Shaw said that "great buildings symbolize a people's deeds and aspirations. It has been said that wherever a nation had a conscience and a mind, it recorded the evidence of its being in the highest products of this greatest of all arts."

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Old City Hall is one of those products. It deserves a use that fits its status.

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