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One Hundred Years of Architecture

By Sarah Houghton Vic 0T4

Nestled between a commercial district and government buildings stand the dozen or so buildings of Victoria College, which make up one of the oldest and largest colleges at the University of Toronto. But just ten years ago, Vic looked very different. There was no Rowell Jackman Hall (perhaps just a construction site). There was no Isabel Bader Theatre. There were tennis courts. EJ Pratt Library was a dark, ugly, and outdated building. And many of the tall buildings that now surround the campus were not there. A few decades before that, Vic had its own gymnasium and a skating rink. A hundred years ago, Old Vic was the only Vic building. A lot has changed. The mis-matched buildings represent an evolution in architecture and design that dates back over 100 years.

“Go to Vic, it’s the richest college” was one of the first things I learned about Victoria College, back in high school. As images of scholarships and luxury danced through my mind, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t play a part in helping me choose a college. Although it may not be the most well-endowed college at UofT, a walk through the campus speaks for itself. The collection of elegant buildings at Vic present an awesome display of over 100 years of architectural style, history, and design.Image

When Victoria college moved from its former home in Cobourg, Ontario, to Toronto in 1892, the original building was converted into an insane asylum for women. No too long after, Old Vic was built, and for a while it was the entire college.

I remember the welcoming ceremony for new Vic students, back at the beginning of first year. We were told some of the history of Old Vic, the oldest building at the college. I remember the story about students voting against renovating the staircases, because the indentations from a hundred years of use was a valuable aspect of the building, reminding current students of the rich history of their surroundings.

ImageOld Vic was built in 1892 (then appropriately called “New Vic”) as the principal building of the college. None of the other buildings existed yet. It was designed to accommodate 600 students, but in its first year only 226 students, 14 of whom were women, attended. The building represents Romanesque “revival” style, suggestive of ancient Middle Eastern Islamic mosques. It also has Grecian features, which were inspired by some of the college buildings found in New England and New York State (the US was very fond of Greco-Roman architecture, which we see in the White House), and matches nicely the style of its close neighbour, the Ontario Legislature building.

The rough texture of the red sandstone and grey limestone reflect the back-to-nature ideals of romantic naturalism. Some argue that the Grecian aspects of Old Vic  violate the strict rules of proportion of the ancient Greek Doric order. The 3-storey columns above the front entrance are too tall for their width, critics say, and the design of the main entrance is, in places, too wide or too narrow. The outside of the building features assorted carvings of animals, plants, and human faces, with Plat and Bacon over the front door. The inside is decorated with seven stained-glass windows, displaying images of Martin Luther and Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Mitton, and John Wesley, as well as the Vic crest and motto. These images were designed to represent a mixture of sacred and secular knowledge, and to create “an environment for sanctified learning unfettered by oppressive restrictions,” reflective of the liberal tradition of education at Vic.

The building is three storeys and includes a large chapel on the second floor. Regular morning services were held here until the late 1960s, following a gradual pattern of secularization. The third floor was designated for theology studies and as a meeting place for clubs and societies. It was also used to store museum artifacts and specimens, which have since been moved to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Old Vic was originally the entire college, but there came a point when it was decided that if enrollment was to increase, student accommodation would need to be offered. Surprisingly, the first residence was not Burwash, but Annesley, the first women’s residence to be built in the entire British Commonwealth.

ImageAnnesley was built in 1903, and represented a monument to women’s education. The handsome building is made of red brick and cut stone, and features an elegant doorway that was used in a Chrysler magazine ad in the late 1970s. The residence offered three floors with double and triple rooms, and also included the Tackaberry Library and a Music Room. The women also enjoyed a skating rink behind the building, and would use the front lawn to play tennis, basketball, and croquet. The building and furnishing cost $90,000, and represented a revolution for women’s education.

Seven years later, Vic doubled in size with the addition of Burwash Hall and the Birge-Carnegie Library. Both buildings were designed by the architectural firm Sproatt and Rolph (the team that designed Hart House), and were completed in 1910.

The library and hall were built to emulate the style of the buildings at Oxford and Cambridge, and represent the “robust and masculine” collegiate Gothic style dating back to 17th-century England. These buildings had become the trend around UofT –  look at, for example, Knox College, Trinity, Emmanuel College, and Hart House. Each is Georgetown gray, constructed with Credit Valley ashlar with trimmings of Indiana limestone. The style emphasizes harmonic proportions, and feature massive windows, carved figures, and heavy oak doors.

The Birge-Carnegie Library was mainly financed by Andrew Carnegie (one of the richest men who ever lived), who built 2,811 libraries around the world, in part to avoid the moral disgrace of dying wealthy. He paid for $50,000 of the total $75,000 cost, and Cyrus Birge, a wealthy Vic alumnus, paid the rest. The building features stuccoed walls, brown cut oak woodwork, a dark slate roof, marble staircases, and a Bath Stone carved statue of Queen Victoria at the main entrance. Before the library was built, the Vic collection was kept in what is now the Alumni Hall room at Old Vic. The old library (then called the “New Library”) served as the main Vic library until construction of the EJ Pratt library was completed in 1961. Since then it has been the home of archives for Vic and the United Church of Canada.

Burwash  Hall was named in honour of the retirement of the Chancellor and President of Victoria, Dr. Nathaniel Burwash. It features large tracery windows on both sides, which allow viewers to see straight through the building to the other side. The hall – used now as a dining hall and for social functions such as Novemberfest – is tall and elegant, featuring a portrait of Dr. Burwash at one end, and of Chester Massey (whose family paid for most of the construction) at the other.

The four Burwash men’s residences, North, Middle, Gate, and South Houses, that adjoin the Hall, were completed three years later, in 1913. The residences are grouped around an open quadrangle, and again were modeled after the Oxford and Cambridge residences. Each residence contains 25 to 30 bedrooms, and a common room with a fireplace on the ground floor. Today, all the houses except for Gate House are co-ed, but until relatively recently, the four houses remained exclusively for men.

At this point, as is the case now, the Vic campus was concentrated only on the north east side of Queen’s Park. But this changed for a brief period when Mrs. E.R. Wood decided to donate her home, called Wymilwood (named after her children, Wyman and Mildred Wood), to Victoria College. She lived in a large mansion which is now called Falconer Hall. It is located just across Avenue Rd. and is now part of the UofT law school. The building was donated to Vic in 1925, to be used as a centre for women students. Eventually, Vic traded the Wymilwood mansion with UofT for a stretch of land on Bloor St., and built its own building (keeping the same name) in 1952. The new Wymilwood building was constructed appropriately on the east side of the park, as part of an effort to keep Vic intact. It was designated for student clubs and events, and it still used for that purpose today.

Across the street to the south side of Charles, the massive Emmanuel College quietly sits.Image I used to wonder what Emmanuel College was, assuming it was its own college separate from Vic. Well it turns out that it is part of Vic, but was created specifically for theology students. Today, Victoria College and Emmanuel College together make up Victoria University. Emmanuel was built in 1930 as an add-on to the Birge-Carnegie library (which explains the confusion of their both being one building), in the same style by the same design team. The building was constructed two years after the amalgamation of Union College with the Faculty of Theology of Victoria. Emmanuel College opened in 1931, but plans to build a chapel were cancelled because of financial problems wrought by the Great Depression. Today it is still a school of theology offering degrees in theology and divinity, in the United Church tradition.

The Depression and World War II hit Vic hard. Many Vic students died in battle, and enrollment was at a record low. Understandably, not much was built during this period. The next building added to Vic was Margaret Addison hall in 1959, a residence designed to accommodate the influx of students caused by the baby boom. The residence was designed for women only, and for the second time, a Vic residence broke a record: at the time it was “North America’s most modern and fully-equipped college residence for women.” It was built in response to increased enrollment of women, and the residence allowed the accommodation of almost double the number of women students. My memories living at Marg-Ad hardly conjure up images of “modern,” but it certainly was exciting in its day.

ImageMargaret Addison hall cost about $1.5 million to construct and furnish. The “contemporary design” was made possible by using reinforced concrete with red brick panels and recessed windows. The excitement and anticipation of the residence inspired one report to say: “Six stories of glory with a twist in the middle, 200 girls spoiled by carpeted halls and kitchenettes, pianos and pink and purple rooms.” The 6-storey building had two elevators, 60 double rooms, and 80 single rooms, and each floor had a kitchenette, a don’s room, and a common room. The basement of Marg-Ad originally included “a room for storing full-skirted evening dresses and crinolines,” rooms for practicing typing and piano, and a visitor’s cloak room. The first floor featured a large student lounge for parties and “informal entertaining,” as well as a student library and reading room. Among other recent renovations, most of these spaces have been converted to a total of 10 new rooms and a larger front lobby.

The 1960s were a busy year for construction at Vic. Two years after Marg-Ad, in 1961, yet another addition to Vic was made: the New Victoria College Library (renamed the EJ Pratt library in 1967), which replaced the Old Vic Library. In 1966, the New Academic Building opened, which was later named after esteemed Vic professor Northrop Frye in 1983. For both buildings, the architects used a red-toned Credit Valley sandstone, designed to coordinate with the shade of Old Vic. Their attempts must have failed because the buildings do not appear red at all, and in no way match Old Vic. The two large box-shaped concrete-like buildings represent the minimalist modernism of the ‘60s, a style that after only a short time seemed to have grown outdated – unlike the timeless classics of the Gothic and neo-Romantic styles.

The state-of-the-art Marg-Ad building was surpassed by the construction of a newer, larger, and much more modern residence. Rowell Jackman Hall was completed in November of 1993 – two months behind schedule, to the annoyance of students who were promised residence there in September of that year. The $13 million residence has been described as the “hotel of Vic,” because of its luxurious suites, which include a living/dining room and kitchen, with some including ensuite bathrooms. The building is eight storeys, and can accommodate 236 students. As Vic’s most contemporary residence, it is wheelchair accessible and has an underground parking lot.

RJ remained the newest and most contemporary building on campus until Alfred Bader decided to give Vic a tidy gift of $6 million to build a theatre in honour of his wife Isabel, a Vic alumna. The Bader Theatre was called a “gift of love” to his wife, not to mention “the largest financial donation ever made to Vic!” In 1999, architect Peter Smith (whom we have to thank for the Princess of Wales Theatre and Power Plant art gallery) took the total $8 million ($2 million of which was from UofT) and designed the modernist, multi-faceted building out of Owen Sound limestone, wood, grey stucco, exposed concrete, and glass. The concrete and stucco walls are expected to be covered in ivy over the next few years, to complement the traditional style of the older collegiate buildings.

The inside of the Bader theatre boasts superb acoustics audible from its 500 purple seats. Designed as a “multi-use auditorium,” the theatre is used for plays, ceremonies, film screenings, and as a classroom. Outwardly, the elegant, masculine, contemporary design “gives definition to the secondary pathways that find themselves all over Vic,” noted Stephano Cortellucci describing the theatre in The Strand (Vic’s student newspaper) upon its opening. He was referring to the way the theatre captures the space between its surroundings while avoiding a cramped appearance.

The Bader Theatre remains the most recent building addition to the Vic campus, but not the most recent architectural innovation. Although unchanged on the outside, the EJ Pratt library also recently underwent a major renovation that involved gutting the inside and replacing it with a striking new interior. $6.5 million later, architect team Shnier and Kohn replaced the dark wood design and antiquated mechanical and electrical systems with floor to ceiling glass walls, a large central staircase, red walls and polka-dots, skylights, and a black tiled floor. The student lounge in the basement offers a view of the Lester B. Pearson Garden while students sit on black leather couches or work in group study rooms. The ceiling of the large first-floor reading room is made from round, non-reverberative ceiling tiles to absorb sound. The library’s new information commons also offers 56 computer workstations with internet and printing facilities. The renovations have also allowed for more natural light and more book shelves. Since the library reopened on October 9, 2001, student visits have increased by at least 56 per cent.

EJ Pratt and the Bader Theatre are similar in style and atmosphere. Whether they will be admired for their design 40 years from now, who can tell? The addition of fresh, contemporary designs on the Vic campus, in addition to the revered, elegant traditional constructions, point to a diversity of styles that reflect Vic’s long history. Although we may not always adore the architectural styles of the past (some contend that the Pratt exterior and Northrop Frye leave something to be desired), the Vic landscape is a 100-year-old mosaic which gives it a unique character and spirit.

The sources for this article can all be found in the Victoria Archives, in the Birge-Carnegie building. An earlier version of this article was published in The Strand, March 12, 2003.