The campus that never was

Winter 2004-2005

Over the years, there have been plenty of proposed McGill buildings that, for one reason or another, never saw the light of day. Here’s a glimpse of the McGill that could have been.

by Mark Reynolds

Images courtesy of McGill Rare Books and Special Collections

Last year McGill held its convocation ceremonies in a giant tent on lower campus. But what if we had our own hall, purpose-built for such activities? It nearly happened, in 1919.

Students have always grumbled about the difficult walk up the steep slopes of University Street to reach the residences. Wouldn’t it be convenient if the residences were on the lower campus? That, too, almost happened, in 1918.

And what if the Arts Building had a terrace above the current entrance, so people could step out and enjoy the view of the main avenue as it sweeps towards downtown? All part of the original design in 1839.

Over the years, different architects have put forward a variety of plans and proposals for McGill’s lower campus, including a gym on Sherbrooke Street and an imposing tower in the Redpath Library. The News presents a small selection of big ideas from McGill’s early days that never made it off the drawing board. Join us and former School of Architecture director Derek Drummond, BArch’62, as we tour an imaginary campus — the McGill that might have been.

The forgotten memorial

During the First World War, even before the fighting had ended, the question arose at McGill as to how to best commemorate the students and staff who perished in the conflict. Architecture professor Percy Nobbs, whose work can be seen in many aspects of the campus today, believed he knew the answer: a convocation hall to seat 3,000 would be the most appropriate honour.

“While overseas, I have taken the opportunity of studying several halls of kindred purposes in Paris, London and in Edinburgh,” wrote Nobbs in 1919. “This new solution of the requirements as decided upon results in a circular building with a monumental entrance colonnade flanked by triumphal arches. An opportunity is thus afforded to express in sculpture, decoration and inscription the triumph of our Arms by sea and by land.”

The hall would have faced south on the corner of McTavish and Sherbrooke where the McLennan Library is today, on land “spiritedly acquired in 1909 to prevent the promoters of the Ritz-Carlton [hotel] scheme from exploiting the campus as a back yard.”

In the end, the Board of Governors, although enthusiastic about the project, refused to provide funding, recommending that the Graduates’ Society be asked to raise the money.

Nobbs’s ill-fated design was dramatic to say the least, but Architecture professor Derek Drummond minces no words on the appropriateness of the monumental hall set amongst McGill’s more modest Victorian structures. “It looks like a Beaux Arts student project. It doesn’t look like Nobbs,” he says. “The less said about it the better!”

A new campus plan

In the June 1920 issue of the McGill News, Nobbs laid out a history of McGill building projects to that date, and a number of the space challenges that needed to be met for the future. This built on an earlier plan he had drawn up for the University soon after his arrival in 1903.

Both plans, in the words of Nobbs’s biographer Susan Wagg, “called for an orderly, symmetrical layout of the grounds relating to the main axes of the existing structures with future buildings occupying the perimeter.”

Ultimately, this would have made the campus an enclosed and quiet precinct within Montreal’s busy core. Drummond can only heave a sigh of relief that this was never done.

Drummond also notes a certain vanity in Nobbs’s design. The main vehicular entrance to the campus would have been to the east of the current Roddick Gates, directly across from the McCord Museum, originally the Student Union building and the first structure Nobbs designed for McGill.

“He put the main entrance across from his own building. What a pompous thing to do!”

Arts Building

McGill’s early years were not easy ones. Although incorporated in 1821, the University didn’t begin construction until 1839. The Arts Building is McGill’s oldest structure, built when the University was struggling financially. When the building was completed, the University consisted of the Principal (William Dawson), one professor and three students, two of whom were Dawson’s nephews.

The University architect was John Ostell, who designed the central and east wings of the current Arts Building. He also designed the original campus layout, with a number of ornamental and kitchen gardens and the central lane. Derek Drummond says that it was Ostell’s idea to keep the campus open to the city.

Financial constraints had an effect on the initial construction. A third floor was added to the central and east wings, while the west wing would not be built until the 1860s. The famous cupola was added to the plans mid-construction, while the halls connecting the central and east wings would have to wait for wealthier days.

In Ostell’s original plans, the portico was to be two storeys tall, supported by Doric columns, with a small patio on the second floor leading to the library on that floor. Cost killed the idea — when the building was completed in 1843, the portico was a temporary wooden structure.

“In plan it’s more or less how it ended up,” says Drummond, although he points out that the current east and west wings (Molson and Dawson Halls) are not symmetrical, as Ostell envisioned.

“The original wouldn’t have altered the plan of campus at all, but it’s not nearly as interesting as the current building.”

The gate and fence

Percy Nobbs recognized that McGill’s most distinguishing visual feature was the graceful avenue leading from the steps of the Arts Building to the Sherbrooke Street entrance. The challenge was how to use the ample space along the front of the campus while still preserving this view.

One idea Nobbs described in his 1922 plan (before the Roddick Gates were constructed) would have made an enclosed compound of the campus: “[On] the Sherbrooke Street frontage we find there a magnificent site for a long three- or at most four-storey building extending from the old Workman property at the University Street corner to the old Joseph property at the McTavish Street corner. This block should be pierced with a towered gateway leading to the main avenue.”

An approach that would have left the face of campus somewhat more open to the city — yet still visually separated from it — would have seen a tall wrought iron fence stretch along the length of Sherbrooke, with ornate gates on the main avenue.

“This plan is rather flat — there is some indentation, but the Roddick Gates sweep back,” notes Drummond. “It obviously influenced the design of the Roddick Gates.”

Drummond points out that fencing in public areas was a common practice at different points over the last century. In fact, it used to be tradition that the Roddick Gates were opened only for visits by royalty or the Governor General.

Strathcona Medical Building

Before the current Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building was constructed, Nobbs suggested that the site of the original medical building, which burned down in 1907, could serve as the foundation for its replacement. Instead, the Biology Building was constructed on that location, which has become the James Administration Building (a frog over the main door attests to the James’s original vocation).

Drummond said he likes the design, but questions its size.

“It’s too large for the site,” he says, pointing out that it would have cut off the area of campus above it. This would have mattered less at the time, as McGill didn’t own much of the property and houses along University Avenue where the new Trottier Building and other structures now stand.

“McGill bought those houses, sold them and bought them again a few times,” says Drummond.

Redpath Library

In the 1920s the shortage of stack space in the Redpath Library was becoming acute. McGill’s collections were embarrassingly sparse, and the University acquisitions were not keeping pace with any comparable institution in North America.

By 1921 it was decided to expand the building. Nobbs’s design was the one eventually used, which, in Nobbs biographer Susan Wagg’s view, “created a fitting conclusion — both visually and stylistically — to the architectural sequence that unfolded along McTavish Street.”

An architect by the name of Colin Drewitt also put forward a bold proposal to add even further to the library. His vision would have added a structure that would jut out into the Lower Field to the immediate south of the existing structure. Its centrepiece would have been an eight-storey tower.

Drummond points out that Drewitt’s tower was without any context anywhere else at McGill or the surrounding area. McGill’s western campus buildings have a low profile for a reason, explains Drummond.

“The tower would have cast a shadow over campus, and totally dwarfed the Redpath. It would have been completely out of keeping with the houses and other buildings on McTavish.” The rest of the proposed structure is little better: “It looks very heavy and doesn’t blend well with Redpath Hall.”

Douglas Hall without the walk

The lack of a gymnasium and residences vexed the University for decades — the need for a men’s residence was first pointed out in 1882. Numerous sites were proposed for the structures, and Nobbs came up with building ideas for each of them, including on University where the Montreal Neurological Institute stands today, and another on McTavish on land now occupied by the McGill Bookstore.

Both the residence project and the gym received a boost in the First World War. James Douglas donated $115,000 for a men’s residence, which, with $100,000 that was supposed to come from the federal government for officer training space in the proposed gymnasium, could form a solid financial basis for the new structures. In 1919, Nobbs drew up plans for two sites under consideration by the Board of Governors. One would stand roughly where the Otto Maass Building and Pulp and Paper Research Institute are, the other would have faced onto Sherbrooke in the same corner of lower campus. Both were plans that would have seen the residences (then for men only) and gymnasium constructed as adjoining buildings. The plan also called for a separate gym entrance for women.

Drummond says this was a very typical Nobbs building, pointing to the chimneys and towers that decorate the top of the structure. Also, Nobbs’s signature “lines” along the first floor and below the roof accentuate the building’s structure.

“Again, it’s blocking campus from the city. It’s a drama-tic change from the concept of an open campus.”

The University eventually decided the space could be better used for academic buildings.

Douglas Hall with a view

A third site for Douglas Hall might have sharply cut down on attendance at football games. Why leave your cozy residence room when all you need to do to see the game is open the curtains?

The land for the current residences, gymnasium and stadium was part of a prescient purchase by Sir William Macdonald, McGill’s greatest benefactor. “Macdonald Park” was given to the University in 1911, and Nobbs designed a few facades for a residence that would sit to the north of the stadium.

Drummond quite likes Nobbs’s concept for this residence. The building shown here would have afforded glorious views of the playing field and the city beyond.

“But we wouldn’t have been able to extend the stadium,” he points out.

In the end, the federal government did not come through with its portion for the gym, and the Douglas donation was not enough on its own to cover the whole cost of the residence. A more modest Douglas Hall would not be built until 1936. The gym would follow three years later, after dogged fundraising by the Graduates’ Society.

*****

Architect Percy Erskine Nobbs

Percy Nobbs, the onetime director of the School of Architecture, had a profound impact on the look of McGill's downtown campus (Notman Photographic Archives)

Prolific architect Percy Nobbs made his mark on the McGill campus like few professors before or since. Today, eight buildings on campus designed by him stand as monuments to his vision, as do others in locations as far flung as British Columbia and South Africa. From the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton to McGill’s much admired Osler Library, Nobbs’s influence on the Canadian architectural landscape is impressive. He was a man of many talents — and some eccentricities — and was recognized as an early conservationist working for the protection of Atlantic salmon and, rather amazingly, won a silver medal in fencing at the 1908 Olympics.

Born in Scotland in 1875, Nobbs’s early training was under noted Scottish architect Robert Lorimer, and Nobbs quickly distinguished himself, winning prizes and scholarships. Eventually taking up work in England, Nobbs’s talents were largely wasted as a draftsman, until his mentors urged him to stop “hacking for architects in London” and recommended him to head the School of Architecture at McGill.

He arrived in Montreal in 1903, and quickly set about changing the McGill campus, arguing with the University administration that architecture needed more than words and pictures to be taught — real buildings were required, designed, naturally, by himself. The University cautiously agreed, on the condition that he work with another practising architect.

His first commission was a new structure to accommodate the McGill Student Union, the building which is now home to the McCord Museum on Sherbrooke Street. Then, when fire destroyed the Macdonald Engineering Building in 1907, Nobbs was called upon to redesign and rebuild the facility, working with the building’s donor and McGill governor, Sir William Macdonald.

Nobbs, who had little patience for administrative duties, resigned as director of the architecture program in 1909, scaling back his responsibilities to concentrate on architectural practice with a partner, George Taylor Hyde. A gifted painter and sculptor, he remained a professor of design at McGill, and was described by architect J. Kenneth Nesbitt as “a genius but irascible.”

“At McGill he was more feared than loved,” Nesbitt recalls in Edgar Andrew Collard’s The McGill You Knew, “but he taught many young men how to practise the profession of architecture successfully.”

Nobbs’s pedagogic style would likely not sit well in today’s more sensitive university environment. “More than once,” Nesbitt writes, “I have seen him look at a student’s work, mutter ‘Christ!’ then with both hands tear the drawing from the board, put in a fresh sheet of paper and start drawing furiously in dead silence.”

The late John Bland, BArch’33, a longtime director of the school, also recalls an unconventional Nobbs, whose major publications include one book on design, but also one on salmon fishing, and another on fencing tactics. “What other McGill professor85has won an Olympic medal on a summer vacation?” writes Bland in Collard’s book, noting as well that “it was his explosive profanity that made his lessons memorable.”

At the outbreak of the First World War, Nobbs enlisted in the army — at age 39 — and saw service at the front. In the years after the war, he and partner George Hyde designed many buildings in downtown Montreal, including the University Club on Mansfield and the Drummond Medical Building, and at McGill. The Redpath Library extension, the Pulp and Paper Research Institute on University Street, and the Pathological Institute at the corner of Pine Avenue and University Street were all his creations. Throughout his career, Nobbs would work on smaller projects for McGill as well, including the Osler Library and a stained glass tribute in the Redpath Library to members of a McGill fraternity who died in the Great War. He even designed decorations for the royal visits to McGill in 1939 and 1951. In 1957 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by McGill, and he died in November 1964.

For more on Percy Nobbs see cac.mcgill.ca/nobbs and Percy Erskine Nobbs: Architect, Artist, Craftsman by Susan Wagg (McGill-Queen’s Press, 1982).

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