Renewing a University Icon: UC Kicks Off Revitalization Project

Tracy Howard
Magazine Section: 
It’s not every evening you witness University of Toronto Chancellor Michael Wilson boot a balloon off a stage with the fervour of FC Barcelona forward Lionel Messi. But December 7, 2017, wasn’t any regular night. Wilson’s athletic flourish served as a literal kickoff to the construction phase of the University College Revitalization, underway since the start of January. 
University College students, alumni, faculty, and staff gathered at the reception in East and West Halls, which a day prior had been filled with students writing immunology exams. 
Both halls and the building’s exterior were lit dramatically in blue. A crowd-pleasing balloon drop blanketed East Hall’s floor with white and gold orbs, while West Hall featured an impressive hologram displaying donor names.
But the evening’s biggest surprise arrived when David Palmer, Vice-President, Advancement, announced that former TD Bank Group CEO Edmund Clark (BA 1969 UC) and his wife, Frances (BA 1969 UC), had just committed $2.1 million to refurbish the UC Quad into what will become the Clark Quadrangle. This donation followed the $2.5 million they’d contributed to create the Clark Reading Room, part of the new UC Library. 
“This new gift will allow University College to revitalize this important green space, a source of quiet contemplation enjoyed by generations of students, staff, and faculty,” Palmer stated.
Palmer also lauded Paul Cadario, a former senior manager at the World Bank, who had provided $3 million to transform the iconic Croft Chapter House into a full-service conference centre. 
In addition, Palmer praised UC students, who in a 2016 referendum voted to increase ancillary fees by $2.1 million over 20 years to improve student spaces around the College. The students were represented by University College Literary and Athletic Society (UC Lit) President Albert Hoang and Vice-President Victoria Kourtis. 
While UC looked lovely in the evening glow, U of T President (and UC Professor) Meric Gertler described the College in frank terms. 
“When Donald Ainslie became Principal in 2011, he made a habit of taking university leaders on a tour of the College, to show them how a once proud building had slipped gradually into a state that was far below its potential,” advised Gertler. “Those of us treated to this referred to it as the ‘Shock and Awe’ tour.”
A day before the reception, in an interview in his office and during a subsequent tour of UC, Ainslie reflected on the Revitalization’s genesis.
“Many of the hallways, offices, and classrooms were looking their age,” he said. “I took administrators to review the situation and saved one basement office for last—it had water damage and a squirrel had taken residence.”  
Ainslie, who became Principal exactly 100 years after his grandfather, Donald S. Ainslie (BA 1915 UC), started studying at UC, spoke about it with both affection and clear-sightedness. 
“Though our building is an impressive piece of architecture, it’s not serving our students very well right now,” describing, as an example, the limited use of East and West Halls (both seemingly custom-made for Hogwarts) as exam spaces.
In addition, UC, which opened in 1859 as the non-sectarian, founding College of the University, isn’t fully accessible. 
“It’s a building that’s very difficult if you can’t climb stairs,” stated Ainslie. “Those of us who are able to navigate them don’t even notice how often we change one or two levels.”
About five-and-a-half years ago, Ainslie met with alumni, students, faculty, and staff, and together developed a set of principles that helped inform the new plans created by John Shnier of Kohn Shnier Architects and Graeme Stewart of heritage-specialist ERA Architects. 
The principles included prioritizing undergraduates, focusing on heritage (befitting UC’s status as a National Historic Site), accessibility, and ensuring that the renowned teaching and research mission of U of T was embodied in the design.  
The most headline-making transformations will likely be converting East Hall back to its original library function, and turning West Hall (initially used as a museum) into the Clark Reading Room. A new café will be built in the third-floor space between the two halls. (UC Vice-Principal John Marshall hatched the idea for moving the library from the Laidlaw wing, where it’s been underused.)
The Revitalization will preserve the halls’ structural bones, while updating them with 21st century amenities and a clean aesthetic. Stacks supporting a mezzanine will create alcoves, referencing the design of the original space that was destroyed in the 1890 fire. A circular staircase and ramping will connect the library’s levels.
When queried, Ainslie’s vote for the most surprising feature of the Revitalization was the new elevator, which will be located in the back of the south wing of the building. He spoke admiringly about its copper flashing and zigzag pattern echoing motifs throughout UC, and lighting to animate the Quad at night.
He also delineated the various areas of the College where ramping will be added to augment accessibility, as well as a new entrance at the front of the building to replace the current circuitous route people with mobility issues are required to use.
A tour highlight was a stop at the future Paul Cadario Conference Centre at Croft Chapter House, originally Canada’s first chemistry lab. Ainslie praised the circular room’s bones, but also pointed out its peeling paint, retro acoustics, and inferior lighting, all of which will be modernized to meet the needs of future symposia. 
Visits were also made to a suite of rooms on the second floor that will become the sUCcess Commons and bring together the Writing Centre with multidisciplinary co-curricular advisors, and to one of the classrooms that will be made accessible and updated with conferencing technology, while restoring its traditional appearance. 
Back at the reception, Edmund Clark, a longtime U of T benefactor and volunteer, who met his wife, Frances, at UC when both were undergrads at the College, seemed delighted to support both the Reading Room and the Quad. (Both Clarks come from multigenerational families of UC alumni.)
“They’re both gorgeous, but, the way I put it is, in the winter you come read in the Reading Room and in the summer you can read in the Quad,” Clark stated. 
Edmund shared that when he told Frances about being approached about the Quad, she responded: “That was a pretty meaningful place for us, so why don’t we do that.”   
Paul Cadario, another tireless U of T supporter and volunteer, who is affiliated with multiple University departments, also appeared thrilled, even though as a U of T Engineering grad he didn’t attend UC.
“I’m delighted for the revitalization of an iconic building for the city and the province and the country, and such a vital part of U of T’s life,” said Cadario. “And with the learning and debate, and hopefully people changing their mind due to what they learned or heard at the Conference Centre, I think that’s just wonderful.” 
Victoria Kourtis of UC Lit, in her fourth year of Environmental Studies, cheered the increased accessibility. “As past [organizer] of Fireball, the annual student formal, it’s really nice to know all our students are going to be able to attend our events,” Kourtis declared.
With state-of-the-art technology, top-notch design that honours the past and works for all students, it would seem this beloved 19th century building has a bright future in the 21st century and beyond.
Image: Rendering of the new Paul Cadario Conference Centre in the Croft Chapter House: Kohn Shnier Architects