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Pembina is that all there is?

by David C. Norwood, New Trail Staff

When you walk through the front door of Pembina today and enter the spacious, inviting vestibule, you swear you have stepped back thirty or forty years in time. Gone are the car-and bus-filled streets, the angular concrete and glass buildings, the congested hallways. Here is solitude, tranquility and a sense of relaxation. Mortarboard scholarship permeates the air, but it’s not stuffy. Comfortable leather-upholstered furniture placed in an alcove backed with French windows, well-worn wooden bannisters, dignified, warm drapes, portraits on the walls: this, you think, is what a university should be.

On April 30, 1974, Pembina Hall will close its doors. It has been called a hazard by fire officials, who understandably are worried about a fire in a building as old as Pembina. In fact, if the fire marshal’s recommendations had been followed to the letter, Pembina would have closed January 1. But installation of smoke detectors, lights, and signs stayed the closure for four months.

Pembina will be the last of the three old residences to close. Athabasca, the oldest, was built in 1911 when the total residence enrolment was forty-two. It housed everything from the President’s office to private suites. Assiniboia (the present home of the Publications Office) was completed the next year. The administration promptly moved in, along with Printing, the Library, and the fledgling Department of Extension. Pembina, the first University building to incorporate a concrete frame, was finished in 1914. It immediately became a combined medical laboratory/classroom centre; one recent historian of the building noted that “the present lavatory then housed fish and turtles.” But by 1919 other facilities had been completed on campus, and Athabasca, Assiniboia and Pembina became the residences they were intended to be.

From their beginning through to the early sixties, the residences served as the centre of campus social life. In a geographical sense they were handy to everything; the campus was smaller in those days. While the evergreens planted during the buildings’ infancy grew, and as more buildings were constructed to serve the University’s increasing population, the residences retained their character and centrality. In this respect they had a few select peers: Hotte Caf, St. Joe’s, the Tuck Shop and to a certain extent, the Students’ Union Building (not the newest one, which is of an entirely different generation). In 1964 the first phase of a new residence complex, Lister Hall, was opened. Each building in the new entity held more than the old three put together, in conditions more than slightly dissimilar to those in the older structures. Assiniboia Hall closed that year and subsequently underwent wiring renovations to equip it as a teaching/office building. Athabasca, the oldest building on campus, remained a residence for men until 1971 when it was closed — its structure was weak and the fire danger was enormous. Today it remains closed, except for the basement and the old dining area.

Pembina, the most structurally sound of all three, maintained a fairly tenuous existence after the opening of Lister Hall and the closure of Assiniboia and Athabasca. Rumors perpetually circulated that the building would be closed “at the end of term.” In December 1973 the rumors stopped being rumor and became fact. The University Board of Governors’ accepted the report of the fire marshal and voted to close Pembina on April 30. The whole discussion took less than five minutes.

Fire hazard is the problem. In spite of its structural soundness, Pembina is a fire trap. None of its stairways are enclosed; in event of fire they would become chimneys for the smoke, and bar escape. None of the doors in the building are “fire rated” — that is, they would not prevent a fire from entering or leaving a room. The entire interior is highly flammable. Sid Smith, University Fire Marshal, pointed out that there must be at least a dozen coats of paint and varnish on the walls and baseboards.

Mr. Smith also referred to a fire in a building similar to Pembina, in Vancouver in the autumn of 1973. Defective wiring in the attic is thought to have been responsible. Within three minutes the building was filled with dense smoke; within sixteen it was completely gutted. “Unless you’ve actually been able to see a fire in progress,” said Mr. Smith, “you simply have no idea how quickly it can spread. And we don’t want to lose one life here.”

To put the horse back in front of the cart, Pembina is being closed as much for the potential for a fire starting there as for what could happen after one did. The wiring is the culprit in this instance. The entire building might be in perfect shape, but if the wiring is frayed and old, the structure is in danger. Wiring deteriorates over the years. In any case there aren’t enough circuits in Pembina to withstand the demands of modern consumption standards. As a result the women who live and study there are forced to use underpowered light bulbs and refrain from all but the most essential electrical items.

Lorna Johnston, a graduate student in Business Administration, and Assistant Dean of Women, lives in Pembina. She pointed out that all the girls in Pembina know they’re not supposed to have appliances. “Nobody’s got electric kettles,” she said. “And you can tell if they have them because the lights blink. As soon as my light blinks I’m out in the hall trying to figure out what’s happening.” Everyone in the building is aware of the potential danger. Each is extra sensitive to such things as cigarette smoking (there are plenty of ashtrays) and the use of hot plates, toasters. and other conveniences. As Mr. Smith pointed out, fire doesn’t wait for an appointment.

The care being exercised around Pembina indicates not only the desire to preserve lives but to preserve the residence and its way of life. The girls agree that the building must be closed as some point and April 30 is as good as any date. But they have no intention of letting Pembina and its likes become memories. Close it now, they say; that’s fine. But as soon as it’s closed, get to work, renovate it, bring it up to present standards. And then, open it again. Soon.

The girls are enlisting everyone they can in their effort to persuade whoever needs to be persuaded that Pembina and the other buildings are worth saving. They’re sure there’s money available, but they don’t know where.

Why is Pembina worth saving? The most obvious reason is its age and architectural value. On a campus which features buildings designed in virtually every style from Western Canadian Gothic to Avant Garde Functional, the pleasing appearance of Pembina, Athabasca, and Assiniboia — enhanced immeasurably by the surrounding foliage — is a relief at any time of the year. The walkway in front of all three, which can take a good fifteen or twenty minutes to stroll on a warm evening, is likely the closest one can come to real solitude in an aesthetic atmosphere in Edmonton. To replace these buildings with a modern counterpart would destroy almost the last visible signs of tradition at the University. And simply to let them decay pending a “final decision” would be worse than demolition. Decay is a blatant way of saying, “I don’t care.”

There are less obvious but equally important reasons. The human element — denied or compromised in most modern residences — is everywhere in appearance in Pembina. There are different kinds of students at the University of Alberta. Those who reside in Pembina are referred to as “mature students.” No one is under 21 and the average age, according to Lorna Johnston, is about 30.

The “mature” aspect of this classification means that there is less direct emphasis on socializing than elsewhere. In large residences such as Lister Hall, socializing is a necessity simply because of size (1,800 students). In Pembina approximately 100 girls get to know each other by sight, over coffee or a meal. The antisocial manifestations of largeness are not present in Pembina.

But there is socializing. Comfortable lounges on the main floor and in the basement attest to a strong, but highly voluntary, social life. This is important for another reason. Pembina has a great many foreign students among its residents. No one was able to say how many there were; even approximately, at least not without consulting a list. This inability to recall numbers attests to the success of the cultural integration which has occurred. Pembina provides its foreign students with a year-round introduction to a new culture, which can be crucial to success in a program at Alberta.

Surprisingly though, acculturation is not seen by most residents as the single most important reason for the continued existence of Pembina. It’s something else, an earnest desire to perpetuate a venerable institution which obviously has given each resident an added bonus at university. The smallness of the residence and its consequent intimacy provides a welcome contrast to the huge maze of buildings visible from Pembina’s windows. And a constant awareness of its tradition helps compensate for stark modernity in other parts of the campus.

It is this regard for tradition that has several of the girls worried. “We want to take our case to the Board of Governors,” said Sheila Robinson, a teacher from England now completing her education degree, “but so many of them are retiring or leaving that no one seems to be interested in what happens.”

They’re just as worried about a lack of continuity among themselves. Many of the girls are graduating this year and are leaving. If Pembina is closed with no decision about its future, who will be around to pressure for its restoration as a residence? Will anybody care? The answer, it is hoped, is yes.

There are several ideas circulating at present regarding the future of the three old residences. One of the most popular would see Pembina and Assiniboia restored as residences, and Athabasca restored as a student services centre. In any event, both Assiniboia and Athabasca need far more extensive renovations than Pembina. They need to be gutted completely, and virtually new buildings constructed within the old exteriors. Pembina needs new wiring and plumbing, which would necessitate extensive renovation but not total gutting. One thing is definite: it is possible to restore all of the buildings to modern standards.

Costs of renovation are the reason for a lack of immediate action on the part of the Board of Governors. No one knows with any certainty how much restoration and renovation will cost, but a preliminary study of Pembina indicates that a minimum of $450,000 is needed for that building. W. D. Neal, Vice President (Planning and Development) said that the other two would cost at least double that per building, but cautioned that these were only ballpark figures.

Money, especially in amounts of two and one-half million dollars, is not easy to come by these days. But then neither is tradition. The present residents of Pembina stress this, and they are far from alone in their concern. It’s a matter of deciding to do something and finding out where to turn for help.

In the meantime Pembina Hall is closing. Nothing can be done about that. But so that others will come and experience the uniqueness of its life, the Pembina girls want assurance that the closure will be temporary. Pembina’s that great, they say; it really is.

Published April 1974.

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