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Athabasca: The University's oldest and newest building

by Jeanette Rothrock

Athabasca Hall was not intended to be the first building of the University of Alberta. An Arts Building (or Arts and Sciences Building, or University Building, or "building A on the plan") was started in 1909, a year after the University's first students and faculty had met in borrowed classrooms on the top floor of Queen Alexandra School. The building was to be built of granite and Calgary sandstone in what was proudly considered a grandiose style.

A government crisis intervened in these great plans. however. A.C. Rutherford, the man who brought forward the bill establishing a provincial university during the first session of Alberta's first Legislature and who had been foremost among the new University's advocates, resigned as Premier and Minister of Education. The nature of the crisis made his successor, A.L. Sifton, chary of public spending so the first vision of a University building progressed no further than the hole dug for its foundation.

The need for space of its own pressed the University to try a different tack. River Lot 7, the 258 acres of land allotted for the University campus, was across the river from the main centre of population and a mile away from the town of Strathcona. Nearby accommodation for students and staff was all but unobtainable. Therefore, the University suggested that three residential halls with temporary classrooms be built first, to be followed by the University's main teaching structures. The idea sat well with Premier Sifton, and Athabasca Hall was built in 1911.

The plans for the building were drawn by A.M. Jeffers, the Provincial Architect, who developed ideas suggested by Percy Nobbs, Professor of Architecture at McGill University. Professor Nobbs later drew a plan for the whole campus in a formal style he called "elastic free classical. Infected by the government's caution toward spending the University's Board of Governors would not go to the extent of building a fire-proof structure, but conceded to using "wood of the type known as slow-burning." The addition of a fire escape was debated and rejected as late as 1916.

Designed as a residence, Athabasca Hall housed the whole University with laboratories in the basement, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and the library on the top storey. According to W.H. Alexander, one of the original four professors at the University, lecture rooms were "cunningly distributed here and there in the most elusive places" (not unlike classrooms in the Tory Building today). Dr. Alexander shared with another professor an office designed to become a lavatory: "Naturally the floor was laid with an all around fall to the centre, and now those who have noticed all these years the slight limp with which those gentlemen walk will recognize it as the result of much hillside ploughing."

The Gateway in October, 1911, published a glowing account of student life in the new building:

The accommodation provided for resident students, if not surpassing, at least equals that of any University in Canada. The solidity and neatness of the furniture, both in the bedrooms and in the dining hall, have called forth many complimentary remarks for Dr. Tory, who was responsible for the choice of the furniture in the building.

Two months later. The Gateway published an essay submitted for English 1. It was written in less glowing terms and tackles that perennial student bugbear-institutional food.

There are two good things about the midday meal in the Varsity. The first is the silver teapots, and the second isn't the grub. There is a delightful sameness about it day after day. Irish stew and pie! One may eat every scrap of the Irish stew, and lick his plate, and then break the plate, but at 12:30 sharp the next day, the same old stew comes walking in on the same old plate, in front of the same waitress. But the stew isn't in the same class with the pie. it needs all kinds of college spirit to eat the apple pie. The paste lives up to its name, and you could use it to stick Blaney to Milton's "Paradise Lost" for half an hour.

There is one day a week upon which we get a half decent lunch. That is Friday. There are usually meat pies and baked apples and buns and mashed potatoes. On that day we always eat enough to kill ourselves.

H.R. "Tubby" Thornton, President of the Students' Union in 1921, remembers the degrees of formality required for meals in Athabasca Hall. "For breakfast you could appear in a sweater and slippers; for lunch you had to look half decent; but dinner was formal, and you had to be properly dressed. Every student had his place and stood until the grace had been said. Dr. MacEachran, the Provost, sat at the head of the staff table (which incidentally was in the northwest corner, closest to the kitchen) and intoned the University's Latin grace through his ill-fitting false teeth. The students couldn't hear what he was mumbling, so we timed how long it took to say the grace itself. Then all the students would sit down at the right moment without having heard a word." As Students' Union President, Tubby Thornton shared with the Bursar the responsibility for allotting residence rooms, "The rooms on the south side of the south wing of Athabasca were so popular that all the male students applied for them." The washroom on the ground floor of that wing, facing nicely onto Pembina Hall, was known as Cy Becker's Sunparlor (Cy Becker, a World War I ace, graduated from the Law Faculty in the early 1920s).

One incident involving Cy Becker's Sunparlor got special mention in the memoirs of Reg Lister, the good genie charged with the care of the residences for forty-five years. A rumbustious group of returned World War I veterans, known as the Plutocrats, were having a party and decided to move the piano down to Cy Becker's Sunparlor to serenade the girls in Pembina Hall. Unfortunately, one of the glass casters of the piano broke, and on their way to their concert, according to Tubby Thornton, the Plutocrats "gouged a trench down the hardwood floors and, worst of all, down Reg Lister's beloved battleship linoleum. He kept that linoleum so polished you could shave in it."

During the twenties, the trysting place between lectures was the Arts Building, but Athabasca Hall was where things happened. Tubby Thornton remembered that there were four main dances a year. "We had about three hundred people in the gym behind Athabasca Hall, and when the music got swinging, the gym got swinging too. They were worried about the way it was built even in those days." If the structure trembled at the assault of a jazz band and a herd of fox-trotting students, the "slow burning wood" fared no better with fire. Reg Lister describes a fire in Athabasca Hall in the twenties, the result of a cigarette dropped through a crack in the floor. "Fire could be very serious in the residence, especially in Athabasca and Assiniboia," he wrote. "It would take only a few minutes for a fire to burn the centre of these two buildings."

For decades there was a steady contest between Reg Lister and the students to outwit each other on the matter of liquor in the residence halls. From the number of old empty whiskey bottles the contractor found inside the walls last year when Athabasca was being rebuilt, sometimes the students won; but Reg had his days, too. Former Provost Al Ryan, BA '40, recalls the bright fellow who hung his mickey by a string outside his window to hide it among the Virginia creeper. Later that evening, when his friends had gathered in his room, he pulled the cord to haul in the bottle-and found that the bottle had turned mysteriously into a brick. According to Reg, "You have to play ball with the students — not sneak on them. But if you catch them fair and square, they will take their medicine."

In those days Reg and his family lived in a little house behind Athabasca, but from 1920 to 1930 they inhabited a suite in the basement of Athabasca Hall, There was very little the students could do that Reg didn't know about. From 1941 until 1946 the three residence halls (and Corbett Hall as well) became Initial Training School number 4 for the Royal Canadian Air Force and Reg recognized "dozens of officers and instructors in the ITS as students who had passed through the University years before." Even he himself was on loan to the Dominion Government as barrack warden. When it opened in 1911, Athabasca Hall comfortably held forty-two students and a small handful of professors; when the residences were the RCAF Training School, they held up to 1,200 men at one time. Six hundred men were fed in shifts, cafeteria-style, in the Athabasca dining room, and Reg had to cope with a turnover of 150 to 200 students every fortnight.

"They were a good bunch of fine fellows who did very little damage to the buildings," he wrote, "and although we had three wet canteens, it was two years before I saw an intoxicated airman." In 1946 the University was overflowing again with returned soldiers, only a fraction of whom could be accommodated in residence. Not many years after Reg Lister's retirement in 1956, two residence towers and a large dining hall, appropriately named Lister Hall, were built to accommodate undergraduate students, and soon a third residence tower was added. Assiniboia Hall was given over to office space for teaching departments, and Athabasca and Pembina became residences for senior and graduate students.

In 1971 it was announced that the three old residence halls would be demolished to make way for a graduate student residence and social centre. Because of their central place in the University's history and in the affections of sixty years of alumni and staff, there was considerable opposition to tearing them down, and, therefore, the demolition plans were stopped. Studies were undertaken to discover the feasibility of renovating the buildings. Pembina, apart from falling short of fire safety regulations, was in excellent condition, largely because its structure was concrete. But the "slowburning wood" favored by a parsimonious Board of Governors in 1911 meant that, although the brick and stone exteriors were in good condition, the interior condition of Athabasca and Assiniboia were beyond renovation. It was decided that when funds could be obtained, Athabasca and then Assiniboia would be rebuilt completely inside their old shells, as office space instead of residences (Athabasca's last year as a residence was 1971). Athabasca will be reopened on 8 October this fall, which appropriately enough, is Homecoming weekend. Paradoxically, the University's oldest building will also be its newest.

Published Fall 1977.

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