Athabasca, Assiniboia and Pembina are older, and larger structures have since crowded the campus. Nowadays, thousands of students commence, continue and complete their University of Alberta studies without having ever ventured inside its brick walls.
But it would not be right to let the 75th Anniversary pass without paying respect to the Arts Building.
Once it was the head, the heart and the guts of the University. Now it is none of these. Perhaps, though, it is the memory — and that abides with the soul.
In fact, the Arts Building was intended to be the first building of the University of Alberta. Had it been, it would have been much less stately, and in all likelihood, its name would not be the same.
There is a much-reproduced photograph said to show Rutherford at the lines and W. D. Ferris at the plow handles breaking ground for the Arts Building. That they did, but so far as they knew on that day in 1909, they were preparing for the Main Teaching Building, described as "a substantial looking edifice in Macleod sandstone". Financing was not forthcoming, however, and that building never rose above its foundations.
In his history of the University's first years, The University of Alberta: A Retrospect, 19081929, W.H. Alexander recalls the ground-breaking.
No one realized on that morning of high hopes how many years were to pass before the foundation then built was to be utilized, or how much dynamite was going to be needed to mould it into a new shape for the present Arts building to be set on; but the university's earliest graduates will recall how potently in successive Aprils it suggested that university swimming-pool which still unfortunately remains a dream.
John T. Jones is now an octogenarian whose sight and hearing have begun to fail him. He relies on a magnifying glass for his reading, and when you speak with him, it helps if you sit close by. It was different in 1909:
Then he was a youngster, eyes and ears alert to the sights and sounds of Strathcona, where he and his mother had newly arrived to join his father who had ventured west in '07 to prepare a new home for his family.
Since that time, Prof. Jones has never lived much further than a stone's throw away from River Lot Number Five, the clearing in the wilderness from which the University whose history was to be so closely intertwined with his was to grow.
As the Jones family was establishing its roots in Strathcona (which later merged with the City of Edmonton) so too was the new University. In 1909 it moved from Duggan Street School (later Queen Alexandra School), where it had held its first year of classes, to Strathcona Collegiate Institute. During the move, all of its worldly possessions were accommodated in the back of a truck. In 1911, Athabasca Hall, the first of the University's own buildings was completed, and the University moved to its permanent home. In the next two years, Assiniboia and Pembina Halls were completed.
Of those early years, Prof. Jones has only vague memories. "At that time it was beyond me what a University was," he says. He recalls going to a baccalaureate service at the old Metropolitan Church and being impressed by the academic dress. And he remembers a berry-picking expedition that brought him to the campus and the abandoned building foundation dug in 1909. From the dirt floor of the basement he picked a wild tiger lily.
The 1917-18 academic year saw Prof. Jones enrolled in the growing University the beginning of an association which has been life-long. By Prof. Jones's student days the building which had risen on the foundation begun in 1909 had become the centre of campus life, a position it was to occupy for almost five decades.
It had been opened during the First World War with ceremonies described by W. H. Alexander as simple:
In October, 1915, with the great shadow beginning to overspread the Canadian landscape, the main building, the home of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, was formally opened. The ceremonies were, under the circumstances, of the simplest; it was impossible to feel triumphant over this splendid beginning in the teaching buildings proper of the university when the fate of nations, including our own, was in the balance.
"The simplest" they may have been, but not short. Three of the intended speeches, including that by President Tory, had to be omitted due to the length of the proceedings and the late hour.
The programs printed for that proud occasion still referred to the "Main Teaching Building", but the more familiar "Arts Building" had by then gained currency and it was the name that stuck. Nor was the building the structure which had been planned in 1909. During the interlude created by financial scarcity, much had happened. The faculty, according to the story as related to Prof. Jones, led by the first Provost, J. M. MacEachern, had been influential in bringing about design changes. Then, too, the architectural firm of Nobbs and Hyde of Montreal had been retained to prepare a plan for the future physical development of campus.
Nobbs and Hyde recommended that the style of buildings should be uniform throughout: "an elastic free classical style in accordance with modified English traditions." Thus it was that the Macleod sandstone of the Main Teaching Building became the red brick and white stone of the Arts Building, and the structure itself came to be completely redesigned by Percy Nobbs, with much of the detail supplied by C. S. Burgess, a Nobbs and Hyde employee who later joined the U of A staff.
In describing the Arts building, Professor Jones makes special mention of the bricks, "very, very pleasing bricks, much finer than those of the other brick buildings on campus." Those bricks had been particularly selected and brought to the campus from the Tregillus brickworks in Calgary. (Prof. Jones had been reminded of this detail the evening previous by Mrs. Muriel Sanford, a resident of Garneau Hall, the complex into which he recently moved. Mrs. Sanford, a "Tregillus girl", graduated from the U of A in 1922).
In addition to the fine bricks and brickwork, the exterior of the Arts building boasts some excellent stone carvings. These include a series representing various disciplines — historia, musica, philosophia, etc., cherubim, and a splendid stone owl incorporating the University's crest which guards the building's main entrance.
The stonework which was to be the building's showpiece was never completed, however, and the cut stone from which two figures were to be carved — one representing ancient learning, the other modern learning — remains in its lofty position, untouched by the carver's tools. A fitting monument, perhaps, to those financial problems which delayed, but equally gave birth, to the building, later prevented the carving of its stone showpiece, and now delay the restoration it so sorely needs.
But before we pursue that, let's remember the building as it once was:
"It was full of life," says Professor Jones. "In between lectures that was where the crowds assembled."
"Everything important was concentrated there." There was the University Library, the Extension department and its library, the Bursar's Office and the Registrar's Office, the Office of the President on the south side of the Senate Chambers, balanced on the north side by the Office of the Dean of Arts. In the basement was the University Bookstore, the lower level of the library, the seniors' reading room, the physics department, and the printing department. On the north end of the basement were facilities for the men — a large washroom, "a sort of lunch room the men used", and a barber shop.
The brick walls enclosed other offices too, of course, and there were laboratories, and classrooms, and other rooms. And there was Convocation Hall, where, remembers Prof. Jones, "most important activities were held".
Tablets at the entrance to Convocation Hall remember the University's own who did not return from the two world wars, and the impressive pipes of the War Memorial Organ installed after The Great War still dominate the hall today, although the organ itself was replaced in the late 1970's.
Following his graduation in 1922, Prof. Jones was offered a position in the department of English. Today a professor emeritus of that department, he was its chairman from 1953 to 1961. He remembers occupying a variety of offices in the Arts Building, particularly a tiny one he shared with F. M. Salter, and one he shared with R. K. Gordon after E. K. Broadus died.
As the University continued to grow and expand, the decline of the Arts Building was inevitable. That decline might be dated from 1954 when the decision to locate the new Administration Building on 89 Avenue and 114 Street was made, a recognition that the main approach to the University would no longer be 112 Street and the Arts Building. It wasn't immediate, though. In 1957, for instance, the year in which technology put Sputnik into orbit, a new era was ushered into the University with the purchase of an LPG-30 digital computer at a cost of $50,000 — it was installed in the Arts Building. The culmination of the decline (with all respect to the departments of comparative literature, romance languages, and Germanic languages who still occupy the building) came in 1973, when the Faculty of Arts deserted its home of 58 years for the new Humanities Centre.
It was the replacement of the Memorial Organ that first focussed attention on the renovation of the entire Arts Building. It began innocently enough with a request to the University's Board of Governors for a new organ, but that meant getting the heat, humidity and ventilation systems in Convocation Hall under control, and then it was pointed out that dust could prove a problem — increased dust levels from any renovations undertaken after installation of the new organ could severely damage it. A request for a new organ had snowballed into plans for the renovation of the entire Arts Building. That didn't happen, of course, but Convocation Hall itself was renovated prior to the installation of the new organ. And regularly since that time the University has included a request for funds for the renovation of the Arts Building in the annual request for capital funding which it makes to the provincial government, for the building has deteriorated considerably.
A recent development might have reintroduced the Arts Building into the mainstream of campus life somewhat, but at a price which many people feel is too great. That development would have seen an overhead link between Arts and the Business building now under construction. To accommodate that, a north-facing bay window area topped by the initials HMT worked in stone as a tribute to the University's first president would be sacrificed. (And, say detractors, if a walkway goes in, you can be sure one will come out.) At the time of writing the plans for the walkway have been suspended, but no final decision on the matter has been reached.
The future of the building which served so well in the University's first 75 years is now uncertain. Will it be able to offer more than memories in the next 75?
Published Summer 1983.