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Residence Becomes Alumni House

The building that served as the residence of three University of Alberta presidents, including the first alumnus of the University to hold that office, has been renamed to recognize the important contributions made to the University by its alumni.

At a ceremony on 2 September 1993, the building most recently known as University House officially became Alumni House.

"It is gratifying that the important role of alumni is now being given a physical embodiment on campus with the renaming of this building." said Alumni Association president Bryun Sigfstead, who addressed the University Board members, University administrators, Alumni Council members, and others who gathered for the ceremony.    

"This house will be a beacon saying 'Alumni are an integral part of this University," said the alumni president, who thanked all who had a hand in bringing about the name change, including President Paul Davenport, U of A vice-president (development and community affairs) John McConnell, and the University's Board of Governors.

Sigfstead noted the important role played by two Alumni Association representatives on the Board, Graham Lock and Reg MacDonald, who brought best wishes on behalf of the Board and its chair, Stan Milner.

A third speaker was President Davenport, who expressed pleasure that the house will now "provide a focus for the contribution made by alumni to the University and highlight the activities of the Alumni Association."

Situated in the extreme northwest corner of campus, Alumni House is screened from the hustle and bustle around it by trees and shrubs that have matured in the three decades since the house was built to serve as the official residence of the president of the University.

For most of the University's history, its presidents have lived on campus. One of the oldest University buildings is Ring House Number One, into which the University's first president, Henry Marshall Tory, moved in 1912.

That spacious Edwardian dwelling, designed for a large family and at least two servants, dominated a cluster of a dozen houses, spaced along a circular drive in the nothwest corner of campus. In these houses, senior University faculty member lived and raised their families.

Although splendid in its day, the original president's residence had become outdated by 1959, and before he left office President Andrew Stewart recommended that a new house be built for his successor.

The University accepted his advice, and tenders for the building which is now Alumni House were called for in the fall of 1960. President Walter Johns, his wife Helen, and their daughter Elinor Bentley (Johns), '64 BA, then a first-year Arts student, moved in the next summer.

Elinor, who now lives on Westbrook Drive in south Edmonton, remembers Alumni House fondly. "It was so nice and peaceful she says. "It was designed to be a family home, and it was a very nice family home."

It was also, she recalls, well-suited for entertaining. And in those days before the Faculty Club was built, the house saw a lot of entertaining." I remember mother making finger sandwiches night after night," says Elinor.

Elinor's mother, who still makes her home in Edmonton, remembers those days of sandwich making, tea-pouring and dinner parties. "I enjoyed doing it," she says. "I had always enjoyed cooking, and I loved using my good things — my nice china and so on."

The Johns — especially Helen — had a hand in designing Alumni House. At her suggestion, the original plans for a split level dwelling were modified and the house became a two storeystructure. On the main level a spacious entry foyer led to rooms for family living and entertaining. On the upper level were Dr Johns' library and four bedrooms. On the lower level was a recreation room with an open fireplace.

"I thought the house was lovely," says Helen, "although the bedrooms were a little small." She recalls that the decision to build four bedrooms was influenced by the fact that there had been six children in President Stewart's family.

Walter and Helen Johns occupied Alumni House until Dr Johns left the presidency in 1969. His successor was Max Wyman,'37 BSc, the first University of Alberta graduate to become president of his alma mater, who occupied Alumni House with his wife, Carrie Ruth, until 1974. For the following five years, the official residence was home to Harry and Donna Gunning, during Dr Gunning's tenure.

When Myer Horowitz, '59 MEd, was selected president in 1979, he chose not to reside on campus, and the erstwhile president's residence became University House, a meeting and conference centre.

The house, modified only slightly for its new role, proved well-suited for this service and has been a popular venue for Alumni Association events. As Alumni House, it will be even more a focus for alumni activities in the future.

Published Winter 1994.

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