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University College: restoring, revitalizing iconic building at heart of downtown Toronto campus

Revitalization plan up for approval foresees transformed East and West Halls, improved accessibility

East Hall would be transformed into the Collections Room with a mezzanine to increase library collection space (All artist's renderings courtesy University College)

Did it all start in 1827 or 1853? The former year marks the granting of the royal charter to the institution that would become the University of Toronto.

The latter, no less significant, marks the foundation of University College and the reinvention of U of T as a non-sectarian academy open to the men of Canada West (and the women of Canada in 1884).

Now there is a plan to transform University College – a building equated by many with the university itself – into a place better aligned with both the needs of 21st-century scholarship and the glories of its own past.

“Generations of students have walked the corridors of the majestic landmark,” said UC principal Donald Ainslie, who is also chair of the University College Building Revitalization project planning committee. “It is time to reinvest in the unique educational experience that University College provides.”

The project planning report, which will be presented to Governing Council on Oct. 29, outlines a multifaceted renewal of the college’s most memorable spaces, along with extensive enhancements to accessibility.

The schedule submitted for approval foresees the start of construction in May 2016 and completion the following December. This timetable, however, is based on fundraising that is still in progress.

Most dramatic are the changes to the East and West Halls flanking the central entrance and staircases off of King’s College Circle.

Long relegated to use for examinations and assembly on graduation day, these lofty interiors, much admired for their woodwork and windows, become centres of scholarship outfitted with contemporary technological accoutrements and facilities for individual and group study.

The East Hall, renamed the Collections Room, is returned to its original calling as a library. Natural light from the Romanesque windows is enhanced by appropriate fixtures. A new mezzanine will maximize collection space – for an estimated 20,000 volumes – while respecting the original design of the room before the fire of 1890.

The West Hall, originally an exhibition space for the collections of the university's museum, becomes the Clark Family Reading Room in recognition of a donation of $2.5 million by alumni Edmund and Frances Clark, both of whom attended UC as undergrads. An open and flexible plan permits the continued use of the room for convocation marshalling, student social events and University College ceremonies.

artist's rendering of West Hall as reading room

Both halls will be serviced by an elevator in the central tower, which itself will be accessible through ramps from the exterior. The third floor of the tower, with timber trusses and clerestory windows intact, will enjoy new popularity as the library loft café.

Phase 2 of the plan is the transformation of the Croft Chapter House, originally the university’s chemistry laboratory, into a modern conference space that restores the surviving 19th-century elements while making the distinctive interior adaptable to contemporary use.

Among the improvements proposed are an appropriate lighting array that complements the light from the clerestory windows and acoustical enhancement to create a suitable environment for colloquia and seminars.

The wood, plaster and cast iron of the dome, as well as the sandstone fireplace, will be restored and revitalized with period colours. Furnishings will complement the interior and be designed for easy removal and storage. The adjacent Senior Common Room turns into a reception area with a small kitchen in the connecting passage.

UC plans to implement Phase 2 of the project in tandem with Phase 1.  Phase 3, however, which will lead to the renewal of the UC quadrangle, is still being planned. Enclosed in 1964 by the erection of the Laidlaw wing, the quadrangle has suffered from the overgrowth of maple trees, the deterioration of its benches and surface flagstones and especially the presence of air conditioning fans and condensers.

artist's rendering of UC quad

The renewal proposes the removal of the unsightly cooling utilities. The central lawn will be levelled and the garden restored. A raised terrace at the east end will accommodate performances and art installations.

UC’s classrooms, many with traditional elements, also require attention. The final phases of the UC Revitalization will focus on the historically sensitive enhancements to the teaching spaces of the College. Discretion is the watchword for the addition of projection screening and other modern educational tools. Traditional desks will be retained and repurposed.

The joint emphasis on heritage and utility resonates wtih the student body.

“When people think of the University of Toronto they think about University College,” said Ryan Phillips, a fourth-year student specializing in economics and finance. “As a UC student I carry around that pride and I want our beautiful building to be used as well as it can be.”

Melissa Vincent, a third-year major in urban studies and media studies who served on the project planning committee, is "awestruck" by the architecture of the building but aware the classic spaces are not used to their full potential.

“The project will solve this problem by giving some of the underused rooms a more defined purpose," she says. “The historic identities of these spaces will be safeguarded and restored along with much-needed technologies.”

UC is in the middle of a campaign to support the project, with funding for first two phases nearing completion. For more information go to http://boundless.utoronto.ca/division/university-college/