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Historicist: “Varsity in Ruins”

A fire that destroyed part of University College in the 1890s later proved a blessing in disguise.

University College, after the fire of 1890. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, Item 37.

There was excitement in the air at University College on Valentine’s Day, 1890, and it wasn’t due to Cupid’s arrows. As night fell, students rushed to their dorms and homes to don their finest clothing for one of the school’s biggest social events of the year. For decades, the Literary and Scientific Society of University College’s annual Conversazione showcased the school’s achievements in the arts and sciences. It mixed lab demonstrations, dancing, and musical performances. Despite the snow and slush on the ground that Friday night, around 3,000 people planned to descend on the architectural landmark to partake in the festivities.

Among the final preparations was transporting kerosene-filled lamps to the library inside University College to illuminate a microscopic slide presentation. Around 6:30 p.m., an hour and-a half before the Conversazione officially began, two lab assistants, George Godwin and Archibald Pride, carried the lamps on a tray up a narrow staircase in the southeast end of the building. Society officials had tried to arrange for electrical lighting that evening, but one provider was too busy to hook the building up, while another’s lines were too far away. According to one report, Godwin advised Pride to blow out the lamps. Instead, they were carried lit.

Near the top of the stairs, Pride tripped. The tray tipped over, causing a lamp to smash and ignite. Godwin and Pride attempted to extinguish the fire, planning to toss the tray into the snow. While the pair safely made it down the stairs, flames forced them to drop the tray. Nearby boxes of lamps packed in straw quickly caught fire. A waiter named Proctor noticed two women attempting to head upstairs as the blaze spread. “I ran to bring them with me,” he told the News, “but had not time to return. A dense black smoke was already filling the passages, while flames blocked my rear. We went upstairs. I got out of a window onto a standing roof, followed by the two girls.” The trio jumped to the ground.

Floor plan of University College  The Toronto World, February 15, 1890

Floor plan of University College. The Toronto World, February 15, 1890.

The dry wooden interior helped the blaze spread into the east wing’s lecture rooms, the on-site armoury of the Queen’s Own Rifles, and Convocation Hall (then located inside University College). Attempts to contact the city fire department were hindered by the lack of a call box on the university grounds. One student ran to a box at the corner of Beverley and College, but accidentally broke it when he tried to open it. Others ran to a Yonge Street fire hall.

When firefighters arrived, flames were shooting from the windows. Their efforts were delayed when they had to run a hose to a hydrant at College and St. George after it was discovered there was only one hydrant on campus. The water pressure was so low that streams failed to rise above the ground floor. As the Globe put it, “The firemen may as well have attempted to quench the flames of Etna in eruption.” Eventually, the city’s entire fire corps, including chief Richard Ardagh, arrived on the scene. He initially thought the scaffolding for the new parliament buildings at Queen’s Park had caught fire.

Illustration, the Telegram, February 15, 1890

Illustration, the Telegram, February 15, 1890.

Soon the second-floor library was engulfed in flames. Only 100 of the collection’s 33,000 volumes were rescued. Among the losses were rare works like a 1491 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and an edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America which, if it had survived, would currently be worth millions of dollars. The loss of the library spurred efforts to save as much as possible from the university’s museum, located in the building’s west hall. A human chain formed to pass specimens—including various stuffed animals and “anatomical freaks in alcohol”—to safety. Lab equipment from the physical science labs in the west wing was carelessly tossed outside, prompting professor W.J. Loudon to order students to stop, in case that portion of the building could be saved.

Outside, University of Toronto president Sir Daniel Wilson watched the fire along with the steadily increasing number of gawkers on the grounds. His offices were destroyed, along with much of the archaeological collection he had assembled. At one point, a neighbour came by with a freshly brewed pot of coffee. When he noticed Wilson drying his pants and boots by the fire, the neighbour asked if the president was taking any precautions against the cold. “I am all right,” Wilson noted. “I am still hale and hearty and can walk my twenty miles a day. I would readily have given my life tonight to save this building.” But the pressures of making early assessments of the damage exhausted Wilson, and he was escorted home.

Sketch of Sir Daniel Wilson  The Globe, February 15, 1890

Sketch of Sir Daniel Wilson. The Globe, February 15, 1890.

People who had expected to spend the night dancing and taking in the Conversazione watched the blaze with awe. The Mail reported that:

In a short time on the university lawn, there was a mass of people, standing ankle deep in snow and slush, regardless of the discomforts and possible evil consequences, anxious to witness a spectacle the like of which they may never have seen and possibly never will witness again. The excitement was intense and the feeling that took possession of the vast multitude was probably a composition of sorrow, awe, and fascination.

News of the fire was telegraphed to Ottawa. University chancellor Edward Blake received the news while speaking during an evening session of Parliament. “The great institution, the crown and glory, I may be permitted to say, of the educational institutions in our country is at the moment in flames,” Blake told the House of Commons. “So far as its material fabric goes, a ruin tottering to the ground.”

Thanks to the thick western wall of the museum and winds blowing in the right direction, the fire largely avoided the west wing, preserving student residences and, validating Loudon’s guess, most of the physical science labs. By the time the fire started to wind down around 9 p.m., the interior of the central tower collapsed, smashing its 3,000 pound bell. Firefighters remained through the night, extinguishing minor flare-ups. No lives were lost.

Convocation Hall inside University College, prior to the fire, 1890. Toronto Public Library.

The next day, all the local newspapers were filled with dramatic headlines (our favourite is the World’s “How a Merry Dance was Doomed”) and detailed accounts of the blaze. Editorials lamented the loss of the building as a symbol of higher education and a fine example of architecture. But eulogies for the loss of University College’s physical structure were premature. An initial assessment by university architect D.B. Dick and engineer Casimir Gzowski determined the blackened walls were sturdy enough that the building could be restored instead of being demolished. Meanwhile, Wilson and other school officials were determine to resume classes on Monday. They established that several lecture rooms in the building were still functional, and they secured additional space in other campus buildings and at Knox and Wycliffe Colleges. Failing students may have been relieved to go back to lecture halls, as records of the grades were destroyed in the blaze. A program of musical numbers intended for the Conversazione was held the following week as a morale booster.

The charred remains were the city’s most population attraction that weekend. With little else to do on a Sunday, an estimated 40,000 people wandered by on February 16, 1890, to take them in. According to the Empire, visitors “turned out en masse to inspect the funeral pyre of their greatest public monument.” The crowd dropped to a few hundred the next day. “Nearly everybody in Toronto has now satisfied himself or herself by personal inspection that a fire did occur and that it was the University that was destroyed,” the Globe sarcastically observed.

Among the oddest discoveries made when the smoke cleared were a skull, bones, and a silver buckle in the well of the tower. The remains were believed to have been those of Ivan Reznikoff, a labourer on the building when it was constructed in the late 1850s. His death at the hands of a co-worker gave rise to one of the university’s great ghost stories.

University College, post-fire, 1890. Photo by Herbert Simpson. Toronto Public Library.

The reconstruction of University College was not without controversy. William Storm, who originally designed the building with Frederic Cumberland, was not hired as architect for the restoration. The university argued that his financial demands to reuse the original plans were too high and that their own architect, D.B. Dick, could easily recreate the building. There was also a sense administrators were upset that Storm was working on the design for the new home of Victoria University, which had only recently federated with U of T—it seems there were still some school rivalries at play. Storm, who had just become the first president of the Ontario Association of Architects, felt professionally humiliated. Several newspapers scolded the university for its treatment of Storm.

Insurance proved insufficient, covering only $90,000 of the estimated $260,000 worth of damages. School officials petitioned all levels of government for financial aid. A surprising donation came from Quebec Premier Honoré Mercier, who promised his province would send $10,000. The Ontario government quickly provided $160,000, but other levels were tougher to convince. Despite the efforts of Blake and Wilson, the feds refused to offer assistance. City council dithered—Mayor Ned Clarke and his supporters wanted to grant the university $100,000, while opponents believed the school was the province’s problem. A special council committee argued the matter, but little came of it.

Not aiding relations between the city and the university were squabbles over fire-fighting infrastructure. Fire chief Ardagh noted that both parties had argued for years over the lack of hydrants, with school officials repeatedly told they had a problem. Since the university was considered provincial property, the city had no right to install hydrants and water lines unless the government ordered it.

Sketch of interior of University College after the fire, the Globe, February 15, 1890

Sketch of interior of University College after the fire, the Globe, February 15, 1890.

When asked about the loss of the library, Wilson believed all was not hopeless. “I am sure its insurance will enable us to equip a much better library,” he told the Empire. “We will stand in need of private benefactions, and now, if ever, is the time for public spirit to step in and help us.” While the insurance didn’t provide much help (covering $50,000 of the estimated $150,000 loss), the library was aided by generous souls on both sides of the Atlantic. Columbia University allowed U of T to pick through its duplicate books. A German university sent over 10,000 titles. In Great Britain, a committee to restock the library included such heavy hitters as poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the vice-chancellors of Cambridge and Oxford; the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. Among the British donors who sent over 20,000 volumes was Queen Victoria, who submitted a book on royal residences. By the end of 1892, over 40,000 titles had been donated, and found a place in the new, separate library that opened on King’s College Circle the following year.

As Wilson predicted, University College rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Dick kept most of the original design, reconfiguring portions of the interior for fire safety, and to convert space previously occupied by the library and museum (whose surviving collections became one of the forerunners of the Royal Ontario Museum) into classrooms and exam halls. Partly reopened at the start of the 1891-92 academic year, the building was fully occupied by January 1892.

Ultimately, the blaze was seen, according to professor W.J. Loudon, as “a great disaster and a blessing in disguise” for University College. The destruction of the library led to the creation of a larger collection in a new building. The chemistry department received a new home. It drew public attention to the needs of rapidly growing institution.

Additional material from The University of Toronto: A History by Martin L. Friedland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002); A Not Unsightly Building: University College and Its History by Douglas Richardson (Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1990); the February 15, 1890 and February 17, 1890 editions of the Empire; the February 15, 1890, February 17, 1890 and February 18, 1890 editions of the Globe; the February 15, 1890 edition of the Mail; the February 15, 1890, and February 17, 1890 editions of the News; the February 15, 1890 edition of the Telegram; the October 26, 1980 edition of the Toronto Star; and the February 15, 1890 edition of the Toronto World.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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