Historicist: Love and Death on the Construction Site
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Historicist: Love and Death on the Construction Site

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

Stone carvers and construction workers, perhaps including Ivan Reznikoff and Paul Diabolos, in front of University College. University of Toronto Archives, 2000-15-2MS.

University College has long been one of Toronto’s most admired buildings. Its Gothic Revival style, inspired in part by the Romantic poets, impressed such distinguished nineteenth-century visitors as Anthony Trollope, Governor General Lord Dufferin, and Oscar Wilde. In Landmarks of Toronto (1893), John Ross Robertson called the University of Toronto building “the crowning architectural glory of Toronto.” Perhaps befitting its moody architecture, University College is also home to one of the city’s best-known ghost stories. Versions of the story differ, but each follows the same basic plot.
Ivan Reznikoff, a Russian—or Russian-Pole—stonemason was engaged to Susie (whose last name is never given), the daughter of a local publican. She is also secretly seeing Paul Diabolos, a Greek sculptor and Reznikoff’s co-worker. A midnight confrontation between the rivals ensues on the University College construction site and Reznikoff ends up dead, buried beneath the stairwell. From that time, his ghost began occasionally appearing to students and causing unexplained creaks and noises in the night until a devastating fire in the building in 1890 uncovered human remains beneath the stairwell. Reznikoff’s story—and its repetition over the years by faculty, students, and tour guides—is inextricably tied to the building’s history.

University College’s east wing under construction. University of Toronto Archives, 2001-77-28MS.

Plans for University College began in earnest in early 1856, when Frederic Cumberland—who’d been a successful architect since his arrival from England almost ten years earlier—was appointed to be the architect to design the first major building for the University of Toronto, the recently founded, non-denominational institution. That spring, Cumberland set off for a tour of the United Kingdom and the Continent to seek inspiration. He decided to emulate the Oxford Museum, one of Europe’s most talked about new buildings. His resulting plans—approved after some arguments with the governor general—called for a Norman-influenced Gothic structure. Like all proper medieval buildings of the tenth and eleventh centuries, Cumberland’s structure would require carved gargoyles and monsters. So he hired a group of expert stonemasons to complete the work and thus provided the setting and circumstances enabling the Reznikoff-Diabolos conflict to unfold. Ordinarily, the faceless construction crews who quietly undertake the anonymous handiwork of history leave no mark but their craftsmanship, while architects are renowned on the pages of history books. It is ironic, therefore, that Cumberland—who also designed St. James’ Cathedral, the famous post office on Toronto Street, and most of Osgoode Hall—is less remembered today than two of his workmen.
In the most famous account, the one told of Allen B. Aylesworth’s student days at University College in the 1870s and repeated by John Robert Colombo in Haunted Toronto (Hounslow, 1996), Reznikoff’s ghost himself explained his origins. As he crossed the campus alone one gloomy, overcast night, Aylesworth—a future lawyer, federal cabinet minister, and senator—encountered a “thick-set figure of a man whose bearded head was topped with a tall hat.” To Aylesworth’s comment about the chilly evening weather, the bearded man replied: “It’s always cold with me.” Falling into conversation, the pair ended up back at Aylesworth’s quarters, sipping wine in front of the fire when Ivan Reznikoff—as the figure had by now introduced himself—shared his grisly story.

The still visible axe marks on the Croft Chapter House door. Photo by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.

While constructing the college building, Reznikoff recounted, his co-worker Diabolos pointed out a grotesque gargoyle he’d carved in a likeness of Reznikoff. Then he pointed out another he’d made nearby of himself, laughing behind the Russian’s back because—as Diabolos smugly boasted—he was secretly dating Reznikoff’s fiancee. That evening, wanting to see with his own eyes whether it was true, Reznikoff spied on Susie. Finding her in an amorous embrace with Diabolos on the University College construction site, the Russian flew into a rage and grabbed a workman’s double-headed axe. Swinging at his rival and narrowly missing, Reznikoff left a deep gash—still visible today—in the thick oak door of the Croft Chapter House, as Diabolos escaped. Later on, Reznikoff told Aylesworth, Diabolos snuck up and stabbed the Russian and dumped his body down the unfinished stairwell. Before Aylesworth could ask any questions, his guest disappeared.
Like most ghostly tales where history and myth meet, the impossible-to-confirm account of Reznikoff and Diabolos has been told in many ways, with the gaps and contradictions between versions leaving room for flights of imagination. The veracity of the ghost’s visitations is not contested, but the story of his origin is often altered.
Donald Jones, writing in The Star in 1975, added picayune details. He gave Reznikoff “a mass of curly hair” and deduced that the murder must have taken place in 1858. He pinpointed the gargoyle caricaturing Reznikoff to an area between the Croft Chapter House and the arcade at the southeast corner of the college. But he also claimed that it was Reznikoff’s friends who noticed the similarity between Diabolos’s carving and the Russian’s bearded face and prompted Reznikoff to spy on his fiancee. Adding a degree of heightened drama—as have most storytellers—Jones had the ensuing scuffle last longer with Reznikoff pursuing Diabolos up the still-incomplete tower stairs to the third or fourth floor, where he was fatally stabbed and thrown down the stairwell.

University College today. Photo by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.

With different points of emphasis, storytellers developed characters differently. In one set of hands, Reznikoff became “the burly Russian,” Diabolos was “the wily Greek from Corinth,” and Susie was “fair-haired” but “feckless.” To some, Diabolos was malicious, conspiring to not only steal Reznikoff’s wife-to-be but also—with Susie as willing accomplice—the Russian’s financial savings. Taunting Reznikoff into discovering the affair, this version goes, Diabolos lured his pursuer into the tower, then hid behind a door and ambushed him with a dagger.
Other raconteurs have been more sympathetic to Diabolos. In University College’s “official” version—adapted from Douglas Richardson’s A Not Unsightly Building: University College and Its History (Mosaic Press, 1990)—Reznikoff was an enormous man and a drunkard with a brutal temper. On the other hand, Diabolos—despite his devilish name—was “pale, young, handsome and of a subtle nature” and was “credited with much of the best-carved work in the east wing of University College.” Others suggested that Reznikoff’s death was the accidental result of a rooftop brawl or that it was the momentum of Reznikoff’s wild, vengeful swing of the axe that carried him to his death.
The murder—or at least the death—went unreported because friends assumed Reznikoff, ashamed at being cuckolded, had returned to Europe. Susie and Diabolos, one presumes, got married or set off for the West as they’d planned while Reznikoff was condemned to haunt the college halls. His visitations were reported as early as 1886—according to Eileen Sonin’s ESPecially Ghosts (Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1970)—and it appears that the story of Reznikoff’s death was circulated for many years before, according to Colombo, being recorded in print for the first time by W.J. Loudon’s Studies of Student Life: Volume V: The Golden Age (UTP, 1928). But it was the 1890 fire that assured the Reznikoff legend its durability.

University College after the fire of 1890. University of Toronto, 2001-77-74MS.

Preparing the University College grounds for an anticipated three thousand guests at the Literary and Scientific Society’s annual Conversazione gala on the evening of February 14, 1890, two staff members distributed lighted lamps throughout the building. On the east stairway to the second floor, one stumbled and, as lamps fell to the ground, ignited a devastating blaze. By the time the smoke lifted, a large portion of the east wing had been gutted, although, other than the roof, the exterior was saved.
During the ensuing renovation and rehabilitation, workmen uncovered a man’s remain, along with a silver buckle, from the stairwell. Despite the over-statement of a few storytellers, it is not certain whether the remains, which were re-interned in the quadrangle, were in fact Reznikoff’s. But their discovery certainly fuelled speculation and added intriguing material evidence to the mystery.
The many manifestations of the Reznikoff story over the years—and their subtle or substantial variations—undercut any degree of certainty or historical accuracy about the story. But each added to the appeal of the love-gone-wrong tale. Whether fact or fiction, the tale of Reznikoff and Diabolos and its countless retellings has invested the architecture and history of Cumberland’s building with gravity and an imaginative spark linking generations of students.