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The memorial library on the Mount Allison University campus in Sackville, NB is being town down to make room for a new building.

The Globe and Mail

It will seem like some sort of perverse irony.

As it has for nine decades, Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., will mark Remembrance Day next Friday with a solemn public ritual, reciting the names of alumni who gave their lives in Canadian wars. The ceremony will take place at the Wallace McCain Student Centre.

Simultaneously, however, just 500 metres away, work crews have been busy dismantling a handsome stone building built expressly – in 1927 – as a memorial to 73 former Mount Allison students who died in the First World War. It was largely paid for by families and friends of the dead students.

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The structure, commonly known as the Memorial Library, is included in the National Inventory of Canadian Military Memorials.

The Mount Allison board of regents decided last year to raze it, in order to construct a 50,000-square-foot, $30-million fine and performing arts centre.

The ensuing controversy has riven the tiny Maritime community. The administration insists the 84-year-old building, designed by architect Andrew Randall Cobb, is too costly to save, and stands on the campus's most logical site for a badly needed new arts centre.

A functioning library until 1970, it served as a student centre and campus pub until 2008, but has been largely unoccupied since then, and allowed to deteriorate.

The decision has outraged many alumni, as well as Canadian war veterans, and a community of architects and heritage building activists.

One alumnus, John Gray (class of '68), calls its demolition "the greatest blunder in Mount Allison's history."

Another, Chris Milburn (class of '91), said that while "from a … strictly financial point of view, this is the right decision," it is "leaving a mess of pissed-off people," and might disenfranchise the alumni donor base, "certainly my wife and me."

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A third, Pam Reardon, (class of '78) asks, "If anyone desecrates a cenotaph, it is vandalism and is a criminal offence. … What is it called when a university deliberately chooses to demolish a war memorial?"

"We appreciate the concern," said Gloria Jollymore, vice-president of university advancement. "But as stewards, we need to balance the honour owed to the past with the needs of the present, without encumbering the future. …We're not always able to preserve historic buildings."

Toronto architect Jack Diamond, who drafted the 2002 facilities master plan for Mount Allison, contends the Memorial could be retained (for offices and meetings rooms) and accommodated within a new fine arts centre.

This week, he wrote to board of regents president Robert Campbell, submitting renderings of that proposed integration and offering to undertake further analysis on a pro bono basis. His offer was promptly rejected.

"It's just sad," Mr. Diamond said. "It could have been a win-win. Would it have cost a little more? Perhaps. But it would have been worth it."

Another Mount Allison grad, Joan Carlisle-Irving, said she had been prepared to donate $5-million – an amount the administration said would be needed to restore the building and include it in the arts centre project.

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Subsequently advised by Ms. Jollymore that the decision was "not about the money but so much more," Ms. Carlisle-Irving did not follow through on her plan.

Although David Stewart, vice-president of administration, maintains that no $5-million offer contingent on retention of the Memorial was ever made, Ms. Carlisle-Irving insists that it was and now accuses the university of "a lack of transparency."

Not all alumni are opposed to the university's plans, among them Andrew Clark, past president of the alumni board. "I think we'll lose some donors," he allowed, "but ultimately what will come is a fantastic fine and performing arts centre."

Last month, a Save the Memorial Library committee petitioned the province's Court of Queen's Bench for an injunction to halt the Memorial's demolition. It was denied.

Barring a last-minute resolution, it appears the administration will have its way. Crews have already dismantled portions of the entry archway and removed hazardous materials from the interior.

"The timeline has not yet been finalized," Ms. Jollymore said. "We are likely looking at late November/early December before the rest of the building comes down.

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But at least one STML committee member may have other plans, calculating that 170 Mount Allison students would be needed to form a human chain of protest.

The new fine and performing arts centre is scheduled to open in 2014, coincident with the centenary of the Great War.

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