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An overlooked University of Toronto gem brought back to the spotlight

The Architourist

Hiding in plain sight

The John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at Knox College, part of the University of Toronto. The original Knox College portion is on the left, facing south down Spadina Avenue.

It was easy for U of T to ignore a gothic-revival gem sitting on its own island in a sea of traffic, until the architecture school's new expansion building brought it back to the spotlight

"Have you seen the new faculty of architecture?"

For the past six months, every architect or designer I've spoken with has asked me that question, and then shared his or her thoughts on the stunning new design by Nader Tehrani and Katherine Faulkner of NADAAA. Few, if any, have talked about the Knox College portion except to perfunctorily say it's wonderful that an old building was saved.

Perhaps James Smith's and John Gemmell's gothic-revival building, designed in 1873 and completed in 1875, has been staring down the wide barrel of Spadina Avenue for so long, folks just take it for granted.

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Or, they don't even see it any more: "This is a weird black hole," says Richard Sommer, dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. "Because my job is to go out and tell people about this project for the last six years, well, they'll ask, 'Where is that?'" he says. "And then they say, 'Oh, I run up Spadina,' so I'll say, 'Okay, so you've been running past this site.'"

The University of Toronto didn't really "see" Knox College either in the decades leading up to its rebirth. Just before talks began to transform the Spadina Crescent building into the heritage portion of the new architecture HQ, it had been taken over by visual-arts students who didn't care about the "rotting" building with the "Barton Fink atmosphere."

Knox College, on the University of Toronto campus.

"It became this place where [the university] stuck things that didn't fit elsewhere," Prof. Sommer continues. "They had the eye bank here, they had the department of elevators, [and] they had the parking office." The reason for these rather unceremonious usages – on what is a very ceremonial circle of land designed by landowner, lawyer, reform politician, responsible-government advocate and gentleman architect William Baldwin in the 1830s – can be attributed to the faint echo of the Spadina Expressway controversy of the early 1970s.

In the 1960s, when the invasive asphalt monster was still on the books and the university was rapidly expanding to the west, buildings were designed to show their backs to Spadina: why face 10 lanes of traffic? Even after the 1971 cancellation, there remained a "psychological" factor for decades, Prof. Sommer says: "They just never thought of it as a major asset; this was really the backwater of the campus."

Richard Sommer, dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, and Michael McClelland of ERA Architects.

Such a backwater, he admits, that even he didn't register Knox when he arrived from Harvard to head up the Daniels faculty in 2009. After a conversation with the late Paul Oberman, who urged him not to renovate the existing (and boring) building at 230 College St. (the former college of dental surgery, where the faculty been since 1961), the Philadelphia native took a stroll over to Knox to visit a colleague.

He was blown away. "What's this site, what's this building?" he remembers thinking. "I saw the size of the site, which I don't think anyone realized, because there was a fence around it, and it had all these crappy buildings to the north.

"It's a major landmark in the city and they're just letting it sit there."

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The building, at one time, was a landmark indeed. While they occupied their purpose-built college for less than four decades, the Presbyterian Church's influence on the surrounding immigrant neighbourhood was legendary. Knox was an "institution for social uplift," Prof. Sommer says with a wry smile. "Young men were supposed to come here and get 'improved.'"

The James Smith- and John Gemmell-designed building photographed in 1882.

"It was intended to make people more British," adds heritage architect Michael McClelland of ERA, who worked on the restoration.

"And if you see the pictures, it has that feeling," Prof. Sommer says.

When the Presbyterians moved out, the First World War was in full swing, so the building was transformed into a military hospital. In 1918, a young Amelia Earhart spent most of the year at Knox as a nurse's aide treating wounded soldiers; during outings to local airfields with her sister, she developed her love of flight.

In the early 1940s, the university-affiliated Connaught Laboratories moved into the building. Connaught had been first to produce insulin on a large scale and, in the 1950s, played a key role in the development of the first successful polio vaccine.

In the early 1940s, the university-affiliated Connaught Laboratories moved into the building and, Prof. McClelland says, stripped away most of its Victorian ornament (he adds it was a rather "stern interior," so not much was lost). Connaught, named after Queen Victoria's son, Prince Arthur, had been first to produce insulin on a large scale and, in the 1950s, played a key role in the development of the first successful polio vaccine. They moved out in 1972.

"So it's a kind of witness to the transformation of the city but also this didactic or pedagogical lesson in architecture as something that starts out as uptight, British, a cloister for enlightenment, then becomes a laboratory, and now, let's say, [something] creative," Prof. Sommer offers.

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Prof. Sommer had to get creative to make it all happen. Engaging in the chess game faculty heads must play, his first move was to ask visual studies to move out. Next, he strategically offered his old building to the student union to "set the timer" for when his students had to vacate. To convince the bigwigs of his plan, he gave talks about how universities shouldn't think of themselves as "cloisters" any longer; with all of that creative energy contained in those brick-and-beam warehouses just to the south of College and Spadina, he argued, it would be foolish not to "engage these kinds of relationships with the city." And, finally, he had to find the money, since the repair of Knox's brick envelope alone would cost $3-million (the charitable foundation set up by former immigrant and super successful homebuilder John H. Daniels and his wife Myrna had ponied up $14-million in 2008, but more was needed).

A library inside the restored Knox College portion of the University of Toronto’s architecture school.

Nov. 17, 2017, marks the official opening of the new faculty. And once the ribbon is cut and remarks are made, the phalanx of painters, carpenters and installers will get right back on their ladders, as there are still finishing touches to be done. And when that's over, it will be time to start construction of the outdoor platform that will link the campus to College and Spadina even more dramatically. "I picture having cocktails out there, or dignitaries arriving," Mr. McClelland says. It's a lovely thought, and the money is in place to make it happen, too.

"The architecture school is no longer the pigpen in the corner as it once was," Prof. Sommer says. "We're an important part of the campus."

Editor's note: The original print and online versions of this story omitted mention of Katherine Faulkner as contributing to the design of the One Spadina Crescent project and the role of Myrna Daniels in its funding. This version has been corrected.

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