University of Alberta

The history of the University of Alberta (U of A) is unique in the story of the development of the communities of Edmonton because although it is inextricably tied to the story of the city, the U of A is its own entity as a provincial and educational enterprise. 

Largely through the efforts of Alberta’s first premier Alexander Cameron Rutherford, the U of A was established as an act of the first legislative assembly of Alberta in 1906 and began operations in September 1908 out of Queen Alexandra School just off Whyte Avenue. Edmonton had recently been declared the provincial capital giving Calgary great aspirations to be home to the provincial university, but the location for the U of A was instead chosen to be in Rutherford’s own constituency of the new city of Strathcona.

Rutherford himself secured the 258 acres of the Simpson farm - River Lot 5 - west of the Strathcona’s boundaries for the eventual institution. The scope of the undertaking and the relative inaccessibility of its location cast some doubt on the enterprise and it was, in fact, the construction of what is now St. Stephen’s College which assured the success of the locale. The university had allocated space for denominational colleges on campus and this Methodist theological college and residence, first named Alberta College South, was the crucial first building on the site in 1911.

Within ten years the university was composed of six primary buildings but no new construction was undertaken until after the Second World War. The university president, Henry Marshall Tory, retained architects Percy Nobbs and George Hyde of Montreal to design a master plan of campus which Nobbs described as “an elastic free classic style of architecture in accordance with modified English traditions”; their work influenced much of the early buildings. Nobbs & Hyde hired Cecil Scott Burgess to act as the local associate architect for their firm and in 1913 Burgess moved to Edmonton subsequently accepting the position as the first and only Professor of Architecture at the fledgling university.

The first non-denominational university building on campus was to be dedicated to arts and science, but when Premier Rutherford stepped down from office in 1911 the university had to turn to different resources for support and rethink their construction strategy. Allan Merrick Jeffers, chief architect for the Alberta Department of Public Works, designed three virtually identical U-shaped residences in the English Jacobethan revival style. Excavation began courtesy of 100 men with shovels, horses and wagons, and masons hand-cutting stone, and Athabasca Hall, the first of these residences, was finished in 1911. It housed the entire university for the first year: classrooms, a dining room, and a kitchen were on the first floor; staff and student residences composed the second floor; a library was located on the top floor, and laboratories were in the basement. A year later Athabasca’s twin, Assiniboia Hall, was completed.

The skill of Nobbs, Hyde, and Burgess is found in the Arts Building (1912), the first teaching building on campus; the Ring Road Houses designed for senior university faculty (1911-1914); Pembina Hall (1914), redesigned by Burgess to be similar to its sister residences but constructed with a steel and concrete frame; the Power Plant (1915), housing the original generator; the North and South Laboratory (1915) (the South Lab was sustainably retrofitted with solar heating and rainwater collection in 2008 and renamed Triffo Hall); and the Medical Sciences Building (1921), which doubled the classroom space on campus for the influx of registrations by returning soldiers after the First World War and fulfilled Tory’s vision of establishing a reputable medical program on campus. The Strathcona Hospital had been built on university land in 1912, in 1922 it became the University Hospital.

The university purchased the 380 acres of land now known as South Campus in 1920 for use by the Faculty of Agriculture. In 1930, five farm buildings were put on wheels and moved from the main campus to the university farm.

In the late 1920s, the U of A gave fifteen acres of land to the Alberta Department of Education for the Edmonton Normal School. Teachers were trained in this modern renaissance building from 1929 to 1963 after which it was renamed Corbett Hall and used for the faculty of extension, the drama department, and finally the faculty of rehabilitation medicine.

The Second World War changed the face of campus. The three residences and Corbett Hall housed Royal Canadian Air Force recruits, the Navy took over the Catholic St. Joseph’s College. Then, when soldiers returned home in 1945, the student population doubled in size from the previous year. Facing huge increases in enrolment, the university underwent a massive expansion over the next 25 years including the Rutherford Library, Aberhart Memorial Hospital, Student’s Union Building (SUB), Administration Building, Lister Hall student residences, and buildings for the departments of Biological Sciences, English, Physical Education, Civil and Electrical Engineering, and Education. Despite public outcry, the university annexed fifty-three acres of property in neighbouring Garneau for academic buildings, student housing, and parking lots. Buildings were erected as student enrolments dictated and budgets allowed, and although automobiles had influenced the layout of campus since the 1920s, no one could have foreseen the dominance of the many inner roads and surface parking lots in the 1960s. Local architect Peter Hemingway complained that “all the elementary rules of putting buildings together seemed to have been forgotten” at the U of A with the conglomeration of structures abutting one another. The university revisited the idea of a master plan but cast aside any development of a uniform architectural style yielding instead to an amassed ‘urban campus’.

Public sentiment prevailed, however, with the retention of some important heritage buildings that were originally slated for demolition. Premier Rutherford’s home and that of Emily Murphy were spared and since repurposed. The Power Plant and the three original student residences were completely renovated in the 1970s with the restoration of Pembina Hall and Athabasca Hall winning Heritage Canada Awards for the preservation of their original character.

Government cutbacks in the 1990s were one impediment to otherwise steady growth for the university. Expansion has involved the inclusion of French instruction in Arts, Sciences, and Education at the Campus Saint-Jean, and the construction the Henry Marshall Tory Building, the Health Sciences Centre, the School of Native Studies, and the Timms Centre for the Arts. By the mid-2010s the University of Alberta’s sites included: the original North Campus; the South Campus with the university farm and sports facilities; the housing complex of Michener Park; Campus Saint-Jean; BARD, the university’s Book and Record Depository; Enterprise Square in downtown Edmonton; and the Augustana Campus in Camrose.

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