John Leroux & Thaddeus Holownia. A Vision in Wood & Stone: The Architecture of Mount Allison University (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2016).
By John G. Reid
Universities sometimes like to claim that they are older than they really are. Mount Allison University, however, accurately dates the firm plan for its founding back to 1839, and its history begins in material terms with the laying of the cornerstone of the Wesleyan Academy in Sackville, New Brunswick, on 9 July 1840. The school opened in 1843. To write a comprehensive architectural history, therefore, requires ranging over an extended era that witnessed many social and cultural changes. Moreover, as is made clear in this handsome volume – for which John Leroux took the main responsibility for the text, while the numerous historical and contemporary photographic images were curated, and in many cases created, by Thaddeus Holownia – the historical task is complicated by the reality that Mount Allison’s built character has not been formed simply by an accretion of buildings over time but rather by a process through which “Mount Allison has fundamentally rebuilt and reinvented itself architecturally many times since its birth” (13-14). It is thus a central insight of the book that “Mount Allison is a powerful architectural barometer: a fascinating tale of fashion, fires and fundraising, constantly tempered by the spirit of the times” (14).
The subject material of A Vision in Wood & Stone extends not just to architecture but also to architects and even building contractors. The first building was an early work of Samuel C. Bugbee, a house carpenter from St. Stephen who subsequently found fame and fortune as a pre-eminent mid-nineteenth-century architect in San Francisco. No such celebrity awaited the Dorchester contractor John Teed, and yet he was responsible for bringing to reality the designs for a number of key elements of the campus, including the Owens Art Gallery. Prominent individual architects such as James C. Dumaresq, Edmund Burke, and Andrew Cobb contributed significantly, but the twentieth century increasingly saw extended relationships between the university and larger architectural firms. Also noteworthy was the evolution from style to style. The early wooden buildings were varied in conception, but (along with a number of those constructed of stone) they were all too often lost to fire. The Collegiate Gothic style prevailed for a time following the First World War, but one of the book’s most interesting passages focuses on the influence of Modernism during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Modernist architecture has always had its critics, but at Mount Allison the scepticism was compounded by the construction of three much-needed residences in 1959 on scanty budgets at a time of financial stress, so that Modernism came to be associated unfairly with cost-cutting and inferior quality. All of the Modernist buildings were ultimately renovated and given a veneer of traditionalism expressed in sandstone exteriors, in a transition that the authors regret as a product of a “wave of architectural romanticism” (201) and a move away from a healthy pluralism in campus design.
Yet the 1960s saw an unprecedented proliferation of new construction at Mount Allison, with the aggregated value of the university’s buildings increasing dramatically. Rising grant revenues and the donations of a new chancellor, Ralph Pickard Bell, ensured that financial constraints lessened over time. A series of major buildings were designed by the Ontario firm of Brown, Brisley, and Brown – the personal selection of the university’s President of the era, L.H. Cragg – which specialized in ecclesiastical projects. While many of the Mount Allison buildings designed primarily by the two Browns of the firm, father and son, were decidedly secular in their roles, it was not surprising that the new and innovative ecumenical chapel (opened in 1965) became the centrepiece of a campus recast in the interests of unity of design. The authors make a strong case that the chapel stands as one of “a handful of truly transcendent university buildings throughout Canada” (221) and “possibly the finest building erected in New Brunswick in the past century” (222).
It is a strength of the book, however, that it is not just transcendent buildings that are seen to be important. The front cover image is of the central heating plant, completed in 1931, and Holownia’s photograph conveys powerfully the extent to which “this imposing example of early-twentieth-century engineering shows that at that time even the most functional of uses could warrant noble design and detail” (92). Likewise, a building as humble as the tiny wooden gymnasium built in 1855 for early generations of women students, which somehow survived through a range of uses for well over a century, receives its due even though imperfectly documented “except through early photographs” (29). Indeed, throughout the book, the photographs are integral and central, and are presented with skilful juxtapositions of detail with broader perspective, exteriors with interiors, and the buildings themselves with portrayals of the on-campus lives of students.
In places, a sharper focus on conflicts that revealed competing visions for the campus might have added depth to the book’s arguments. The debate of the early 1960s over “excellence” and the notion of reconfiguring Mount Allison along the lines of a New England-style liberal arts college receives a brief mention (143), but some analysis of what the implications of the acrimony engendered by this controversial aspiration for the university may have been for campus planning would have been useful. Discussion of the more recent controversy over the demolition of the 1927 Memorial Library to make way for the Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts could also have borne deeper probing of exactly why the already run-down former library aroused such defensive passions amongst many alumni. Any lacunae notwithstanding, however, A Vision in Wood & Stone represents a successful collaboration between authors whose areas of distinction are complementary and well-balanced, an insightful contribution to the histories of both architecture and higher education, and a volume that affirms (as if affirmation were needed) the high quality that characterizes the books published by Gaspereau Press.
John G. Reid is a member of the Department of History at Saint Mary’s University and Senior Research Fellow of the Gorsebrook Research Institute. He is the author of Mount Allison University: A History, to 1963 (2 vols.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984).