I’ve never found the University of Toronto downtown campus particularly welcoming. As a shy undergraduate living off campus (and commuting more than three hours a day for much of my time there) its ivied and gargoyled buildings were beautiful but intimidating. I made very few friends there, and, like many alumni, have a somewhat sour memory of those days. However what has stuck with me is the belief that despite its unfriendliness (due mainly to its size) this is one of Canada’s great university campuses, and an architectural treasure.
I have been alarmed lately by the redevelopment of the grounds surrounding the site. A decade-long capital campaign to ‘restore’ the grounds around the campus (which for those of you who are not in Toronto, sits beside Queen’s Park between Bloor and College Streets). What the actual result has been, as far as I can tell, are cobblestones and trees on St George Street and the erection of monstrous concrete phalluses on the College Street entrance that act as a barrier — they form a gated entrance. One of the most charming things about the St George Campus has always been the accessibility of the grounds. Anyone can walk through the grounds, without feeling like you are a tourist, or trespassing. Not only is there a wonderful mix of old and new architecture and grassy playing fields, but until recently, many non-university businesses occupied space on the grounds, adding to the feeling that the campus was integrated into the neighbourhood — a feeling you don’t get on most university campuses.
What has this on my mind today is the latest in a series of mis-steps by University of Toronto organizations, this time the Campus Co-op, bent on change at any cost. The co-op is well-known to anyone who shared a house with 15 other students during their time at UofT. A student run housing co-operative, they own a number of houses on Huron Street which they operate as rooming houses for students. For the past 40 years, they have also been landlord to Coach House Books, which operates out of the coach house off Huron on bpnichol lane (so named for the award-winning ‘concrete’ poet, novelist and playwright).
The Co-op has brought forward plans this year to redevelop much of their land to allow more student housing. Unfortunately this also includes the destruction of the little Coach House. Not only will this likely mean the end of the press and the publisher, more importantly, it means the loss of a significant historical site.
Some background from the Coach House site:
“Several of Canada’s foremost writers have been published here, and many more spent their early years discovering and learning about writing, editing and bookmaking on the same equipment we use today. The building, both funky and folksy, is a living museum, still furnished with the same chairs, coffee table and Linotype machine that Coach House started with. Michael Ondaatje and George Bowering return regularly, to talk about new projects and to sip coffee with younger generations of writers. And, while Coach House is still helmed by its original founder, a younger staff has managed to continue the Coach House tradition of being the liveliest literary press in the country, publisher of such recent gems as Christian Bök’s Eunoia and Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes.”
The historical significance of the Coach House building demands that steps be taken by the city to save it. They will present their case to the City of Toronto this week in the hopes that they will be formally designated a Heritage site, and thus be protected from demolition. This would require the architects to come up with a work-around solution, at the very least. Currently they are hosting an online petition that has been signed by over one thousand supporters, from unknowns like myself to poets and Coach House alum George Bowering and Dennis Lee. I urge you to learn more about the Coach House and add your name to its list of supporters.