Once a private residence, Cumberland House is now a thriving social centre for almost 4,000 international students
Old houses are wonderful amalgams of history, period architecture and shared memory. On the St. George campus of U of T, Cumberland House embodies all of these characteristics. The elegant building, which began life in 1860 and is now home to the International Student Centre (ISC), sits near the corner of St. George and College streets. Designed by Toronto architect Frederic William Cumberland, the patrician-style house occupied a special place among his many renowned structures, which include St. James’ Cathedral, the centre portion of Osgoode Hall and his masterwork, University College. Cumberland chose to live at Pendarves for 21 years – the last third of his life – during which time he was elected to the first Ontario legislature, in 1867, then four years later to the House of Commons.
After Cumberland’s death, the house was bought and sold twice and served as a temporary residence for Ontario’s lieutenant-governor before being purchased by U of T in 1923 for $210,000. Throughout these transitions, the house was altered in appearance, then restored in 1966 under the meticulous direction of the late U of T architecture professor Eric Arthur. Nevertheless it has always maintained the feel of an airy Tuscan villa – distinct from the heavier Gothic design with which Cumberland had become identified in the 1850s.
For the past 70 years, U of T has made ready use of Cumberland House. Prior to the ISC’s occupancy, which began in 1966, its most notable resident was the history department from 1924 to 1952. The law school resided there for a time, too, as did the business school and U of T Press. But the historians, perhaps, were best suited to the place. Their numbers were small back then, and their workday was broken up by regular communal tea breaks that seemed in keeping with the patrician surroundings that the house retained.
Touches of that elegant past remain in Cumberland House today amid the hustle and bustle of its present life as the administrative and social headquarters for U of T’s almost 4,000 international students. A grand staircase bisects the house, winding its way to the offices of the ISC and other student groups on the second floor, while overhead a dome of stained glass lets in natural light. In the expansive Pendarves room – the former drawing room – students read, study or recline in an echo of languid Victorian Sunday afternoons. Some 137 foreign countries are represented at U of T, with the largest number of students coming from China, the United States and South Korea. Cumberland House is theirs, says Ben Yang, the ISC co-ordinator. “We offer the world at the students’ doorstep.”
Brad Faught (PhD 1996) is a Toronto writer and historian.