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Dedicated craftsmen carved the majestic entrance to University College

 university of Toronto Archives/Robert Lansdale Photography Ltd. (B1998-0033/[731096-2])


While it takes one talent to envision beauty, it takes quite another to execute it. University College, the architectural triumph of Frederic Cumberland and William Storm, was constructed between the fall of 1856 and 1859. This photograph, dated approximately 1857, shows some of the stone-carvers and workers who carried out the architects’ vision.

The intricate carvings required the most skilled craftsmen available. According to Douglas Richardson’s book A Not Unsightly Building, the master sculptor was a young Charles Emil Zollikofer, recruited from a German-speaking canton of Switzerland. Using the mallets seen in the front row and other tools of the trade, the carvers rendered this exquisite frontispiece, as well as the gargoyles and capitals throughout the College.

The Romanesque-revival style building has been cited as one of the most majestic academic structures in Canada. But its beauty did not guarantee it a life of ease. In February 1890, lanterns were dropped down stairs on the southeast side. Flames quickly took hold, ravaging much of University College. U of T president Sir Daniel Wilson lamented: “The work of a lifetime is swept away in a single night.”

The fire did spare some of the western side of UC. (The college was rebuilt, between 1890 and 1892, under the direction of university architect D.B. Dick.) And, somehow, despite flames that licked directly inside the main doorway, this beautiful stone portal remained almost unscathed – one of the last original vestiges of these men’s toil.

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