University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
University of Toronto Archives/Robert Lansdale Photography Ltd. (B1998-0033/[731096-2])
Photo courtesy U of T Archives

Character Builders

Dedicated craftsmen carved the majestic entrance to University College

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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  1. 3 Responses to “ Character Builders ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was particularly touched to see the picture of the tradesmen and of the workmen who created the magnificent stone portal at UC's main entrance. Although much is often made of the minds who gaves us the attractive structures seen around the St.George campus, little is ever done to commemorate those who toiled to realize the dreams of architects and engineers. How about framing this picture and displaying it inside the doorway? It definitely would put a face, at least in this case, to the "exquisite frontispiece, gargoyle and capitals around the college."

    Enrico M. Iafolla.
    BA, BEd (both too long ago)

  3. Patricia M Jeffs says:

    As I transcribed the 1861 census for Toronto's St John's Ward early this year I noticed there were a number of men who gave their occupation as "stone cutter". Once I saw the photograph in U of T Magazine I realized that some were working on a building site within walking distance of their homes and not in a stonemason's yard. It would be wonderful to be able to put these 28 faces with their census entries.
    St John's Ward comprised the area from Queen to Bloor and from Yonge Street west to what is now University Ave. Frederic Cumberland was living somewhere on the present University campus in St Patrick's Ward.

  4. sandra moffatt says:

    I was always under the impression that this photo was taken after the fire because I saw this photo in the book Toronto, Carved in Stone. The person in the front row middle is who I believe to be William Forret who came to Toronto in 1885 from Scotland. The census entries I have of him state he was working for Dick and was a stonemason. I have a photo of him and this looks just like him.