When Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, purchased the house at 63 St. George St. in Toronto, in 1876, it was surrounded by wide open fields and backed on to University College – in a distinguished “suburb,” as historian Donald Creighton later noted in his biography of Macdonald. Today, 63 St. George St. is the home of U of T’s School of Graduate Studies Student Services – recently reopened in November after a renovation that married 21st-century innovation with historical preservation. The goal of the renovation was to better serve the university’s growing population of graduate students.
Built in 1872 by Toronto iron founder Nathaniel Dickey, 63 St. George has been owned by Knox College since 1910.
Before it began its life as the School of Graduate Studies (SGS), the building had already been modified to accommodate a housing co-operative on its top two floors. Its layout wasn’t optimal, notes Laura Stathopoulos, director of SGS Services, and the physical building needed a bit of love. Nor was there a place for grad students to hang out or have meetings. “It was quaint and had a lot of character,” she says – but it required an upgrade.
The renovation, which began in April, has allowed for representatives from all the grad student services – admissions, financial and academic, among others – to be on the ground floor instead of scattered over the three floors, which will greatly streamline service delivery to students. The ground floor is also fully accessible, and there are gender-neutral washrooms throughout the building. Its interior has undergone a welcome transformation, and now features state-of-the-art oral exam rooms and, for the first time, a grad student lounge.
“The goal is user-friendly services, which is great,” says Debra Kriger, a PhD candidate in exercise sciences. “That SGS wanted to create a new lounge for grad students sends a nice message.” Indeed, until the renovation, grad students have had to make do with coffee shops and various lounges around campus as they had no place to call their own. Matt Patience, a fifth-year PhD student in Spanish, is pleased about the change. “I’m happy that they’ve taken grad students’ needs into consideration, giving more space to them and making a better dedicated space for their services.”
Aside from upgrading the electrical service and improving the air quality and circulation, renovators met with historians to make sure they could restore or preserve as much of the original building as possible. All the wood, mouldings, fireplaces and the staircase, for example, have been brought back to life. One area – which had previously been partitioned – has been restored to its original state.
There is great excitement at all levels – grad students and SGS staff – about the old house’s new look and feel. “For the School of Graduate Studies, the opening of 63 St. George means that we can serve our graduate students’ needs throughout their program more efficiently and effectively,” says Prof. Locke Rowe, vice-provost, graduate research and education, and dean of SGS. “And by creating an inviting environment dedicated just to graduate students – whether that means providing counselling services or helping with the administrative processes that are a necessary part of student life – we hope to help graduate students, student associations and faculty experience a greater sense of community here at U of T.”