Ah, the club. Some say the key to the British Raj in India was the club – a bastion of otherness that reminded the ruling class of its lofty position and august responsibilities. Appropriately, the best clubs were at high altitude, in hill stations like Simla in the north, spiked by the majestic Himalayas, or at Ootacamund – “Snooty Ooty” – in the south. What then, the Faculty Club at the University of Toronto, residing resolutely on Willcocks Street not far above sea level?
This year the Faculty Club, with a 3,000-strong membership, celebrates its 40th anniversary. And though with its grand, neo-Georgian facade it may look exclusive and remote, inside it is anything but. The building at 41 Willcocks St. dates from the 1880s and was first the home of the sturdily Presbyterian Campbell family. It then served as a Jewish men’s club, the Primrose (to which women were admitted eventually), until it was expropriated in 1959 by U of T and turned over to the Faculty Union to form a club. Until then, the men and women on U of T’s faculty had met separately – the men at Hart House, and the much smaller number of women at the University Women’s Club on St. George Street. But with the prodding of some of the professors, including German scholar Barker Fairley and his wife, Margaret, who offered the club a collection of Group of Seven works on the condition that it welcome women as members, the gender-blind Faculty Club opened its doors in the summer of 1960.
In those days membership fees ranged from a mere $12 to $18, remembers Bill Foulds, club secretary from 1960 until 1983. One of the first things the club’s 12-person board did was obtain a liquor licence. The place was unacceptably dry. The club then got on with the business of providing members with a range of amenities, including a luxury that every harried professor needs: a steam bath. (Alas, the water has long since been turned off.)
Forty years onwards, faculty and administrative staff have been joined at the club by alumni. All are welcome to take out a membership for the current unclub-like fee of $300 per year. (For that amount of money in a Pall Mall club in London, you might manage a couple of cold lunches and a jug of house claret.) Belying its name, the Faculty Club reaches far beyond the professoriate. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, retirement parties – the club is the setting for various rites of passage. Included is that ritual known to PhD students as the “Oral Defence Congratulatory Drink.” Once the star chamber of examining professors has been faced (down), and all, including the often dazed candidate, retire for a libation, it is to the Faculty Club they go. Welcome to the club, indeed.
But it is not only long-suffering graduate students who make up the guest list. All sorts of people have come through the doors of the Faculty Club. Sir Peter Ustinov visited once, charming a group of professors with his knowledge of European history – no easy task, even for the flamboyant Ustinov. Sir Edward Heath, former British Conservative prime minister, stopped by for a drink (Chivas Regal). Recently, Michael Burgess of Les Misérables fame sang at the club, but only after having a grand piano delivered to the premises.
Satisfying guests and members alike is a dedicated, family-like staff of 17, led by manager Leanne Pepper. With just six years’ service, Pepper is a veritable rookie compared to Peggy Hopkins, the genial hostess who has worked 18 years at the club, and bar manager Ernie West, a voluble Scotsman with a Methuselah-like 32 years of service. West’s twin, Brian, even more voluble, has seen 20 years behind the club’s bar.
The Faculty Club looks and smells and feels like a club should. Somnolent in the morning, it really begins to come to life in the afternoon when members arrive for lunch in the beautifully appointed main-floor dining room or downstairs in the cosy, wood-panelled pub. In its composition and atmosphere it exemplifies the modern U of T, but with its history and its glorious Group of Seven collection it pays homage to the university’s past. Just like other 40-year-olds, the Faculty Club has seen it all.
Brad Faught (PhD 1996) teaches history at the University of Windsor.