Accessibility, student life at the forefront of U of T’s University College renovations

Construction to begin in January
University College
University College, U of T's founding college, will undergo renovations starting in January (photo by Laura Pedersen)

Big changes are coming to one of University of Toronto’s oldest and most iconic buildings.

U of T’s founding college, University College, will undergo large-scale renovations starting in 2018 with the aim of making the building that's more than 150 years old more accessible and student-friendly.

“The goal of this revitalization is to recover the architectural identity of these historic interiors, and to create dynamic new settings for student life and learning for generations to come,” said U of T President Meric Gertler at an event on Thursday to mark the beginning of construction.

The renovation project was funded in part by an increase in ancillary fees for UC students, which they voted in favour of last spring, and donor gifts, notably a $3 million donation by Paul Cadario, U of T alumnus, former member of the Governing Council and a former manager at the World Bank, and a $2.5 million donation by Edmund and Frances Clark, who come from a multi-generation family of UC alumni. Edmund is the former CEO of TD Bank.

It was also announced at the event on Thursday that the Clarks are donating an additional $2.1 million to make improvements to the UC quad and rename it the Clark Quadrangle.

The architects at the helm of the revitalization are John Shnier, a partner at Kohn Shnier Architects and an associate professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and design, and Graeme Stewart, a principal at ERA Architects.

Donald Ainslie, UC’s principal, says updates to the college are much-needed.

“The actual historic building … is not really serving our students now for the way 21st-century teaching and learning takes place because too many of the significant historic rooms sit empty during the day and students don't have a reason to be there,” he said. “I think they're missing out on a chance to experience not just U of T classes but the long history of U of T through University College.”

Renovations are expected to be completed by spring of 2019.

Ainslie and Shnier told U of T News about some of the significant updates to UC.  

UC Library
All renderings provided by Kohn Shnier Architects and ERA Architects 

UC Library

The college’s library is moving back to its original home – from the Laidlaw wing back to the East Hall. A mezzanine will be built, referencing the design of the original library before it was destroyed by a fire in 1890.

“The library itself becomes a symbolic and practical key component of the revitalization because that will immediately bring a desired use by students to activate the front of the building in a way that's much more fundamental to what a university does,” said Shnier.


“As charming and Harry Potter-ish as the building is, it's also what makes it very challenging to access if you're a user with any form of disability or you need extra help with orientation or you're trying to get around,” said Shnier.

That’s why a big part of the revitalization project is improving accessibility across the building. This includes building a new elevator and replacing some stairs with ramps, Shnier said.

“All it takes is a six-inch difference between floor levels and you've created an obstacle for someone,” he said.

The Clark Reading Room

“I think that's going to be a campus hotspot,” said Ainslie, about the West Hall room that will become an updated student space. A new café is also coming to UC.

The Paul Cadario Conference Centre

The Croft Chapter House will be transformed into a conference centre.

“As a conference centre, we’ll be bringing the research mission of the university into the building in a way it hasn't been in decades,” said Ainslie.

The Clark Quadrangle

“It's just a magical space for student activities,” said Ainslie. “By renovating it immediately after we finish the revitalization, we'll be able to ensure it enables curricular and co-curricular activities even more successfully.”

Ainslie also cheekily boasts that the quad is on BlogTO’s top make-out spots in the city – a claim to fame that will likely continue in the new and improved space.


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