A new oculus for a new era: U of T’s historic Convocation Hall fitted with replacement skylight

The installation of the new skylight, or oculus, on Convocation Hall comes after two years of preparations and planning that involved construction specialists, designers, heritage consultants and university operations staff (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Convocation Hall, the historic centrepiece of the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, is being fitted with a new glass skylight – a once-in-a-century renewal that helps ensure the longevity and grandeur of the 114-year-old building.

A crane towering over King’s College Circle carefully hoisted the skylight’s superstructure into place on Con Hall’s domed roof Thursday morning as construction workers looked on. Next, glass panels will be carefully laid, with the project set to be completed in January.

“The structure itself is roughly 100 years old and has served its lifetime, so, from a structural standpoint, we needed to rebuild and renew,” said Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice-president, operations and real estate partnerships, and vice-provost, academic operations.

The installation of the new skylight, or oculus, comes after two years of preparations and planning that involved construction specialists, designers, heritage consultants and university operations staff. It’s part of a broader update and refurbishment of the heritage building, which serves as the university’s biggest classroom, with space for 1,730, and the place where convocation ceremonies are held – even during the pandemic, when it served as a backdrop for U of T’s first-ever virtual convocation ceremony.

A crane carefully lifts a new skylight into place over the domed roof of Conovcation Hall (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

From an aesthetic standpoint, Mabury said no detail was overlooked to ensure the new glass skylight is virtually indistinguishable from its historic predecessor.

“We have heritage consultants managing every step of the process, down to literally the millimetre details around how the glass fits together, the kind of glass and how it appears both internally and externally – so it’s very loyal to the original structure,” he said. “It will look no different at all; a lot of effort, attention, skill and experience have been brought to this project to maintain that accurate, appropriate representation of the original building.”

Measures were also taken to ensure that Con Hall could continue to be used safely and without disruption while work was underway to prepare for the installation of the new dome.

“We started this project a couple of years ago when we put in steel girders and support above the convocation floor area – both in order to be able to work up there and, out of an abundance of caution, so we could continue to use Convocation Hall safely,” Mabury said.

“The new structure will be safe, resplendent and should last at least another 100 years.”

For Mabury, the timing of the dome's installation is symbolic, even if it was coincidental.

He noted that it comes as U of T embarks on a fall semester unlike any other in its 193-year history amid a global pandemic – a semester that has asked students, faculty, staff, librarians, as well as other members of the community, to step up and adapt in ways they’ve likely never been asked to do before.

“For me, the raising of this skylight and rooftop to the oculus is confidence-inducing,” Mabury said. “We’re looking forward with confidence based on how we’ve managed thus far. We know there are challenges ahead, but that the University of Toronto will come out of this stronger than it was before.

“It feels like a new beginning.”

The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief