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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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Why does University College face south when the governor general in 1856 wanted it to face west?

Answer A westerly location would have meant the loss of a tall elm tree.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

The foundation stone for University College was laid without fanfare or publicity or any of the grand ceremony that had accompanied the laying of the stone for the ill-fated King's College. The governor general was not there, and the stone itself was unmarked. As far as anyone now knows, no documents or other objects were inserted in it.

U.C.'s foundation stone was laid without publicity: the backers didn't want to reignite the religious controversy.

Only three people attended the October 4, 1856 event: John Langton, the vice-chancellor of the University, and Professors Henry Croft and Daniel Wilson. Wilson later remarked that "they laid the stone secretly as if engaged in a deed of shame, full of hope, but also full of fear." He then added, "Perhaps it was well and wisely done." They did not want to create controversy and the possibility of renewed opposition from the denominational colleges. They moved quickly.

University College, 1857
University College, 1857

"Every stone that goes up in the building, every book that is bought," wrote Langton at the time, "is so much more anchorage, and so much less plunder to fight for." The premier of the United Province, John A. Macdonald, is reported to have said, "Even Methodists can't steal bricks and mortar."

Workers at UC
Workers in front of UC, 1857

The three people who can claim the most credit for bringing the magnificent University College building into being are John Langton, Governor General Sir Edmund Walker Head, and the architect Frederic Cumberland. A lesser but still notable contribution was made by Daniel Wilson, who was very knowledgeable about art and architecture.

When Anthony Trollope visited Toronto in 1862, he wrote that "the two sights of Toronto" are Osgoode Hall and University College, which he said "is the glory of Toronto." "Until I reached Toronto," the governor general, Lord Dufferin, said in 1872, referring to University College, "I confess I was not aware that so magnificient a specimen of architecture existed upon the American continent."

"You Canadians have a prejudice against trees," the governor general said.

Which way would the building face? It seemed obvious to Cumberland, as it does to us today, that the building should face south, but apparently the governor general wanted it to face west. The three were saved, however, by a tall elm tree when they began to stake out the ground according to the governor general's wishes. The tree would have to be cut down, they informed the governor. This he would not permit, claiming that "it was the handsomest tree about Toronto," and adding, "You Canadians have a prejudice against trees." So they staked it out facing south, and, Langton wrote, "when the Gov. paid us a visit next day he was quite satisfied and complimentary, and in congratulating us upon the safety of the tree he said to Cumberland ..., 'I am sure that you can never put anything up half so pretty.'" The tree was toppled in a storm the following year.

Exactly two years after the foundation stone was laid (Oct. 4, 1858), the cap-stone for U.C's 120-foot tower was set in place by Governor Head, Friedland writes. The president predicted that long after his death, the new university would "enable the sons of the poorest man in the land to compete with the children of the most affluent."

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