A House for the Students

The new Woodsworth building added lecture and conference rooms, as well as spaces for offices, student community, and food. It did not have student residences.

But by the end of the 1990s, across the St. George campus, the need for student housing was increasing. As Martin Friedland notes:

At all three campuses, the university policy is to offer housing to all entering students who seek places. At the end of the decade [the 1990s], only 17 per cent of the student body could be housed in residences. John Browne of Innis College, who has chaired the committee on residence development, noted in 1999 that the number of applicants for residence on the various campuses had almost tripled in the previous six years. An additional 2,500 places would have to be constructed (Friedland, The University of Toronto: A History, 657).

In 2000-2001, responding to the need for on-campus student housing, Woodsworth College first offered student residence space to first-year students. The Woodsworth residence spaces were located in the former Graduate Student Residence at 321 Bloor Street West, on the south-east corner of Bloor and St. George Streets (Window on Woodsworth, Vol. 14, Number 3, Summer 2001).

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Photo by Robert Lansdale, courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives, 1969.

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Photo by Robert Lansdale, 1969, courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives. Residence inner courtyard.

At the time, the Graduate Student Residence was over seven decades old. The residence building had been designed by the architectural firm of Marani & Paisley and built in 1926 (Robert G. Hill, “Marani, Ferdinand Herbert,” In Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1462).

The four-storey building was first listed at 319 Bloor Street West as “St. George Ap[artmen]ts” in 1927, replacing the private residence of David Chesson, chauffeur before (Toronto City Directory (Might’s Directory). Toronto: Might’s Directory Company, 1926, 1927). By 1930, St. George Apartments was listed as 321 Bloor Street West and housed at least three times as many residents as three years before (Toronto City Directory (Might’s Directory). Toronto: Might’s Directory Company, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1930).

Over three decades later, the University of Toronto purchased the apartment building as a residence for graduate students (Friedland, University of Toronto: A History, 468). In 1968, Might's Directory first listed the building as St. George Residence (U of T), encompassing street numbers 319-323 (Toronto City Directory (Might’s Directory). Toronto: Might’s Directory Company, 1968).

After renovations, on April 23, 1969, a ceremony took place for the opening of the St. George Graduate Residences.

The Residence’s Warden, Robert T. H. Alden, explained how the building’s architecture reflected the needs of graduate students:

The original segmented apartment structure was maintained to avoid the institutional feeling that is unfortunately present in efficient long corridor design. Each apartment grouping contains bedroom studies and shared bathroom and kitchen. Part of the underground garage was converted to provide common rooms for recreation and socializing, removed from the study areas. This separation reflects the attention that must be paid to the needs for quiet study in a graduate residence.

We are a University residence within the framework of the corporate structure, but with different needs from our blood brothers. This is reflected not only in the administrivia, but also in the daily life that exists inside these proud old walls.” (“St. George Graduate residence holds formal opening ceremony,” U of T Staff Bulletin, May 29, 1969, p. 7, https://archive.org/details/v22bulletin19690529/page/n5/mode/2up)

By the turn of the milennium, the university found itself facing a critical shortage of student housing:

With the anticipated arrival of some 8,000 more students in the next five to 10 years — due to expanding demographics and the so-called double cohort of Ontario high school graduates — U of T has set an ambitious 1100-million residence building agenda in order to fulfil its pledge to house any first-year student who requests on-campus housing. Administrators want to add some 2,600 new residence beds to the total 5,000 students currently housed on the three campuses; residence space is so short that the university has been forced to rent floors of the downtown Primrose Hotel for the third straight year. (Jill Rutherford, “Residences to meet rising demand,” University of Toronto Bulletin, August 20, 2001, p. 3, https://archive.org/details/v55bulletin20010820/page/n1/mode/2up)

In 2000-2001, Woodsworth College first offered its students on-campus housing within the St. George Graduate Residence (Susan Dentelbeck, “Life in the first Woodsworth College Residence: Two Dons Share their Experience,” Newsletter:  Window on Woodsworth, Vol 14, No. 3, Summer 2001, pp. 1-3). Dons Amy Cheng and Dilani Thurairajah fondly remembered “an evening of all-you-can-eat ice cream sundaes, $2.00 spaghetti dinners and caffeine parties with brownies, chocolate cake, tea and coffee to keep studying students awake” (Dentelbeck, “Life in the first Woodsworth College Residence”).


Student residence under construction - Woodsworth College - photo from SE corner looking W


Student residence under construction - Woodsworth College - photo looking N

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Student residence foundations and tower rising - Woodsworth College

But despite this initial offering, the St. George Graduate Residence was scheduled for demolition. According to Residence Life Manager John Conrad, the old apartment buiding’s problems included “outdated plumbing, faulty wiring and drafty windows that would cost millions to bring up to code” (Dentelbeck, “Life in the first Woodsworth College Residence”). Residence dons’ memories, full of vivid sensory imagery, recounted “the excessive heat and dryness of the rooms”; a “broken elevator door that would bang all night” and would need students to “tape it open with yards of masking tape” until it could be repaired; and “livestock such as ants, silverfish and mice” that were “an active part of residence life” (Dentelbeck, “Life in the first Woodsworth College Residence”). The building and its “proud old walls,” once celebrated by Warden Alden in 1969, were slated for demolition.

Woodsworth College’s plan was to replace the St. George Graduate Residence with a new, modern, and more capacious building, initially planned as an 18-storey residence, designed by Alliance Architects of Toronto (Rutherford, “Residences to meet rising demand”).

However, controversy soon arose. Sonja Bata, founder of the Bata Shoe Museum, objected to the height and design of the new building. "The idea of another tower frightens me," she said (Ferguson, “Unsightly”). Contrasting the projected residence to the Bata Shoe Museum’s architecture, Bata argued that the residence’s height and style would alter the character of the neighbourhood for the worse. (Ferguson, “Unsightly.”) University officials countered: the height of the building would provide much-needed light and space for students who needed safe and affordable housing on campus (Ferguson, “Unsightly”).

Bata spearheaded a court action to block the project.  But in August 2001, the Woodsworth Residence—reduced in height compared to the original plan--was approved by a municipal court (Rutherford, “Residences to meet rising demand”) and construction proceeded apace.

The building opened to undergraduate students in September 2004. For the last twenty years, Woodsworth Residence has offered students apartment-style accommodation on the University of Toronto campus. As an essential service, the residence continued to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, providing students with a home away from home. All Woodsworth College Residence photographs below are  courtesy of Advancement, Alumni & Communications, Woodsworth College.

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A House for the Students