Art can be a way to bring awareness; to provide us with a new way of seeing what we thought we knew. Because there has been so much interest in efforts to save the historic Ring Houses from demolition, I have combined Urban Sketchers Edmonton’s two sets of Ring House sketches (Feb 13 and March 6) into one post here. Perhaps we can inspire others to see the beauty and value of these historic buildings, and inspire further artistic interpretations as well.
The first Ring House was built in 1911 as faculty housing, and over the next four years another nine homes were built in a “ring” on the NW corner of the University of Alberta campus. The architects of the first four ring houses were Wilson & Herrald, also responsible for other prominent buildings such as Rutherford House and the Strathcona Public Library. Cecil S. Burgess, the University’s first and only Professor of Architecture, was the architect for the final six. In 1970, six of the Ring Houses were demolished to make way for the Windsor Car Park. The four remaining are among the oldest buildings on campus.
Ring House 1 was the home of the first U of A President Dr. Henry Marshall Tory and his wife Annie, and it is Canada’s oldest collegiate presidential residence in Canada. Tory initiated many innovative advances in scientific research at the university to address pressing Canadian issues such as agricultural plant diseases, aeronautics, foods, fuels, and medical disease research. He was instrumental in creating the Alberta Research Council and was the first president of the National Research Council.
Ring House 1 served as housing for the first five presidents of the university from 1912 until 1959. It then became a residence for female students, and beginning in 1971 it served as the University Art Gallery and Museum, and until recently was also the Museums and Collections Services offices.
The art works of internationally significant Canadian artists such as the Masters work of U of A grads Janet Cardiff & George Bures Millar, and the U of A post-graduate work of ground-breaking indigenous artist Carl Beam, were exhibited at the Ring House Gallery.
Ring House 2 was the home of William Muir Edwards, the first professor of engineering and son of Henrietta Muir Edwards of the Famous Five. He helped nurture the beginnings of the university’s outstanding sport legacy. He was instrumental in ending a typhoid outbreak in 1910, and died at the age of 39, a victim of the 1918 flu.
Between 1924 and 1936, Ring House 2 was home to the first electrical engineering professor and then head of the Electrical Engineering Department, Hector MacLeod and family. In the 1960s, Ring House 2 was home to Maury Van Vliet, the renowned first Dean of the Faculty of Physical Education who began teaching in the Department of Physical Education in 1945.
The offices of the University of Alberta Press were housed in Ring House 2 from 1999 to 2020.
Ring House 3 served as the Department of Elementary Education Kindergarten in 1969, and is one of the oldest buildings on North Campus.
Mel Hurtig’s Canadian Encyclopedia was developed in Ring Houses 3 and 4.
Ring Houses 3 and 4 housed greats like Adolph Lehmann, chemistry professor and early oil sands researcher, and William Kerr, professor of modern languages, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and third President of the university.
Along with Ring House 1, Ring House 4 served as part of the University Art Gallery and Museum.
“Place is not a commodity and shouldn’t be treated as such. … We have created for ourselves a crisis of meaning which is tied to a crisis of value. The relationship between the intrinsic value of something and its financial value is what we have to fix. We humans have lost track of the most important thing, and the hero of the story is a little thing called community.” Zita Cobb
Background to date: A moratorium on the demolition has been requested by concerned citizens so that time can be allowed for adaptive reuse solutions to be formulated for the Ring Houses. Otherwise, these historic houses will be demolished in May. The university has offered the remaining four houses for sale for $1 each, with moving costs to be covered by the purchaser. However, the reality is that it may be unlikely for the houses to be successfully moved, and removal from their contextual surroundings would mean that the value of the houses as a community heritage resource would be lost.
The University of Alberta is our province’s first university, born soon after we became a province, and the Ring Houses were among its first buildings. It is important to note that the Alberta government budget cuts have affected the University of Alberta more than any other post-secondary education institution in Alberta. In its annual ranking of Canada’s universities by reputation, Maclean’s magazine‘s 2020 ranking placed the U of A as 5th and 6th out of 49 for highest quality, most innovative, leaders of tomorrow, and best overall. Along with its distinguished heritage, the university’s stature as one of the best that can attract the brightest is at risk.
National Trust Canada recently added the Ring Houses to its Most Endangered Places List.
For further background, the following sources can be accessed:
An open letter and continuing petition to the U of A
Sarah Carter’s February 9 opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal
Ellen Schoeck’s February 17 opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal
Marlena Wyman’s February 19 letter to the editor in the Edmonton Journal
David Ridley’s February 23 letter to the editor in the Edmonton Journal
Posted by Marlena Wyman