Published in the Montreal Gazette on January 4, 2014
One of Montreal’s older private social establishments celebrated an eminent milestone just last month. The University Club, first launched in this city in 1908, marked its 100th anniversary at its current location on Mansfield Street on December 17th past.
The University Club was the brainchild of many prominent Montrealers but perhaps none more so that Stephen Leacock and Dr. John McCrae, of ‘In Flanders Field’ fame. At a time of no radio or television, not to mention the Internet and all that that entails, men sought socialization with one another in various types of organizations. Of course, diverse sports societies abounded within the city but other non-athletic associations also existed, such as the St. James and Mount Royal Clubs, the latter drawing much of its membership from the multimillionaires of the Golden Square Mile. In contrast, the University Club, as its name suggests, brought in most of its fellows from the academic community.
Initially, the University Club took up residence in a grand three storey building on Dorchester Street West, perhaps appropriately opposite St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church (today, the site of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel) as many of its subscribers, such as John McCrae, were of that religious persuasion.
In 1911, the club purchased for $43,000 the home of Edward Benjamin Ibbotson, a rather successful Montreal dentist. It was located at 176 Mansfield Street, just south of Sherbrooke, and within striking distance of McGill University from where many of its members hailed. This was to prove but a temporary move, however, as the institution already had its eyes on a piece of real estate on the east side of Mansfield directly opposite the old Ibbotson home. The property in question was procured from the estate of James W. Skelton for $45,100. A demolition permit was immediately acquired from the local authority for it was here that the University Club wished to erect its very own clubhouse.
The task of designing a new structure was awarded to group member and noted Scottish architect, Percy Erskine Nobbs, who also at the time happened to be the Director of the McGill School of Architecture. Obviously, Nobbs was well-known in Montreal drafting circles.
For the University Club edifice, the illustrious planner drew heavily upon Georgian influence for the structure’s Mansfield Street façade, the ground floor being composed of limestone while the upper storeys were covered with red brick. This was very similar to Nobbs’ original 1904 proposal for the front wall of the McGill Student Union Building that today houses the McCord Museum of Canadian History.
The inside of the Nobbs’ clubhouse is equally exquisite, particularly the main dining hall that remains essentially as it was in 1913.
Around 1930, the University Club flirted with the idea of expanding by moving to a new location. The Redpath Street property of the late David Morrice, philanthropist and textile merchant, was obtained and a design competition launched. Organization member J. Cecil McDougall won the exercise with his Art Deco submission but the entire project was scuttled when serious financial problems arose. As a result, the society took an additional hit for the expenses incurred during the deliberation.
Periodically, in order to make ends meets, the University Club, like other similar circles, has felt obliged to put up for sale some of its more treasured paintings from its extensive art collection. Nevertheless, the society still owns nearly one hundred top quality works by various Canadian artists.
Today, the University Club has more or less 700 members, ranging in age from 20 to 104! The average age is 42. While women have made tremendous strides within the body, men still dominate in figures. There is, however, an equal number of anglophones and francophones; indeed, the establishment takes pride in the fact that it now actively promotes its bilingual character. Regardless, in 2014, francophones, anglophones, and allophones, generally speaking, mingle freely in all the private clubs found in the city centre.
Only last November 19, in conjunction with their annual speakers series, I was afforded the opportunity to present my Edwardian research to members of the Club Universitaire de Montreal, as the society is known in French. I was struck by both the historic setting in which I was speaking along with the general urbane atmosphere of what was for me a very memorable evening.
To mark its 100th anniversary, the University Club, a veritable Montreal societal institution, is holding a private dinner for members and their guests on January 15. It should be an evening to remember.
Below, The University Club of Montreal on Mansfield Street in the city centre