It’s only when heritage buildings are neglected — allowed to deteriorate — that they become expensive.
You’ve got to feel sorry for Greg Fowler, the University of Saskatchewan’s vice-president of finances and resources.
In a recent article in the Labour Day issue of The Globe and Mail (Sept 7, p. A7), the poor fellow explained how he is trying to unload two century-old barns. But no one will rid him of the troublesome structures. He’s tried twice this summer, but the call for proposals did not elicit any interest.
“History is expensive,” moaned Fowler about the university’s burden.
Perhaps he should look at the two barns another way. History, especially built heritage, can be invaluable. It’s only when heritage buildings are neglected — allowed to deteriorate — that they become expensive.
During the 1905 Saskatchewan election, Liberal Premier Walter Scott announced his intention to establish a provincial university and agricultural college. The decision was called “an act of supreme confidence in the future of the province.”
The university was officially awarded to the city of Saskatoon in April 1909. At the same meeting, the newly appointed board of governors agreed that the College of Agriculture should be an integral part of the new university.
It was decided to put the campus on the east side of the South Saskatchewan River because it was good farm land. In other words, agriculture — what President Walter Murray called “the sheet anchor of the university” — determined the site.
Premier Scott talked about this link between education and agriculture at the June 1910 cornerstone ceremony for the Agricultural College Building (later renamed the Peter MacKinnon Building) at the head of the university bowl.
“Farming is the foundation of civilization,” Scott maintained. “It is in keeping with the character of our province that the main part of the highest institution of learning in the province shall be an agricultural college.”
The U of S lost no time serving this mandate. Thousands of students have graduated with agriculture degrees over the past century.
The Agricultural Extension department, meanwhile, hosted hundreds of meetings for the Saskatchewan farming community in the Agriculture Building’s Convocation Hall (now used for special events). It also dispatched the Better Farming Train, featuring the latest expert information on agricultural and domestic developments, to towns and villages across the province.
The dean of agriculture even had his own house on campus — today’s university club.
The seed barn and old poultry science building — the two structures that are no longer wanted by the U of S — are part of this story, part of this legacy.
The seed barn, dating from 1915, was originally a federal government building before being turned over to the university. The 80-ton structure was moved to another campus location in 2013.
The 1918 poultry building, designed by university architects Brown and Vallance, was once an instruction facility for the department of poultry husbandry. There were offices (including one for the library and records), a lecture room, a separate wing for brooders, and an egg testing area in the basement.
Both structures have not been used for their original purpose for several years. It’s argued that the university has moved on from the days when agricultural science was its core activity.
But is not the new USask Global Institute for Food Security a later day version of this work? After all, U of S agricultural scientists were calling for crop diversification and mixed farming before the Great Depression and the record drop in wheat prices.
Finding another use for the barns is evidently too costly, even though some people on campus still work out of trailers. Their current state — something Fowler inherited — makes re-purposing an expensive enterprise. Besides, the university wants the land they sit on for expansion.
Their fate seems sealed unless they can be sold and moved. As in the case of the Livestock Pavillon, they are likely to get the wrecking ball treatment and join the “what was” category on the university archives campus building inventory.
That’s a shame. The bigger worry, though, is what other campus buildings might be next because of their condition and/or their failure to be fit into the institution’s future plans?
Being on the U of S Heritage Register (September 2013) does not necessarily mean that a building is safe. Ironically, the Poultry Science building is on that list (asset record number 027).
The U of S needs to conduct a formal review of its buildings and then develop a plan that is pro-active so that the campus does not experience what is euphemistically called infrastructure consolidation.
Yes, it’s going to cost money — probably to the senior administration’s chagrin — but the U of S has to do a better job of protecting and preserving its built heritage if it wants to avoid finding itself in the same predicament again.
Just ask Edinburgh-born Elizabeth Mitchell, who spent a year in western Canada after graduating from Oxford in 1913.
“The University of Saskatchewan,” she declared, “is the most startling thing I saw in the West … It is a massive group of fine buildings … so obviously built to last for five or six hundred years.”
Let’s hope she was right.
This opinion piece originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.