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Students at desks in a large room.

Image : MacDonald Hall’s renovated interiors. Photo by Tom Arban, courtesy of Gow Hastings Architects

MacDonald Hall

Location: Guelph
Date of Completion: 1903
Architect: George Martel Miller
Date of Renovation: 2016
Architect of Renovation: Gow Hastings Architects Inc. 
Nominated by: Mike Schreiner, MPP (Guelph)


“Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community.” 

-Adelaide Hoodless



An important landmark in the history of women's education in Canada (and reflection of societal biases of its time), the stately MacDonald Hall has been thoughtfully repurposed to support the values and pedagogy of a 21st-century university while acknowledging its role in shaping previous generations.

An important building in the complex history of women’s education in Canada.  

Situated at the northern edge of the University of Guelph’s campus, this three-story brick building was completed in 1903 as a student residence for the MacDonald Institute, an early higher-education institution for women in Canada.

The elegant dormitory was designed to incorporate multiple amenities within its walls—including a gym, medical office, library, and dining hall—purposefully making the residence largely self-contained. When the Hall first opened, strict rules governed the schedule of the young women living in its quarters, such as a rigid “lights-out” policy, and the prohibition of dancing until 1913. The design of the residence and its codes of conduct were reflective of the attitude toward women’s education at the turn of the century. While women were gaining broader educational opportunities, these came with strict limitations. 

Adelaide Hoodless, a Hamilton socialite, was one of the co-founders of the MacDonald Institute, and was a strong proponent of what was once called “domestic science.” After losing an infant child who had drunk contaminated milk, Hoodless dedicated her life to establishing programs and schools across the country that would teach young women how to be better homemakers. With a stern belief that a woman’s place of work was the home—Hoodless was not supportive of the suffragette movement—she became an important figure in this new educational movement. MacDonald Hall is reflective of this complex history, both an advancement in higher education and reflective of the social biases, gender norms, and constraints placed on women at the time. 

Panorama of two mid-rise buildings with brick and stone cladding in a large field. A few young trees are scattered throughout.MacDonald Hall (right) and the MacDonald Institute building (left) in 1919. Both constituted what was then known as the MacDonald Institute. Photo courtesy of Gow Hastings Architects.

A noted educational philanthropist

The other co-founder of the MacDonald Institute was the aptly named Sir William MacDonald, a well-known philanthropist. This ardent non-smoker who, ironically, made a fortune working in the tobacco business, dedicated large sums of money to advancing education. His name is also tied to the Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue campus of McGill University, MacDonald College. 

The MacDonald Institute would eventually merge with the Ontario Agricultural College and Ontario Veterinary College (both in the same vicinity) to form the University of Guelph in 1964. Over time, the curriculum at the Institute changed to reflect the current needs of the workforce, along with the inclusion of women studying in a broader variety of fields, with the Institute dissolving in 1969. The building would live on as an all-female student residence until its most recent renovation. 

Left: Entrance of red-brick three storey building at the end of a looped roadway. Right: Main entrance of building with steps leading to a large round-headed door. A sign on the left of the entrance reads MacDonald Hall. The imposing entrance of MacDonald Hall as it stands today. The facade looks very much like it did more than 100 years ago, save for the removal of balustrades by the main entrance and the crenellations that were once scattered throughout the facade. Photos by Tom Arban, courtesy of Gow Hastings Architects.

Preserving a legacy while embracing new ideas

In 2014, it was decided that the hall would no longer serve as a residence (small upgrades were carried out in the late sixties and in 1970) and be converted into the new home of the University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics. Toronto-based firm, Gow Hastings Architects Inc., was responsible for the extensive renovation of the hall, balancing the retention of existing architectural features with contemporary values of openness, informality, and collaboration.

The nearly symmetrical front facade is almost identical to how it was when it first opened, with its sash windows with plain stone sills and lintels; heavy cornices still impose their visual weight. The original floor plan of the building was very accommodating to its new use, as former dorm rooms were converted into offices and more intimate quiet study rooms. Original amenities such as the lecture theatre were restored while other spaces such as the former gym were turned into larger classrooms. A heritage room was also created, with displays illustrating the hall’s history.

Left: Large classroom with desks and chairs under a white vaulted ceiling.Vaulted ceilings create spaces that are bright and open (left), while a feature staircase works to open up the central area of the building while providing views between floors (right). Photos by Tom Arban courtesy of Gow Hastings Architects.

One of the more striking new components of this renovation is the addition of a feature stairway, complete with a new clerestory window, further creating visual connections between floors. Along with this renovation, a new feature plaza is to be created in front of the hall, adding more outdoor spaces for students and faculty to gather, further cementing this heritage structure into the fabric of the university. 

You can read more about this renovation in this previous blOAAg article prepared by Gow Hastings Architects! 

The OAA would like to thank Gow Hastings Architects for their contributions to making this article possible.

This post forms part of our World Architecture Day Queen’s Park Picks 2020 series in which we asked Ontario’s Members of Provincial Parliament to nominate a prominent building, past or present, in their riding for a chance to learn more about it. Check out the rest of the series to learn more about great buildings across the province! 

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