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A Building for the Arts

It began in the summer of 1947 when Henry and Esther Kreisel arrived at the CN station in Edmonton and were taken directly to the Arts Building. Thus began a long and happy association not only with the University but with the Arts Building itself. As part of the newly-renovated building's re-opening ceremonies this spring, Dr. Kreisel was asked to deliver some "Reflections on the Arts Building". The following are excerpts from his reminiscences.

The comedienne Lily Tomlin spoke the other day about the wave of nostalgia for the '50s and '60s, and the appearance of all kinds of retrospective and nostalgic programs on TV. If this continues, she said, we'll soon have nostalgia for last week. I hope you'll allow me to indulge in a little nostalgia, not for last week or even for the '50s and '60s, but for the University of Alberta as I first encountered it in August of 1947.

The Arts Building was noble and queenly. It certainly seemed older than 32. But then I was only 25, and 32 certainly seemed old. But my first impression was in some respects right, for in a very real sense the Arts Building was the heart and soul of the University. All departments and virtually all the staff of what is now the Arts Faculty, and some members of science departments, were in the building.

Space was certainly a problem, then as now. Some time in 1948 or '49, Al Ryan, with the help of some of his friends, of whom I may well have been one, concocted a letter to Faucher (recently appointed professor of French), ostensibly written in perfect bureaucratese by the space assignment officer in the Bursar's Office, informing Faucher that the dean of Law, whose office was next door, desperately needed a secretary, and this secretary, regretfully, would need the space now occupied by Faucher. Faucher's desk, the letter went on, would have to be moved out into the corridor. Faucher let out a blood-curdling cry when he opened the letter and stormed into the Bursar's Office and confronted the Bursar, MacWhidden, who was of course astonished and puzzled. It was only with the greatest difficulty that he managed to convey to Faucher that there was no such creature as a space assignment officer, and that the whole thing must have been a joke. I don't think that Faucher ever quite forgave us.

In the Arts building I found a true community, and even though I was only a junior member, I felt very much a part of the institution. The president, the dean, certainly the head of my department, R.K. Gordon, treated me as though I had been in the University for years. Dr. Newton (president) would sometimes meet me in the hall and ask me to have lunch with him. In May of 1949 he stopped me in the hall and said, "I hear you're going to England. Why didn't you tell me?" Mind you, I didn't quite know whether he was just asking a friendly question or whether he implied that I should have asked him for permission.

On October 6, 1915, the Arts Building (the Main Teaching Building, as it was officially referred to) was opened in a special convocation ... no fewer than eleven worthies received honorary degrees ... no fewer than seven of the recipients as well as President Tory were to give speeches. But that proved too much of a good thing, and the Gateway reported laconically that "owing to the lateness of the hour the speeches that followed had to be shortened very much and those of Dr. Brett and our own President had to be omitted altogether."

Long may the building endure. and serve new generations of scholars and students. And let us borrow the immortal words of John Keats and address this old-new building and say to it "When old age shall this generation waste, /Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st/ 'Beauty is truth, truth is beauty,' that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

Published Autumn 1988.

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