The University of Alberta campus of the late 1980s confronts the visitor with a bewildering hodgepodge of architecture: from concrete parking garages to angular creations of glass, brick and steel. But in the centre of campus there is an island of evergreen trees, Manitoba Maples and timeless grace. It is in this island that three of the University's oldest buildings remain. And one, Pembina Hall, retains its traditional function: a student residence in the heart of the University of Alberta campus.
Completed in 1914 and for much of its life the University's residence for women, Pembina is now co-educational, catering to mature students. About Pembina and its longtime neighbors there is a sense of continuity, a link with generations gone by and with generations yet to come. On a summer's evening mature students from across Canada and around the world may be found chatting in Pembina's entrance lobby, seated on one of the leather couches beneath the wooden airplane propeller (a memento of Pembina's Second World War service to the Commonwealth Air Training Program). If the weather is fine the socialization moves outdoors: conversation underneath the trees, a scratch game of soccer, or an impromptu gathering occasioned by the strumming of a guitar. All of these are scenes of Pembina Hall life in the '80s. Whatever rumors to the contrary, Pembina and its spirit live on.
There have been some changes. In 1974 after a considerable battle by Pembina residents to save the historic structure and continue its function as a student residence, the building received a major renovation. This involved installing new electrical wiring, fire doors, concrete fire escape stairwells, and an automatic ionization fire alarm system. False fire alarms are infrequent nowadays, but — as in the Pembina of old — even huddling outside at 4:00 am for a false alarm with the temperature well below freezing can be turned into a social event.
Although Pembina is now co-educational, it retains its special character. Its clientele of mature men and women represent all of the major regions of Canada, as well as countries around the globe. A glance back over the past two years readily recalls Pembinites from every province and territory in Canada, from the U. S. and the U. K. , and from India, Iceland, Finland, Sierra Leone, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Ghana, Australia, Japan, and other countries. Conversations can be had in French, English, German, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other languages. In short, the special quiet, but cosmopolitan atmosphere that characterized Pembina in the past is still here in the 1980s.
In what is now a huge campus of more than 30,000 students, and particularly after the construction of the Lister residence complex, Pembina is, along with St. Joseph's College, the very last reminder of what a truly collegial university residence is supposed to be. Contacts among the approximately 140 residents of Pembina are close and cordial, and it is not unusual for a certain amount of informal tutoring to take place between the residents. This might involve a geology student from Windsor helping a clothing and textiles student from Quebec City with her chemistry, while engineering students from Calgary and Edmonton band together to debug a computer program while the midnight oil burns.
The Pembina Hall Students' Association, which on several occasions successfully opposed Pembina's destruction or conversion to an office building, remains an active presence in the life of the residence. It has furnished the kitchens with sharp color television sets, which roar during the Stanley Cup playoffs, as well as microwave ovens, electric kettles and clothes irons. For the lounges there are reading lamps, tables and chesterfields. Shared subscriptions to the Globe and Mail, and the Edmonton Journal, keep lounging Pembinites informed as they read in the entrance lobby, which is also the general rendezvous spot for expeditions to the nearby North Power Plant pub, for general carousing, or send-offs for graduating Pembinites.
Pembina's location remains ideal for temporarily escaping the stress of university studies by heading to the North Saskatchewan River for a quiet, contemplative stroll, a jog to Hawrelak Park, cross-country skiing in the winter, or for watching the river valley beaver, muskrat, herons and other wildlife in the spring and fall.
From centrally-located Pembina, classes are literally only minutes away—which allows many a Pembinite to make up for late night studying by sleeping in until the very last minute before the continuing horror of 8:00 a.m. classes, or the even more unthinkably early horror of 7:30 a.m. summer classes.
Bicycles, now of the ten-speed and mountain-bike variety, lurk in racks on the west face (back) of the building, where the early morning delivery trucks heading for the loading dock of the adjacent Students' Union Building now pass — much to the chagrin of those Pembina residents who enjoy sleeping in on weekdays.
As the University has moved closer to full year-round operation and with its increasing emphasis on graduate studies, many graduate students now live in Pembina, some working with computers from within their quiet, sunny rooms both winter and summer, thus freeing scarce graduate student office space for other students in space-conscious departments. Scrum sessions of teams of students working on group projects often meet in one of the two alcoves off of the entrance lobby; lines might be rehearsed for plays, or wayward math assignments wrangled with.
While Friday night videos have replaced the traditional film projector in the basement, there is still a lively — but always voluntary — social life at Pembina. In the midst of the long winter darkness of January, bits of fish net transform the entrance lounge to a setting for a beach party. Just before the Christmas holiday, the lounge hosts the traditional "angels and earthlings" anonymous gift exchange.
During Pembina's more quiet moments, which are many, the haunting notes of Bach or Debussy, or even The Beatles, seep up past the newspaper readers or cat-nappers on the entrance lobby couches and flow up through the stairwells from the grand piano in the lobby. This Nordheimer grand piano is available for residents and also to others from the campus who ask for access to it via the building's electric door lock and intercom system. The unspoken rule for selecting players for the piano is elegantly simple: they must be talented enough to produce music, not noise.
In an effort to preserve this unique residence and its special atmosphere, a non-profit group of Pembina alumni and students has been formed, namely The Friends of Pembina. This group aims to help support the on-going efforts to preserve and promote Pembina as a mature student residence in the emotional and locational heart of the University of Alberta campus. The group's efforts on behalf of Pembinites past, present and future is very much in keeping with the spirit of Pembina, a spirit somehow anticipated even as the structure was being built.
Oddly enough, while the building is decorated with many off-white stone facings that could be haunts for gargoyles or other engraved heraldry, the majority of these stone facings remain blank. True, the University motto, QUAECUMQUE VERA, is carved in stone above the main entrance and above that abides a detailed sandstone rendering of the University crest, but there are only two other engraved stone facings visible from the sidewalk.
These can be found above the former stairwell doors (now sealed) in the inside southeast-facing and northeast-facing corners. Together these stone facings sum up the continuing atmosphere and spirit of Pembina. They say in Cree: "Payuk Uche Kukeyow" and "Kukeyow Uche Payuk." And that means "All for One" and "One for All. "
The author of this article, Paul Davis, BA Queens, MA Dalhousie, is a student and free-lance writer from Brockville, Ontario. He is currently working towards his doctorate in political science at the University of Alberta while residing and writing from Room 333, Pembina Hall.