The Law Centre Celebrates 50 Years

The Faculty of Law looks back at the rich history of the iconic building

Lauren Bannon - 04 August 2022

The Faculty of Law is excited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the renowned Law Centre — a place that many, including those of you reading this magazine, may remember as your second home.

“Since its official opening 50 years ago, the Law Centre has been the home and heart of legal learning for generations of law students at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law,” said Dean Billingsley. “Every Law alumni who has graduated since 1972 has stories to share of memorable times spent in the Weir Law Library, in the Moot Court Room, in the student lounge (the "Gavel"), and in other classrooms and spaces throughout the building.”

The large concrete building located on the east side of the university’s North Campus is an instantly recognizable landmark with a rich history that began long before its construction.

Early History of The Faculty

Founded in 1912 in conjunction with the Law Society of Alberta, the University of Alberta Faculty of Law is the oldest law faculty in Western Canada, initially providing lectures and administering Law Society exams to those who resided in central and northern Alberta.

In these early days, the Faculty — which was not yet under the full control of the university — lacked a permanent home, and lectures and exams were offered in the courthouses of Edmonton and Calgary. All this changed in the early 1920s when the Faculty evolved from its early format into a full university model.

As part of the university, the Faculty made its first home for law students in the library located on the second floor of the south wing of the Old Arts Building. Until the early 1940s, the Faculty remained relatively small— with only two full-time faculty members and classes of an average size of 20 students or less — and this small space in the Arts Building was sufficient.

Things changed rapidly when World War II ended and many returning veterans had ambitions of contributing to the post-war economy through a law career. Enrollment numbers surged, class sizes ballooned and the growing Faculty was moved to a larger space located on the first floor of Rutherford Library.

In the early 1950s, enrollment in the Faculty had reached a record high of 142 students, and additional space was needed. Fortunately, this need for space coincided with the construction of Cameron Library, which meant more space in the Rutherford Library could be freed up and made available for the Faculty to use. By the mid-1960s the Faculty obtained offices and a moot courtroom on the third floor of Rutherford Library as well.

The late 1960s saw another influx in enrollment numbers, making it apparent that the Faculty’s holding at the Rutherford Library was no longer sufficient — and in 1969 an idea to construct a dedicated home for law students on the North Campus was conceived.

Building The Law Centre

Construction on the new building began on February 13, 1970. It was the first building approved for construction during the university’s expansion into the North Garneau District.

The building was designed by Edmonton-born architect Donald G. Bittorf, who was also part of the team that designed the Edmonton Art Gallery. Bittorf’s aim when designing the Law Centre was to ensure it had an authoritative presence yet was still aesthetically appealing.

“The bold articulated exterior form of the building which will create strong highlight and shadow pattern under various conditions of lighting should dispel any fear on the part of the university that the building will be drab,” he wrote in a letter to Walter H. Worth, the vice president of Campus Planning and Development, prior to the start of the building’s construction.

With Bittorf at the helm, other key members behind the building’s emergence included general contractor Alta West Construction Ltd., mechanical contractor Whittick Mechanical Contractors Ltd. and electric contractor Sun Electric Ltd.

Including exterior balconies, the building was planned to measure a combined area of 121,232 square feet. At the heart of this design was the Weir Law Library, which would measure an astounding 43,640 square feet.

“An essential and basic part of any Faculty of Law is its library — the [planned] Law Centre is designed so that the library forms a central and major portion of the building,” reads an excerpt from a news release announcing the approval of the building in February of 1969.

In addition to a large library, the plan included offices for staff and faculty, four large amphitheater classrooms, seminar rooms, a moot courtroom, a conference lounge and lunchroom, and the Institute of Law Research and Reform on the building’s fourth floor.

Including furnishings and equipment, in the original building plans the cost for this endeavor was estimated to be $2,938,983.16. This would equate to over 21 million dollars today.

By the fall of 1971, the Law Centre opened its doors for student and faculty use. A public grand opening would occur later.

The Early Days

“The Dean, faculty members and Students of the Faculty of Law of the University of Alberta request the pleasure of your company at the Official Opening of the New Law Centre… on Thursday and Friday, May 4th and 5th, 1972,” reads an invitation card sent to invitees of the grand opening events.

At three o’clock on the afternoon of May 4, an official opening ceremony was held on the second floor of the brand new building. The ceremony featured participation from then Chief Justice of Alberta, the Hon. S. Bruce Smith; Eric McCuaig, QC, who was president of the Law Society of Alberta at the time; and professor Wilbur Fee Bowker, QC.

The university’s president Max Wyman said in a speech to attendees “... it is my personal hope that the present facility and our present faculty will bring to this campus the eminence that the study and development of the law so richly deserves.”

After the ceremony, attendees enjoyed guided tours of the state-of-the-art facilities. A special convocation for Honorary Degrees was also held on this day, and the first round of events concluded with a reception and dinner in Lister Hall, courtesy of the Law Society of Alberta and the Government of Alberta.

On May 5, the Faculty put the Law Centre to use by hosting a conference titled “Law in an Age of Protest.” The conference included symposiums from international legal experts who touched on the subjects of law and minority peoples, women and labour unrest.

The two-day grand opening concluded in style. At seven o’clock in the evening, a black-tie dinner and ball were held at Edmonton’s luxurious downtown Hotel MacDonald.

The End of an Era

During the last two decades of the 20th century, the Law Centre continued to experience many milestones, challenges and changes.

In 1988, the Faculty introduced a microcomputer lab in the Weir Library, which was a cutting-edge commodity in the late 1980s. In this state-of-the-art facility, students had access to 22 network computers.

In 1992 the Law Centre celebrated its 20th birthday, an anniversary that coincided with the 71st anniversary of the Faculty's first home on campus in the early 1920s. To commemorate these milestones, the Faculty held a two-day 20/20 anniversary celebration. Members of Alberta’s legal community were invited to a gala dinner and a conference titled “Law in a Changing World” that took place over the weekend of September 18, 1992. Notable attendees included former deans Wilbur Fee Bowker, QC; Frank D. Jones, QC; and the Honourable A. Anne McLellan who was acting dean at that time.

After this celebratory time, the Faculty was met with a budget cut, which was imposed on the entire university. This cut was part of a provincial initiative instated to eliminate a deficit experienced by Alberta in the early 1990s. The cuts sent shock waves through the Faculty — as it reduced its budget by over 15% — and in response to these cuts, in October 1995, the Faculty launched a fundraising campaign called Law Campaign 75.

Through donations, pledges and bequests, the Faculty raised over $3.5 million in just six months. Many of the proceeds were used to improve programming for law students — such as an enhanced moot court program and expanded scholarship opportunities — while some of the proceeds were devoted to enhancing the Law Centre’s physical space, which included an additional 3,000 square foot multi-use area with meeting and teaching spaces.

Campaign funds helped to support construction of the John V Decore Centre. This area included arbitration and mediation rooms that were used as a teaching space by the Faculty and could be leased to mediators, arbitrators and lawyers.

A large contribution during Law Campaign 75 was gifted by the McLean family. Their donation saw the construction of the Brenda and David McLean reading room, which was created in light of the closure of an outside courtyard accessible from the third floor of the Weir Library. The room — which is still in use today — is a peaceful study space and computer area for law students.

Another large gift (which was not part of Law Campaign 75) was bestowed on the Faculty in 1998 when alumni and philanthropist Eldon Foote, 48’ LLB — whose name famously adorns South Campus’s Foote Field — made a generous $300,000 donation. This gift allowed the Faculty to give the Law Centre’s moot courtroom a much-needed renovation and to enhance the moot program itself.

It should also be noted that over the years, many law firms have supported classroom improvements. When walking the halls of the Law Centre, one can see these donors’ names adorning classrooms in acknowledgment of their generous support.

A New Millenia

The 2000s were the beginning of a new and exciting time for the Faculty.

In 2001, a Donor Wall was dedicated to those who contributed $1,000 or more to Law Campaign 75. A dedication ceremony included speeches from the Hon. Anne McLellan, university president Roderick Fraser, and Law Campaign 75 co-chairs David McLean; Gary Campbell, QC; Roderick McLennan, QC; and Dean Lewis Klar. At this dedication, the McLeans were also publicly thanked.

In 2002, another tribute called the Builders Wall was dedicated to those who were leaders to the Faculty and its students’ well-being over the years such as deans, professors, lecturers, law librarians and fundraisers. Some notable names that appear on the wall include John Alexander Weir, K.C.; Wilbur Fee Bowker, QC; Roderick A. McLennan, Q.C.; and others.

A dedication ceremony for the Builders Wall was held on March 5, 2002, at McLennan Ross Hall. The ceremony was presided over by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin. In addition to faculty, staff, students and alumni, some of the original builders and engineers of the Law Centre were in attendance. The air of the ceremony was one of laughter and warmth, and according to an article written in a 2002 Canons of Constructions article, “the gathering in front of ‘The Wall’ was more akin to a family reunion than an official ceremony.”

An unexpected gift was bestowed upon the Faculty in 2005 when Law alumni Frank MacInnis, ʼ71 LLB, and his wife and fellow university alumna Beverly, graciously donated $2.5 million. MacInnis — who was then chairman and CEO of Fortune 500 company EMCOR Group Inc. — learned that the Faculty was outgrowing its physical space and was having to place some law classes in other parts of the campus.

Funds from the MacInnis donation were used to provide more learning space in the Law Centre. A portion of the first floor that was previously occupied by the law library was converted into what is known as the MacInnis Centre. In it, new seminar classrooms, a new moot courtroom, a student support centre and a space to support the Faculty’s graduate program were created.

"I thought moving law classes to different areas of campus would be a threat to the collegiality and community within the program. I truly appreciated the group socialization and the relationships that I developed in law school for a lifetime," said MacInnis in an article written by the Faculty in 2016.

In 2006, attention was turned to the Law Centre’s student lounge, “The Gavel.” Up until this time, the common area was an outlet for university food services or was run by contractors. The Faculty’s Dean at the time, David Percy, felt there was a need to make the space more friendly and vibrant. “Most importantly it had to serve decent coffee,” he said.

Percy and Vice Dean Wayne Renke petitioned the university to allow Steve McDiarmid — who they knew from Java Jive in the university’s HUB Mall — to set up a cafe in the space, which everyone now knows as Hello My Friend Cafe.

A staple of the Faculty, McDiarmid’s cafe is well-loved by students and faculty alike. In an Edmonton Journal article written in 2015, law professor Peter Sankoff said of Hello My Friend Cafe, “it is more than just a coffee shop. [McDiarmid’s] part of the place.”

The Law Centre Today

Over the course of its history, the Law Centre has undergone many changes designed to maximize the Faculty’s program delivery and enhance student experiences. These changes continue today, with the latest being an extensive renovation of the Gavel (funded by an anonymous donor) which will be unveiled in the coming months, concurrent with the 50th anniversary of the building.

“Constant improvement to the building ensures that the Law Centre today remains what it was always intended to be – an inviting and functional space where faculty members, staff and students can uniquely focus on providing or experiencing a top-quality legal education in a collegial and supportive environment,” said Dean Billingsley.

An alumna herself, Dean Billingsley knows first hand the significance of the building and summarizes it well: “The Law Centre is the heart and centre of the Faculty and a distinguished and vibrant campus landmark,” she said.

A special thank you to the following resources for making this article possible:

• The University of Alberta Archives

• Dean Barbara Billingsley

• David Percy, QC

• “A History of the Faculty of Law” by John M. Law and Roderick J. Wood

• “Builder’s Wall: 2002 Dedication” by Mona Chan, Canons of Construction 2002