Building profile: University College

For our inaugural building profile, we are featuring University College at the University of Toronto (Toronto, ON), by Frederic Cumberland and William Storm, 1856-1859.

From left to right: 1) University College under construction, 1857. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library. 2) University College under construction c. 1857. Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives. 3) University College, c. 1857. Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives.

This is one of the most iconic nineteenth-century buildings on what is now St. George Campus, but it also has significance to the study of the architectural history of Canada at the University of Toronto.


Founded in 1853, University College was established as a non-denominational institution, at a time when Christian colleges dominated higher education.[1] This was a bold decision that was to be reinforced by a bold design by the prominent local firm of Cumberland and Storm. Before it was designed, Cumberland toured Europe to seek out and study the latest trends in architecture first hand; Storm traveled to Europe in 1857 and picked up ideas that helped in the completion of the building then underway.[2] As a result, University College presents an eclectic blend of 19th-century trends in architecture, including Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival—the latter particularly in its elevation and massing, which closely resembles the popular University Museum at Oxford (UK) of 1855 (also an influence on the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa) by Thomas Deane and Benjamin Woodward.

From left to right: 1) University College, 1885. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library. 2) University Museum, Oxford (UK). Photo: Jessica Mace. 3) Postcard of Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, c. 1910. Courtesy of the the Toronto Public Library.

Although University College suffered a major fire in 1890, it was meticulously restored by Toronto architect D.B. Dick between 1890 and 1892.[3]

University College, after the fire of February 14, 1890. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library

Given its prominence as an institute of higher learning but also generally in the city of Toronto, many early photographs survive, as do many original drawings and plans. If you’re interested, the J.C.B. and E.C. Horwood collection at the Archives of Ontario holds no less than 737 original architectural drawings! Reiterating its prominence is the fact that, since 1968, University College has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada.[4]

The study of Canadian architecture at UofT

While the broad strokes of the building listed above are well known, what is perhaps less well known is that this is closely related to the study of Canadian architecture and the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto. In fact, the most comprehensive architectural monograph on the building was assembled by Professor Emeritus Douglas S. Richardson (A not unsightly building: University College and its history, Oakville: Mosaic Press for University College, 1990).

Douglas S. Richardson with J.M.S. Careless, G.M. Craig, and Peter Heyworth, A not unsightly building: University College and its history, Oakville: Mosaic Press for University College, 1990.

Following in the footsteps of Eric Arthur, in his own research and in his teachings, Richardson was a staunch advocate for the study of architecture in Canada. He published frequently on many aspects of nineteenth-century architectural history Canada, is known as a pioneer in the field, and passed his love of architecture in Canada on to generations of students. Since his retirement well over a decade ago, however, the topic has been infrequently offered. This is one of the main reasons that the Canada Constructed initiative was launched; to provide course offerings in the study of architecture in Canada and to promote an interest and delight in the built environment that surrounds us.

This is also why our first building spotlight was chosen, as a tribute to the department’s great champion of the study of the architecture in Canada… but with this year’s establishment of Canada Constructed, we certainly hope not its last.

University College, present day. Photos: Jessica Mace

[1] University of Toronto, “Our history,” University College,, accessed October 20, 2020.

[2] Shirley G. Morriss, “STORM, WILLIAM GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 20, 2020,

[3] Robert Hill, “David Brash Dick,” Biographical dictionary of architects in Canada, 1800-1950,, accessed October 20, 2020.

[4] Parks Canada directory of federal heritage designations, “University College National Historic Site of Canada,” Parks Canada, accessed October 20, 2020.

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