By Chieu Luu Luong
The heavens have opened on a cold Wednesday afternoon in mid-January. High winds and heavy snow are slowly but surely paralyzing Southern Ontario. In Toronto, businesses and schools are closing early, people frantically try to rush home to their families. Hotels have no vacancies, shelters are full, and some streets are closed because the snow is too deep to drive through.
In the midst of the chaos, on a little street in the heart of downtown Toronto, a group of about 10 young men are running around in the -23 degree weather wearing nothing but their boxer shorts.
Indeed this is an unusual thing to do, but then again, these guys live in an unusual place — O’Keefe House.
Situated on the corner of Bond and Gould streets, beside the building that will soon become the new student centre, O’Keefe House stands to relative obscurity. Day after day, students walk past 137 Bond Street, rushing to and from class, oblivious to the house’s history or the school spirit that it has fostered since it became a part of Ryerson in 1963. When it comes to Ryerson, the term “school spirit” is almost unknown. As a commuter campus, student participation in university events has traditionally been depressingly low. Many students leave after their classes to go home, to work, or to meet other obligations they have outside of school. But the students who live in O’Keefe House are an exception. Through participation in university intramural sports, charity work around the community, and other activities, O’Keefe House residents create a large part of the little school spirit that Ryerson has. Yet their contribution to the community and the university’s reputation goes unrecognized by the majority of Ryerson students — many don’t even know that O’Keefe House is a student residence.
By looking at its old, worn, yellow bricks and Victorian style design, it’s easy to tell that the house has been around for many decades. O’Keefe, which is actually 144 years old and a historical building, is in many ways the strongest sources of tradition that Ryerson has.
Built in 1855 by a prosperous dry goods importer named William Mathers, the house was purchased by Eugene O’Keefe (after whom the house is named), owner of the famous O’Keefe Brewery built at Victoria and Gould streets in 1879. O’Keefe spent 10 years making extensive renovations to the house, before he moved into it in 1889. He lived there for 24 years, until his death in 1913.
In the years following his death, the house was used as a rooming house and then became the headquarters of several labour groups including the Canadian Congress of Labour, the United Mine Workers, and the Canadian Railroad Employees. It later became the main offices of Longman’s Publishing.
In 1963, Ryerson acquired the house and the buildings of the old O’Keefe brewery for $3.5 million. The brewery’s warehouse became the Photo Arts building, the bottling plant became the business building, and Eugene O’Keefe’s former home became an all-male student residence named Bond House, playing home to 48 men on four floors.
Today, O’Keefe House (as it was renamed in 1978) is a co-ed residence, housing 33 students on three floors. The basement is a common area, consisting of two living rooms, a kitchen, and a laundry room.
The first things you’ll notice when you enter the house through its back door are the memorabilia of years passed. Pictures of previous O’Keefe House residents and intramural sports teams hang on all of the cracked, cream-coloured walls that need repainting. By standing in the front lobby, you can hear the sound of footsteps going up and down the green carpeted stairs, and the faint sound of voices through the walls. A trophy case displays the awards that the residents of the house have won in Ryerson intramural sports.
“We have (an intramural) team in pretty much every sport,” says Jacky Fan, a third-year architecture student and senior resident at O’Keefe House. In the past year, the O’Keefe House “Brewers” have placed first in intramural flag football and ice hockey. While most Ryerson students are indifferent to intramurals, they are an important part of the O’Keefe House tradition.
“When we first moved in, we learned about all the awards that the people who lived here before us had won,” says Jason Vanstone, a first-year dance student. “We’re trying to match or beat their record.”
But O’Keefe House residents contribute a lot more to university life besides playing intramural sports.
“Their students take part in a number of charity fundraising events,” says Ted Brock, the senior don at O’Keefe House and its longest resident — he’s lived there since it became a residence 36 years ago. “Every year, they help out on ‘Ernie dog days,’ when Ernie (the hotdog vendor in front of Jorgenson Hall) donates all the proceeds he makes on that day to a special bursary fund,” Brock says. Other charity work includes participating in RyeSAC’s annual “Shine-o-Rama,” a shoe-shining event to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis, and helping to feed the homeless over the holidays. O’Keefe House has also been reaching out to the community around Ryerson. Every winter they shovel the snow in front of Ronald McDonald House on Gerrard Street.
An outgoing attitutde is what Brock looks for when deciding who will live in the house. Each year, the Ryerson housing department gets between 60 and 70 applications for O’Keefe House, but only 24 students are admitted. Brock says the selection process isn’t difficult. “I look for active people, who are involved in sports, charity, and were on the student council in their high school,” says Brock. “The odd applicant will write a letter, and if they’re really smart they’ll come to see the house during the summer. If I like them when I meet them then, I’ll accept them right away.”
It takes a particular type of person to live in O’Keefe House. Unlike Ryerson’s other residences, Pitman Hall and the International Living Learning Centre (ILLC), where students have private bathrooms, all but three students in O’Keefe House have to share a room with one or two roommates, giving them little privacy.
Bathrooms are also shared, and students have to buy and cook their own food, whereas residents of Pitman Hall and ILLC are on food plans.
Since the house isn’t as modern as the other residences (Pitman Hall was built in 1991 and the ILLC was a hotel that Ryerson purchased in 1995), students in O’Keefe House pay less rent. Pitman Hall and ILLC residents pay more than $6,000 in rent for eight months. Most of the students in O’Keefe House pay $2,781 in rent for the same period.
“O’Keefe House doesn’t have a cafeteria and the students don’t get semiprivate or private bathrooms,” says Linda Grayson, v.p. administration and student affairs. “But there’s a great demand from students who want to live there, and we want to give students the option to live in a different kind of environment.”
“Everyone here is really close, because there are so many of us in such a small house,” Vanstone says. “You get to know each other in a very short time.”
But living in O’Keefe House has its disadvantages. “There is only one shower on each floor, so sometimes we have to wait in line to use it,” he says. “It’s also hard to get privacy, because people are always walking in and out of other’s rooms.”
Mandy Moondi, a first-year technical theatre student, says she like living in O’Keefe House because it’s so small. “It has a homey atmosphere that the other residences don’t have, because we have to share so many things.”
The residents get even closer with in-house parties and events like the annual underwear gala tournament “Each room is responsible for designing a hole anywhere in the house,” explains Fan. “We also have to make our own putters and balls. The guys usually wear boxers and the girls put their underwear on over a T-shirt. It’s a really fun event.”
Brock can remember a time when team spirit was not a part of O’Keefe House.
“When we first opened, there were no activities,” he says. “This was just another place to live.”
The O’Keefe House that stands today is very different from the Bond House residence that opened in 1963. For the first few years of its operation, women were not even allowed in the house. “A guy was evicted in the first year for having a girl in his room,” he says. “The students weren’t even allowed to have food in their rooms,” says Brock. “They had to eat at Oakham House, where they had to wear a suit and tie.”
Keeping O’Keefe House operating as a residence costs the university little money. “The house if self-supporting,” says Liza Nassim, Ryerson’s housing manager.
“The money that the residents pay in rent is the money that is used to make renovations,” she says. O’Keefe House alumni also play a large role in the preservation of the house — in the summer of 1998, three of them donated $10,000 toward a new kitchen.
Those who have lived, and currently live in O’Keefe, feel passionately about it and have fought to ensure that it remains a student residence for years to come. In the late 1980s, rumours that O’Keefe House would be converted into part of a new student centre sparked the residents to launch the “Save O’Keefe House” campaign. In 1994, Ryerson granted the residents’ wish, promising that O’Keefe House would not be part of a student centre.
Although their contributions to university life remain largely unappreciated by Ryerson students, the university’s administration recognized the importance of school spirit that O’Keefe House generates around campus. “I would love it if Ryerson could buy more houses that could be used as residences like O’Keefe House,” says Grayson. “But there is so little funding, we just don’t have the money to buy and operate more places like it.”
When compared to the 14,000 students who attend Ryerson, the school spirit of 33 students seems rather insignificant. But it is needed by a university where apathy seems to be the general feeing of its students toward university activities.
“When we’re doing our charity work, we’re representing O’Keefe House, but we’re also representing Ryerson,” says Vanstone. “I’m not saying that we’re the only people who have school spirit, there are other people who show it too.” O’Keefe House, by participating in intramurals, doing charity work, and other things, like cheering for the Rams basketball team in their recent playoffs, is playing an important role at Ryerson. On a campus where school spirit is virtually nonexistent the people of O’Keefe House create an invaluable tradition of involvement and pride.