By Eric Lam
When two technicians discovered a series of secret passageways beneath what is now known as Kerr Hall, the last thing they expected to find was human remains. Exploring the dusty underground tunnels, the two men came upon a room that had been locked for at least as long as the tunnels had been sealed. As they cracked open the door, decades of history blew by their faces like so many specks of dust.
But all they could see inside was a single chair, standing in the middle of a dark, windowless room.
As they surveyed the enclosure, the men began finding bones. As they collected the fragments, they realized with a growing sense of horror that the bones were part of a human skeleton, a poor soul trapped underground for who knows how long. The two decided to rebury the bones, vowing never to reveal the final resting place of the unidentified remains.
To this day, there are no records of the bones’ origins or where they were buried, and no one knows what ghosts continue to haunt the corridors of Howard Kerr Hall, Ryerson’s most ancient and historic building. And soon, the walls themselves may be gone, leveled under the irrepressible force of a wrecking ball.
“Kerr Hall is old,” Ryerson President Sheldon Levy said earlier this year. “One of the most beautiful parts of our campus is the quad and we have a fortress around it called Kerr Hall.” When members of the student media asked him if he wanted to tear down the hall, he said “absolutely.”
Still, there is something profound about the place. Kerr Hall is more than just asbestos-lined ceilings, off-yellow lockers and the odd ghost story. Its walls have watched as generations of graduating students pass through its gates. They’ve absorbed the sounds of cricket bats and slow, droning ceremonial bagpipes.
But even before there was a Ryerson University, Kerr Hall had a history all to its own. It is a history forged in the fires of the Second World War and forever intertwined with the dreams of those who saw Ryerson as more than a teachers college.
In 1850, Kerr Hall was nothing more than a swamp bounded by a creek and nearby cattle pastures. As Reverend Egerton Ryerson looked out on the property he had just purchased for 4,500 pounds, he could likely see the walls of his school’s new home rising from the soggy ground, soon to revolutionize the education service in Ontario.
When construction finished in 1852, the Upper Canada Normal School opened for business. A place for teachers to learn their craft, the school included model elementary schools for boys and girls.
After Ryerson died in 1882, the Normal School continued to produce teachers for the province’s schools. But things changed in 1941, when the spectre of the Second World War reached Gould Street.
On what was likely a hot July day in 1941, Ryerson’s Normal School opened its doors to Canada’s military. The classrooms and hallways of the school were converted to dormitories, barracks and drill halls, while temporary buildings, described as “Asbestos-lined shacks,” sprung up all across the campus. The school itself was renamed the No. 6 Initial Training Centre for the Royal Canadian Air Force, where pilots would learn the basics before they got anywhere close to an aircraft.
The Initial Training School’s 10-week course was one of the first steps in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP), which was one of Canada’s most significant contributions to the war effort. The program, launched in April 1940, ultimately produced almost 50,000 pilots, as well as air navigators, bombers, wireless operators and ground crew. But they all started at initial training centres like the one at Ryerson.
Trainees at Ryerson went through basic ground school, including navigation, flight techniques, mathematics and mechanical engineering. Those that were most successful on the “thankless” Link trainer, a cantankerous wooden flight simulator, went to flight school.
From there, many went off to fight.
Meanwhile, Howard Hillen Kerr, an Ontario bureaucrat, had been quietly planning for the end of the war. St. James Square, which would one day bear his name, was to be ground zero for his plans.
Howard Kerr moved into Egerton Ryerson’s old office at St. James Square in 1944, where the began planning the next phase of the school’s history. As wounded soldiers started to come home, Kerr offered them a means to reintegrate into society, in the very building that some of them trained in.
By 1948, the school had pumped out more than 16,500 graduates in 80 courses from woodworking and graphic arts to watchmaking, gem setting, piano tuning and sign painting. At its peak, more than 6,100 students took reintegration classes at Ryerson.
Kerr dreamed of making Ryerson the “MIT of Canada” through the establishment of technical schools, and when the province finally agreed to the idea in 1946, Toronto’s school would be the only multi-purpose school.
“They never knew what to do with us,” said Charlotte Broome, a retired library technician who worked at Ryerson for 34 years.
“When people talk about universities in Toronto they always think about U of T,” she said. “Of course we’re much younger than U of T, we’re the second oldest.
“But it’s had a different history and that difference is important.”
Ryerson’s established history began in September 1948, when Kerr welcomed the first 250 students to the Ryerson Institute of Technology. Tuition was $25, and most courses were vocational. RIT courses were meant to shorten apprenticeships from six or seven years to two to meet post-war needs.
“The courses were very professional, very practical. We weren’t training doctors and lawyers,” Broome said. “Funny thing is, now the other universities and colleges are looking towards vocational programs.”
In many ways, the war gave RIT its rebirth. By 1953, enrollment had jumped to about 1,300. Students and faculty clamoured for expansion at St. James Square. “The story goes that it was often possible for one student to take in two lectures simultaneously,” wrote one columnist in 1962.
From 1956 to 1963, Kerr supervised demolition of the historic Normal School environs and construction on the three units of the quadrangle building that would one day bear his name: Kerr Hall.
All that remains of Ryerson’s pre-history is the façade of the Normal School, which serves as the entrance to the Ryerson Athletic Centre. Students pass by it every day, but few if any stop to notice its significance.
“That square has a number of lives,” Broome said.
But Kerr Hall may have finally run out of lives.
Once considered the needed expansion of a burgeoning school, Kerr Hall now stands in the way of Ryerson’s continued growth. The voices of Ryerson’s past still live in the walls of Kerr Hall, but the powers that be can see no further than its antiquated elevators and inaccessible upper floors.
Bruce Kuwabara, the architect of Sheldon Levy’s Master Plan, envisions Kerr Hall “turned inside out,” as he told the Eyeopener last year.
“Kerr Hall has the visual presence of the Pentagon,” he said. “Sometimes to add you have to subtract.”
However, the school’s Master Plan has until March 2008 at the earliest to outline the cost and extent of any revitalization project.
“It’s always had to fight to prove it’s a good spot,” Broome said. She didn’t say whether she meant Kerr Hall or Ryerson as a whole, but in truth her words apply to both.
For now, Kerr Hall remains a part of Ryerson. Fresh-faced students still enter its halls and leave through its gates as grown men and women. It will watch over Ryerson’s legacy until the school’s administrators decide otherwise.
And the ghosts of Ryerson’s history will be watching, too.