Old St. Stephen’s College sits on the grounds of the University of Alberta near the bus loop. Did you know that it is the oldest building on campus? Designed in the early 1900s by Herbert A. Magoon, the building is a collegiate Gothic style that can be seen among early British universities. The college emulates a castle-like appearance and there are very few other examples like this in Alberta or even western Canada.
Over a century has passed since St. Stephen’s was constructed and the elm trees that were planted during the college’s early years have now grown to almost completely cover the building’s façade. This is a testimony of its endurance and the college’s longevity continues to contribute to its interesting history. This post will look at the unique construction of this structure and detail the notable features that make the Old St Stephen’s College a significant historic resource.
The construction of Alberta College South, as the building was first known, began in 1910 on the University of Alberta campus and welcomed 41 theology students the following year. The college first functioned as a non-denominational theological school and co-ed residence, offering the basics in biblical scholarship and trained students to become ministers. Church history, biblical languages, systematic theology and homiletics are just some of the courses that were available. Within a decade of the school’s opening, the theological program began to attract students from all over Canada and other parts of the world.
By the early 1900s, Edmonton was home to Alberta College South, a seminary of the Methodist Church, and a Presbyterian instructional college known as Robertson College. In 1925, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches merged, forming the United Church of Canada. Around this time, the Government of Canada passed the United Church of Canada Act, declaring there to be an amalgamation when two or more colleges doing the same classwork were situated in the same locality. The outcome of this had the Robertson College relocate to Alberta College South and the institution was renamed the United Theological College. Two separate boards remained, one for the Methodist church and one for Robertson College, until 1927 when the two boards united and settled on the name St. Stephen’s College.
A new building was built immediately south of the original building in 1952. Old St. Stephen’s College (as it was henceforth called) continued to be used as a student dormitory, while the new St. Stephen’s College held classrooms and offices. By the 1970s, there was an increase in student housing around the university area and less students were choosing to reside at the college. Within a few years, Old St. Stephen’s was vacant and in danger of becoming a parking lot, until considerable protest was mounted by members of the public. Demolition was averted in 1979 when the Government of Alberta leased the property from St. Stephen’s College as office space for the Historical Resources Division of Alberta Culture. The building is now owned by the Government of Alberta and houses many employees of the Heritage Division. This past September, we celebrated 35 years of residency in the historic building.
Old St. Stephen’s College was designed by one of Edmonton’s first architects, Herbert A. Magoon. In the early 1900s, Magoon moved to Western Canada where there was an increasing amount of city development. He eventually settled in Edmonton and quickly became one of the city’s most reputable architects. Magoon was involved in designing a number of buildings that are now Alberta historic resources, including the Knox Presbyterian Church, the Metals Building, the H.V. Shaw Building in Edmonton and the Old Town Hall in Wainwright. A number of Magoon’s designs are of similar style to buildings found in Chicago, where he worked and studied architecture, indicating that he was influenced from his time spent there.
In the spring of 1910, H. A. Magoon was commissioned to design the future St. Stephen’s College. St. Stephen’s was inspired by the architectural style that was popular in Europe in the early twentieth century. The design of the building is consistent with the collegiate gothic style that was common to many colleges and universities built across North America during this time. This design was favoured because it emulated a British tradition found among some early universities. There are subsequent buildings on campus that are in line with the appearance of St. Stephen’s, including the Rutherford Library and St. Joseph’s College.
The exterior’s notable features are its red brick veneer, octagonal towers and battlemented fortifications, which give the structure a castle-like appearance. The overall design of the building fit with the vision of the principal to-be of Alberta South College, John Henry Riddell. Riddell wanted a building that would “stand out, conspicuous against the horizon…appearing so clearly…as to challenge every passer-by.” The resulting structure was an impressive brick building that has drawn comparison to St. James’s Palace in London.
The interior of Old St. Stephen’s has a number of distinguishing features that make the building unique, such as an entrance foyer with oak detailing, a fireplace in the former Dean’s office, a vault and the remnants of a gymnasium on the top floor. When the building was first constructed, it featured 65 bedrooms, a 300 person capacity assembly hall, faculty residences and a dining hall. In 1935, a classroom was converted into a chapel with stained glass windows, which still remains in the north wing of the first floor. The chapel contains the original wooden pews and pulpit that were crafted by a former St. Stephen’s student.
This is the oldest building to be constructed on the grounds of the University of Alberta, the province’s first post-secondary institution. Although separate from the University, the college has become integrated into the campus over the past century and has served as a recognized landmark in the university area. Old St. Stephen’s is an example that historic buildings need not necessarily be demolished, but they can successfully be reused, thus continuing the preservation of Alberta’s built heritage.
Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer
Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Old St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).
Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950. “Magoon, Herbert Alton.” Accessed January 9, 2015.
Designation File # 132, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.
“Old St. Stephen’s College.” Alberta Past 2, no. 2 (August 1986): 1.
Simonson, Gayle. Ever-Widening Circles: A History of St. Stephen’s College. Edmonton, Canada: St. Stephen’s College, 2008.
St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton: Report #428. Alberta Culture, Historical Resources Division, Historic Sites Service, 1979.
University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).