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Sydney Dumaresq

B.Arch. 1969
Halifax, NS
September 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson


Well, architecture was always in our family and I never really thought about doing anything else. All through school, whenever I had a project to do, I always turned it around somehow so I could study a little architecture. And I just never wanted to do anything else.

So what, did you work in your dad’s office when you were a young kid before you decided to become an architect?

No, no I tried that, and he said I wouldn’t be any use to him at all without any education so I went out to do other things. Actually, Philip, my dad, arranged my first three summers when I was at McGill were spent on construction sites. One summer, as a carpenter’s apprentice, one summer as an electrician’s apprentice and one summer as a plumber’s apprentice. So that was very good experience.

[00:52:13]

And how did you happen to choose McGill?

I think we, Phil and I, chose McGill because he had a very smart guy working for him, who went on to be his partner, Mike Byrne.

Oh yeah.

And Mike had just come down from McGill. And I think Phil was influenced by that. So I think it was decided I should go to McGill.

So you- when did you enroll at McGill? What, about 1964 or ‘65?

’62, I think.

’62, okay.

Interestingly, I applied to McGill and they looked at my marks and said, “Well, your marks aren’t too bad, Dumaresq, but I guess you don’t have math in Nova Scotia. So if you’re prepared to work all summer and learn a little math, you can come to McGill”. So I actually had to take some courses that summer to upgrade my math to a level that McGill deemed appropriate.

[1:43:18]

But of course, the years you were there, like the ones I was there, it was very much part of the engineering school, wasn’t it?

Yes, yes, so math was important and I was glad I had taken those courses because I found that first year really, really difficult.

It’s a big break from high school.

Yeah.

Do you remember any of the professors? You might want to talk about them not necessarily in chronological or in any order that comes to mind.

Well, I would only talk about one and that would be Norbert Schoenauer, who was just a wonderful individual. We learned so much from him and we had the highest respect for him.

Interesting. How about some of the others?

I’d rather not talk about any of the others, to be perfectly honest!

You don’t have any comments to make either way?

No.

Okay, I respect your- How about some-?

We have a rule in our family: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

All right. That’s particularly true if you’re going to talk on camera! That in itself is worthy a comment, what you just said, but in terms of the quote and we’re talking about people that you associated or taught you, it’s a good comment to sum it up.

Yes.

It tells a lot. How about some of the classmates? Were there any of those that you became friends with or ended up keeping in touch with all these years?

Yes, I became really close friends with Stan Downey and Ted de Grey. And I see Stan every once in a while and we talk on the phone once in a while but we’ve kind of lost track of Ted. He’s moved out west and we’ve tried to maintain contact but unsuccessfully.

[3:21:27]

We did an interview with Stan Downey

Yes.

One of the first interviews. Lovely man. He and his wife…

Patricia

Yeah, Patricia. We had dinner with them at the centennial in ’96. They came to town. He was a friend of I guess Bruce Anderson as well.

Yes.

Because Stan, he actually taught in the school for a couple of years.

Oh, he was a tremendous guy. Did anybody tell you the story about Stan in the workshop?

No, I’d like to hear it though.

Well, Stan came down from the Prairies to study architecture in the big city. And I guess early in his career at McGill, they took him down to the workshop and they were showing him the band saws and the planers and all this. And Stan took one look around, looked the professor right in the eye and said, “I didn’t come all the way from the Prairies to learn how to be a God damn carpenter”. And he walked out and slammed the door and never came back! And he was so good in all his other courses, they had to pass him but he never went back to the carpenter shop.

[4:19:22]

It’s interesting because we all have different capabilities as an architect and of course, the ones that are recognized are not necessarily the ones who do things on budget, but the people who ring all the design bells. But I was never much of a carpenter either. I mean I built that model that Stuart Wilson asked us to build and so forth.

I guess he had to do that, yeah.

And that was a real- it wasn’t a labour of love but I felt quite proud at the end in a lot of aspects. But I guess the subject that interested me the most was the History of Architecture. And I just found that it opened so many doors. It’s almost, you know, anything in life, and of course, you can never get enough of it. And I found Peter Collins very good but other people felt differently. So any other- so Stan Downey, you keep in touch with. And were there any particular courses there that you remember that you enjoyed more or had an influence on your life? How about carpentry?

No, no, no, no. I remember nude drawing, which I was absolutely hopeless at! I could not master that. And I flunked the first course miserably. So then they moved me to the second course but I had to do the first course so then I had two nude drawing courses a week, neither of which I could do anything with.

Most people wouldn’t consider that a failure, having two nudes.

They finally kicked me out and told me I was going to get a pass.

I remember the first time- I was older so it didn’t mean as much to me, although it still meant a hell of a lot to me, we had these drawing classes. And they were always just about two o’clock in the afternoon and eventually, they came to McConnell Engineering Building, where we went. And a lot of us used to skip the classes knowing that Tondino, Gerry Tondino was teaching, we would get through. And we were all going off to play hockey. And then all of a sudden, one day, around one o’clock, we were standing in the lobby and this girl came in and she said, “Do you know where the studio is for the drawings. And we said, “What do you mean?” Well, she said, “I’m a model today for the drawing studio”.

You dropped off your hockey bag quick!

And the ones who- I always recall we had about five young men from Hong Kong. And the first time they saw this girl, they could hardly draw. I mean [unclear]. Anyhow, we will probably have to have this section of our interview censored. So what happened? When you finished in ’69…

Yes.

…You came back here. Did you come back to-?

I did. I came back here. And my dad had an engineering firm that he had started. He was an architect and an engineer. And it wasn’t doing much so I took over that firm and had a very happy situation because I could run my own firm but I could run to dad whenever I got in trouble. So that went along quite nicely.

[7:02:24]

So this firm- and you’ve had a practice here in Halifax ever since then.

Yes.

So it’s thirty years.

That’s right, thirty years this year.

Thirty years this year. Have you enjoyed it?

Yes!

Good.

Yeah, I have. There’ve been a few rough years. But it’s so satisfying to draw a picture of something and then work out the problems as it gets built and then drive by it for years and think that, you know, “That’s my building!”

That’s right. Yeah, it’s- we all I guess feel the same way. A few of us- in fact, in my case, we did a lot of buildings when I with Derek. I don’t know whether you knew Derek Drummond? He was probably-

Yes, sure, he taught at the school for a while.

I’m just trying to think in terms of the other interests that you have. Since you’re living in the Maritimes, of course, you do sail.

Yes.

And are you a competitive sailor or-?

Just pleasure. One of the best things I did in Montreal was marry Sandy.

Is she from Montreal?

Yes, Sandy was at McGill at the time.

Was she a resident of Montreal at the time?

Yes, yes.

Okay. What was her family name?

Schlacter.

Schlacter, okay. Sometimes, I ask that because I know a lot of people in Montreal, having lived there most of my life.

Her father was in advertising. They lived in N.D.G.

[8:14:25]

So she ended up coming down here and has never regretted it.

Yes, that’s right. That’s right. And she had never been on a boat before. But she took very well to the boat. And then after awhile, five kids came along.

And they’ve taken very well to the boat too.

Yes, well, they didn’t have a big choice in the matter! So we’ve used the sailing as a family recreation, which precludes racing, which I’m not big on anyway. But we’ve done an awful lot of family cruising. We try to take one big cruise every summer with the kids.

And this was the summer for the Newfoundland trip.

That’s right.

Up the East Coast, yeah.

Yes.

And how long do you take? Two weeks on a boat or-?

No, this summer it was six weeks.

On one spell, you mean?

One spell. We were five days from Halifax to Red Bay, Labrador non-stop. And then we were about four weeks coming down the East Coast of Newfoundland and about a week to ten days bringing her home.

[9:05:23]

I have to ask you because I had the opportunity to spend one night, maybe almost two nights; I got off after one night. I found- and this boat, I couldn’ t tell you the actual type it was but it was tall and it was a beautiful boat. This was a couple of years ago. The fellow had bought it for about two hundred thousand dollars. And I can’t tell you the length. All I know is that he was about six foot four as I am and we both could stand up, which doesn’t say anything. But I spent one night on the boat and I didn’t want to spend another night on the boat. I just found I got claustrophobic.

Really?

I loved sailing; being out in the open and so forth but the idea of staying on the boat overnight was just something that didn’t appeal to me.

Was it bouncing around?

Not bouncing around, I just found it too confined. So anyhow, everybody has a different [unclear]

Oh yeah, I just love it.

But that’s amazing, six weeks!

The nicest thing in the world is waking up on the boat in the morning. It’s fabulous. I don’t know, I could have done it for the rest of the year but I had to come back.

So you always have to get close enough to the shore to find a cove or something to anchor, I guess, eh?

If you’re going to anchor. Or, our five days to Red Bay, that was non-stop, twenty-four hours.

So you sailed all through the night?

Yup.

So everybody took their turn, I guess.

Yeah, that’s right. Someone always have to be on watch driving and looking out for icebergs and big ships.

Absolutely amazing!

Fabulous. It’s fabulous!

[10:22:03]

You’re in the right area of the world to do that.

Oh, we’re so lucky here! We could go to Maine but we don’t because there’s too many people, but we have the Saint-John River and Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island and the Magdalene Islands and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

Do you do any fishing off the boat?

No, no, I’ve had very bad luck.

I know we’re away from the subject temporarily, but I often thought when you’re going along at seven knots or whatever you travel at, I mean that’s a good trolling speed. Nobody fishes off a boat. I guess they do sometimes when they’ re anchored, eh?

Yeah.

Yeah. Somehow, they don’t seem to mix.

No they don’t. Some sailors fish, but it’s pretty casual.

[10:59:03]

But I should also say that I enjoyed all my years at McGill. Even though I found some of the professors less than inspiring, I found the love of my life at McGill. And I took a lot of other courses, particularly in sixth year when I really felt that I had learned all McGill was going to teach me but I had to hang around to get the ticket, I took and had been taking psychology courses from the psych department and economics from the economics department. And I really took advantage of a lot of the other things at McGill so it made particularly the tedium of the sixth year go quickly.

Yeah. You mentioned sketching and Sketching School and the Survey School.

Oh, and Survey School! Oh my gosh!

You have fond memories of those?

Oh yes! Well, first of all, there was survey- the survey class.

Yeah.

And the survey class was eleven o’clock on Friday mornings, which was a definite problem because if you wanted a good seat at the Mansfield Tavern, you had to be there by eleven o’clock. So I went through the whole year without going to a single survey course. And when I got to the exam, I couldn’ t even understand the questions let alone think about plausible answers. So I got thirty out of a hundred in surveying, which was immediately followed by Survey School. So I learned a little bit in the field, some of the stuff I had missed in the course but not a lot.

[12:25:08]

That Survey School was quite an experience.

Oh my God! That was like the Army! I always remember you had to be there at eight o’clock in the morning, and the last ten guys were always late. It didn’ t matter if it was ten to eight or ten after eight, the last ten guys were late on principle.

Yes. And if I remember correctly, you had to make the- not the grid but, I mean, the loop meet in the end.

Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. It had to close.

And there was always some [unclear]

That’s right! That’s right!

In my days, it was up at- I’m trying to remember, it was the same place up near Joliette there.

Yeah.

And we all stayed in an old beaten up hotel, which was- they got a good deal there only because it was before the season.

No one else would stay there! There was another guy, Gerry Millman, who bombed out after second year. And he was so funny. But Gerry had this survey book and it was just immaculate. Every letter looked like it was drawn by Michelangelo and every number. In mine, it looked like some chicken who walked across it with dirty feet!

[13:24:28]

One last question of trivia. Do you remember the name of the pr- was it Arcand?

Who’s that?

Who was the professor in charge of the- who taught you surveying?

I wouldn’t know. I didn’t go to any classes. I’m surprised I passed, you know, I got thirty out of a hundred in surveying and I bombed both freehand drawing courses!

Well the theory was, I guess, on the principle that you would never be practicing surveying, but you ended up working in the engineering part of your father’s business.

That’s right!

How about Sketching School. That was probably a pleasant experience.

I loved Sketching School but that was the old McGill sink-or-swim method. I arrived at Sketching School and I’d never drawn a damn thing in my life. I don’ t know how I got into architectural school. And they said, “Okay boys. You got two or three weeks and you’re going to come back with ten figure studies, which I was hopeless at, and ten landscapes and ten of this and ten of that. Go to it.” Not a word of instruction about-

But you went away with a group did you not? Sketching School?

Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

And you were probably with Stuart Wilson or Gordon Webber.

Can’t remember.

Oh okay. Or Gerry Tondino. And there were two of those sessions and the good part about it, yeah, is in the evening when you were judged.

Yeah!

I remember it was very difficult because I wasn’t- I didn’t have a-. I developed a facility for drawing, but at that time it didn’t come natural to me. And you would always- you know, the professors would sit around, we’d all have a beer and we’d talk about the various drawings. It wasn’t a course that you- you always succeeded at, because you always got through. It was like surveying.

Yes. But it was a great help to me because I went into it knowing nothing and I actually discovered I could draw. I came out of it with some half-decent drawings, some of which are still on my bathroom wall, framed!

[15:06:14]

The interesting thing about that part of architecture is there are a lot of architects who have been in practice thirty years, as you have been, and who sketch regularly. And some of them continue and then they actually, as they sort of wind down their practice, they develop it as a real hobby. And the gentleman I interviewed yesterday, Derek Drummond, draws and sketches everywhere he goes in ink and watercolour and all the rest. There are a lot of them who do that.

Yeah.

I have other interests in life. I don’t sketch. But anyhow.

I don’t do that but I do one freehand drawing every year, which becomes my Christmas card.

Oh.

And I’ve ac-

Something for everybody to look forward to.

Yeah, that’s right! That’s right. And our practice has shrunk over the years, as I’m sure several have, and I’ve gotten back into the habit of doing my own perspectives, which I’ve found quite satisfying.

Any regrets or any- you’ve been happy?

No, I’ve had a ball.

You’ve had a happy life.

I would do it all again. I’d even go back to McGill.

And see whether you still dislike doing that or opinionize some of the others! Well thank you very much.

It’s a pleasure.

[16:05:00]

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