James Girvan

B.Arch. 1952
Halifax, NS
September 1999
Interview by Jim Donaldson

One of the first questions that’s always asked, of course is “Why did you choose McGill?” And I think if I have to say, I didn’t really choose McGill because McGill chose me. And therein lies a story, I suppose, because back when I graduated high school, 1944, it was sort of assumed that I would go to college. And the Maritimes, as you know, is very rich with all sorts of universities. There’s Dalhousie in Halifax and there’s Acadia in Wolfville and St.FX in Antigonish, but there was Mount Allison University in Sackville, which was only eleven miles away from Amherst, where I grew up. And it was just sort of assumed that I would go to university there. So in the fall of 1944, I went to Mount Allison and without much thought as to what faculty I would enter, they said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I thought that one thing that I would really like to do is build bridges. If you’re going to build bridges, you’ re going to be an engineer. So I entered the engineering faculty. And in those days, the first three years of your engineering training was done at a junior college like Mount Allison and then you came to Halifax to Tech and you specialized to become a mechanical engineer, electrical engineer or soils engineer or whatever. But they told me when I registered that instead of a three-year course, if I took a four-year course, in the fourth year, I would get a Bachelor of Science degree as well. And if I didn’t continue my engineering studies, at least I would have a degree behind me. So that’s what I did. I entered the four-year course. Now, we’re not talking McGill yet, but I have to say that in those days, Mount Allison was a very liberal university and you got a bit of everything. I was well into music in those days and I played piano and I played in the school band and I had the dance band the last year I was there. But I used to go to the conservatory of music. I used to practice in the practice rooms; used to sit in on lectures and be a part of the experience, although I had nothing to do with music and the faculty at all. And the same thing happened in the arts department. And the arts department at Mount A. in those days was a fairly good one and it was organized by- what’s his name? Group of Seven.


You’re not talking of Pratt or any of those people who practiced- you’re talking of painters?

Yes, painters. Um…

It will come to us.

In my last year there, one of the instructors that came in was Alex Colville. He had just returned from the war and it was his first year teaching. And I got to know him quite well. As a matter of fact, he came from Amherst too, where I came from, so we knew each other even before that time. But I used to do drawings. He would criticize them. I used to sit in in classes in the art gallery. [Audio glitch] I was going to be an engineer. [Audio glitch] “Why don’ t you [audio glitch]?” And you know, for the first time in my life, I had never thought of being an architect. And I wasn’t even quite sure what an architect did. So I started to think about it and the more I thought about it, I said, “Oh boy, that would be wonderful to be an architect”. So this was 1948 when I graduated from Mount Alison. And that was right after the war [audio glitch]. The universities were quite full [audio glitch]. One was McGill, of course, one was Toronto, and the other was University of Manitoba. And my recollection was that University of Manitoba taught architecture with emphasis on the design aspects whereas McGill taught architecture with emphasis on the structure aspects. And I wanted the design so my first choice was University of Manitoba. Anyway, I sent off my three applications. And in due course, I get a letter from McGill whereby [audio glitch] accepted and that is really how I came to go to McGill. But I must say, a few weeks after that, I got a letter from Manitoba which also accepted me but it was too late at that point so-.


So that would have been 1948 then, the fall of ’48?

The fall of ’48, I headed for Montreal, where I had never been in my life, and to McGill, this large, large institution to study architecture. But I’ll say one thing. Upon arrival- well, more than on arrival, the whole time there, it was like going back to high school rather than going to a university. The architectural faculty in my time, this is in 1948 to 1952, was in an old Victorian house on University Street, three storeys high, one storey in the basement. It was on the corner of Milton. And everything took place in that house. We had our lectures in that house, we did our design, we did our drawing in that house. We actually lived in that house. We were there morning, noon and night, through the night and on the weekend. And as far as the rest of the university was concerned, it didn’t exist. Life took place in that one Victorian house. And I think that’s one of the reasons that the classmates that I have there have been friends to this day because we were such a small group and so focused. And I should say firstly, the year before we arrived, the faculty of architecture graduated seven students. That’s all; there were seven architects that came out of McGill. That’s all. In our particular class, we were twenty-six, which shows we had gone from seven to twenty-six, which is a fair increase. And there were three distinct groups to our architectural class. The first one were people like myself who had come from engineer college to study architecture. The second group were French Canadians, who wanted to study architecture of course, but who wanted to do it in the English language. And the third group were the veterans who were returning from overseas and had the GI bill of rights and their way and tuition was paid for by the government. And a great number of them were American, because the Americans could come to Canada on their bill of rights and get a much better deal than they could in the States. So we had those three distinct groups, which after a while melded beautifully in the school and there was really no problems between them, but I just bring it up as what we found when we got to the School of Architecture.


So did you have to take- when you were there, did you have any credit for the degree that you got at Mount Allison at all or did you have to take a full five-? Was it five years then?

It was a five-year course at that point, yes. I had to take three of them but I was there for the fourth year as well. There was a little space in between. But, yes, to tell you the truth, I did get credits off in all my mathematics and my engineering and so forth but I was way behind in drawing and the art courses. So I had to take some of those, sometimes two in one year, to catch up in the artistic side of them.


Now who were- do you remember some of the professors who influenced your life?

Well, this goes back a few odd years but yes, yes, I remember. One of the ones I have fond memories for was a fellow by the name of Watson Balharrie. Watson Balharrie was an architect from Ottawa. He used to fly his own airplane. He used to fly from Ottawa to Montreal, give his lecture and fly back. And we thought, oh that was very romantic! But he taught us Specifications and it was so real. He would walk into a classroom and about talking about a specification but he said, “Well, on the job today, this happened”. And boy, our ears would pick up and that was a wonderful thing because it related what he was doing to the practitioner world outside. But then there was, you know, there were lots of others too. There was-

Was John Bland then- was he teaching?

John Bland was the director but John Bland, we really didn’t have much association with John Bland at that time. Hazen Sise taught us history of course, so we had that. And

I’m trying to think of some of the other courses.

Well, Arthur Lismer, of course…

Yeah, for drawing.

…taught drawing. And, you know it was, shame, I often look back at this and think about the time, but we had a classroom and it had a huge, huge blackboard. And Lismer would come in to give his one-hour lecture and he always had a piece of chalk in his hand and he would start drawing on the left-hand side. By the time the lecture was over, the whole blackboard was full of drawings right down to the end of it. And then it was somebody’s job to go up with an eraser and rub all of this off the wall. And I think I had to do this once or twice. I’ve often thought to this day, oh, and I’d love to have that chalkboard that he drew all those pictures on. But that was one. Stuart Wilson was there. We took Construction from Stuart. I always enjoyed Stuart. Stuart was a bit difficult to take. Some people didn’t, but I thoroughly enjoyed many lectures.


He was quite a young man then too. I mean I would imagine he must have been in his thirties I think, which of course, you were probably in your twenties.

Yeah, I was in my twenties. About ten years difference, I suppose, something like that.

We always think of those people as much older but in reality, they weren’ t that much older.


So he had a bit of an influence. You enjoyed his course then, I guess.

But you know, many years afterwards, at some of our reunions, we got to talking, the classmates, about who do you remember most while you were there and from whom did you learn the most. And Gordon Webber’s name came up more often. When we took course from Gordon, and Gordon taught design and we did little round circles and triangles and bits of colour and a piece of paper and we didn’t have a clue in the world what we were doing while we were there. But many years later, it came back to us that he was teaching us composition of design and of balance and of colour and of organization, which were words that, well, they were only words when he taught them but boy, they come back to haunt you after a while. And I think it was a wonderful grounding in architecture.


So you probably had him for a couple of years.

Oh, we had him for- he gave us a course each of the years that I was there. Yes, he did.

Were there any other people? Maybe other than professors. I know you had classmates that you would probably like to talk about because you have a very cohesive group, I guess. Do you recall some of the classmates that were there?

Of my classmates?


Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I think you know them very well. We- strange. The year after graduation, 1952, and there was a fundraiser of course. And somehow, I became responsible for our class in the fundraising for that year. And way back then, you had to write letters and you wrote letters to each one of the classmates and it was from me to you. It was a personal letter and the essence of it was to solicit funds for the alumni. Anyway, this went on for two or three years up until the first reunion. The first reunion came along, five-year reunion, and of course, I had been doing all this work with the fundraising so I became the one who would organize the reunions as well. And through this, I got to know the classmates very well. And I was sort of the pivotal point. If somebody wanted to speak to somebody else or wanted an address, I was the one that would impart that information to them. The other thing that happened is that our class was coherent and close together, but as they married, all the wives became great friends as well. And this drew the class together even more than the class themselves. So now we had the two, both sexes. And we had two ladies who graduated in our class. One married a dentist and one married- he was a businessman, both graduates of McGill. And they’ve come to our reunions every year since the first five years. They much preferred our reunions, to be a part of the architecture class, although they married one, than of their own faculty. So this has gone on.


Are there any specific, I guess, classmates that you remember more or a little bit better that you have sort of a personal relationship? I mean you saw more often or all about the same?

Well, in Montreal, it was quite a group. When I graduated, I won the Dunlop Scholarship. I won a medal from the RAIC as well. But this entitled me to go overseas for a year.


And I went overseas with one of my classmates called George Steber, who used to be a town planner in Montreal and then ended up town planning in Calgary and is now in all sorts of other adventures. But anyway, he and I became very good friends in this year that we traveled around Europe together. And there was another classmate at the same time by the name of Henri Labelle, who is second generation. His father was an architect, too. And he was there at the same time so we saw each other. And being in another country, of course, you tend to stick to the people that you know, so we got to know them pretty well. But all of the classmates, I think without exception, every single one, I know reasonably well, I’ve talked to, I’ve been at their house, they’ve visited us.


Do you still have your reunions?

Oh! Do we have our reunions! Every five years and they are well attended. One classmate, Ian Ferrier, is in Australia. He comes over from Australia to attend our reunions. We have a couple in the States who come up. We have one in Venezuela who comes up. We used to have one in Trinidad. He died, unfortunately. He used to come up to our reunions. As a matter of fact, at our fortieth reunion, it was a few years ago now, we said- I think Arthur Nichol was the one who made the proposal, he said, “You know, none of us are getting any younger and some of the classmates we’re losing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a reunion every two and a half years instead of every five years? And maybe it can be in Vancouver instead of Montreal”. “Yippee!” Everybody applauded and said, “That’s fine, we’ll do it!” Well, most people thought it will never happen. Two years ago, two and a half years ago, in Vancouver, the whole kit and caboodle. Everybody who would have been in Montreal ended up in Vancouver. We had a wonderful reunion!


We had four classmates in Vancouver, one in Calgary and the rest came from all over. So then we had our forty-fifth reunion in Montreal and our forty-seventh and a half reunion is going to be next spring. It’s going to be in Victoria. Letters have already gone back and forth whereby we’re soliciting and trying to find out who’s going.


That’s unusual because most classes don’t have that affinity for one another.

We have a tremendous affinity.

Speaking of that, my own and I know-

Well, I know, yours and Morty. And he’s often spoken about it. I think Morty’ s the one who organizes his class reunion and the difficulty he has to get a hold of them.

It’s almost if you’re pulling teeth because they always try to find an excuse for not being there or they say they’ll come and never turn up.

Well, it doesn’t- never happened with ours. I don’t know how big your class was because ours was twenty-six graduating. How many was yours?

Well, twenty-two. But you can’t coerce people. I mean if they want to come, they come. And when they do come, they enjoy it and they always say, “Let’s get together more regularly”. Anyhow.

Well the last one we had in Vancouver, of course, Harold Spence-Sales, which we all knew and took courses from and the rest. He is now living out there. And he came to our reunion just because he was our professor at the time and thoroughly enjoyed it. He must have been eighty-five, I suppose, at that point or something


That’s one person you never mentioned. I’d forgotten about Harold Spence-Sales and how could we? Did he have-? He just taught in one particular year town planning, I guess, eh, at McGill when you were there?

Yes, but one year, I worked for him. You know, we were always doing odd things at school and he was developing Préville. Remember Préville, town planning of the South Shore?

Oh sure. He lived there. He ended up living there.

That’s right, he ended up living there. I’m not so sure he wasn’t mayor out there at one point. But the initial drawings were done- I did the initial drawings because I was working in his office at that time and spent a little time. Another one I worked for was Fred Lebensold, because Lebensold really was our professor while we were there. He came in in our second year and he stuck with us for three years after that as our design instructor, particularly for our year. And every time we had a reunion, he would be there.


Did you find him a tough employer? I mean did you learn from working with Fred Lebensold? Or did you enjoy his company?

I didn’t work with Fred. I did one thing with Fred. Fred was building a country cottage and I had to detail the cottage for him. I was working – well, it was at school and they had a little office there and I was doing the drawings and I remember I loused up the staircase somewhere along the line and the bottom of the tread wasn’t the same as the [unclear] boards at all. I got hell for that.

That still happens today, by the way.

Probably it does. But anyway, that’s the only experience I had working with him although as a friend, I knew Fred reasonably well, yes.


I have fond memories of my graduation when we graduated in 1952. Graduations were held on the lawn, weather permitting of course, and most years it was outdoors. And they set up a big platform and put stairs, or chairs on the lawn and then they had tables scattered around for after the ceremonies that people would sit and they served tea in the old English fashion and cookies and what have you. And I was there, I was graduating, and as I said, I had won a couple of prizes and had got some medals and what have you. My parents were there, my aunt and uncle were there, and we had a table. And afterwards, with my mortarboard on and cape and so forth, we were sitting there having a cup of tea and I got a pat on my shoulder and I looked up and it was Stuart Wilson. And Stuart says, “I’ve arranged an interview for you for a job”. “Oh, that’s nice, Stuart. When?” He says, “Now”. “Now?” “Yup, it’s now”. So I took off my mortarboard and I put my cape on the chair and I excused myself to my parents and I said, “I’m going for an interview. I’ll be back”. The interview was on Sherbrooke Street. It was only two blocks away. I went down, I had my interview, I came back, I looked at my parents and I said, “Well, I got a job. I was hired. I start to work Monday morning”. And I just quite that story, or quote it, a propos of what the students are today, how hard it is to find a job and what the world is like out there as compared to the world that I grew up in. When you graduated, things were just bustling all over and there was no problem.


It was that way for a while almost up until the mid-sixties. In fact one person commented, I think it was Russell [unclear], saying that how fortunate we were because we ended up graduating in a period when- and I graduated in ’ 62- there were jobs all over the place. And a lot of people have not had that good fortune. They graduated at the wrong time and what you’re saying is very true. I mean the job is difficult.

That’s right, it was-

So who- I’m sorry to interrupt you but I’m curious who did you get the job with?

Max Roth.

Oh, Max Roth.

Max Roth. Max Roth was down the street and as a matter of fact, Stuart was working with Max at that point, and Stuart I guess had picked out of his class who he thought would be a good employee and I went to work with Max.

That’s quite an accolade.

So what happened to me after that was that -this was in the fall of the year- I had won the scholarship for travel overseas and I didn’t want to go until the following spring so I worked in his office until the following spring. And that’ s when I teamed up with George and bought a car and overseas we went for a year. When I was [unclear], Elliott Mayers took my place in the office. He graduated one year after I did. So I came back one year later and there he was in the office. And I came back to see if my job was still there and they said, “Well, absolutely”. And I worked for another year at which time I met Elliott for the first time because we never talked to each other in university. I don’t think we even knew each other in university. We were only one year apart! So anyway, we decided after two years we had enough. We better open our own office. And in those days, I was still a bachelor. I had my apartment and we said, “Well, that’s a good place for an office”. So we hung a shingle out, sat by the telephone, played cribbage all day long, waited for the phone to ring and started a practice two years after we graduated.


Did you ever consider at that time coming back to the Maritimes?

No, I fell in love with Montreal. In those days, Montreal was a fabulous city. Absolutely fabulous.

It was really a fabulous city I guess up until the mid-seventies.

This is in the fifties, the sixties and the seventies and leading up to-.

Yeah. That really comes out in the interviews. I guess anybody coming to Montreal even today, if they’re just a student, enjoying McGill, downtown university and everything that goes with it, still think that Montreal is a great place. But I know better than you do, because it’s very difficult to stay there, that’s all, and practice.

No, I never thought of going anyplace else. We were going to set up business there and I’m glad.

So you stayed in your practice for- right up ‘till 1995?

Yeah, right until my age turned around sixty-five and I said, “It’s time to retire”. And by that time, we had gone through quite a build up. There were two of us, Elliott and I, as we started the practice. It grew and grew. I think maximum we ever were was twenty-one people in the office. Well, that’s a few number to look after. And then it grew; we added two new partners. We were a four-partner firm at one point. And then one of the partners left and went to Ottawa. He wanted to be on his own. And then my original partner left many years after that, and it just left two of us: myself and the junior partner. So when I got ready to retire at sixty-five, I said, “Morty, it’s yours lock, stock and barrel”. Gave it to him, walked away a free man and I’ ve never looked back since.

Good for you!

But I say to myself, there wasn’t one single day that I got out of bed and went to work that I didn’t look forward to it and enjoyed it. We had our ups and downs. We sure did like every other firm, but I enjoyed architecture. I thought it was a wonderful, wonderful profession. But I have to say something else now too. When we graduated back in ’52, that our education taught us to be the practitioner. And we had a client and the client came to you with a problem and your job was to solve that problem architecturally. So we were a practitioner, like a dentist would be, like a doctor would be. What we found out in later years as new kids came into the office, they were no longer practitioners; they were team players. They all had a part to play in something bigger than each of them. Nobody wanted to make decisions. It was the hardest thing in the world. And, you know, if you told them what to do, they did a superb job in their little thing. But they were not a practitioner in the total sense.


That’s an interesting comment because as you know, today, you can’t get hired unless you’re completely computer literate. And that is only dividing up the office more than ever because there are certain people who do the computer work, and of course the spec writers and so forth. But the computers offer a tremendous facility but it’s getting a little bit- There are people, I suspect, who won’t be able to draw, I mean, architects. So it’s going to change the profession quite a bit. I wanted to ask you a little bit about what I see about me now and behind you is your art. You’ve been doing that for a long, long time, I guess from Mount Allison.

Well, that came about as a fluke, you might say. There was one time, it was back around 1967; it was around Expo time. And we had some large projects in the office. That’s when we had a huge staff and it was my responsibility to look after the staff. My church had burned down and we were in the process of building a new church and I was on the committee and I had to attend meetings for there and one thing or another. And I was just up to here. I just had to crawl away and get away. And I read in the paper that there was a farm in Antigonish, Nova Scotia where you could go down, lay on the farm, eat fresh vegetables, breathe the fresh air and rejuvenate yourself. And I thought oh what a wonderful thing to do for two weeks. I’ll come back fresh. And they’d said on the bottom of it that at the same time, we had art instruction. There was an art instruction with a name I had never heard of before, “Bring your watercolours”. I had a little tiny box of watercolours that was given to me when I was in high school. I dug it out, put the brush in and I went off for my week in the farm. Two weeks in the farm down there. Anyway, it turned out that the person they got was the name of Edgar Whitney. And Edgar Whitney, you may not know, is a name- he was the number one teacher in the Eastern United States at the time. And there’s no reason in the world why that little place in Antigonish should ever had Edgar Whitney. But they didn’t know enough not to invite him and when they invited him, he had never been there and he said, “I’d like to go”. And he came. But he came with an entourage with about fifteen or twenty of his disciples, all professional, practicing artists in New York. He came from Long Island. So there I am down there with my little tiny box of paints and the rest of it, this great group of teachers and being totally inhibited by all the other people that were there, but I got so absorbed in painting, I forgot about the practice, I forgot about everything, I forgot about eating my fresh vegetables!


Could you just remind me what year was that when you took that? Was it in the sixties?

This was about ten years after ’52, ’62. Well, no it was approaching ’67 because Expo was ’67, wasn’t it? So it was somewhere in and around there. Yeah, and that was the first time I was exposed to watercolour painting. And I took to it like a duck takes to water. I went back the next year. Unfortunately, he got sick and he couldn’t do the course the next year, but anyway, I was into it then. So from that time until the time I retired, I painted on weekends, I would go away on vacation and I would organize the vacation around two things: one, to paint, the other, by the seashore. It had to be by the ocean, which is really why we when I retired left Montreal and came to Halifax; to be by the sea and the subject matter that I like to paint is also here: the harbour, the boats and the atmosphere.

So you’ve had a whole career of-

So when I retired and I walked away, I knew exactly what I was going to do. And in the morning, I have no problems. I can wake up and say, “Ah, that painting that I was going to do, that sketch that’s in my book, there it goes” . And I have a studio here in Halifax in which I can do it. Life couldn’t be better!