by Elizabeth Allen
The McGill Faculty Club in Montreal has been and continues to be a place where great minds gather for lunch and discussion. Over the years, this respected club has entertained statesmen, generals and poets in the formal dining-room while catering to hungry professors catching a bite to eat both at the buffet and in the cavernous but equally hospitable "pit."
Like the University itself, the McGill Faculty Club has a history and an association with monarchy. McGill's charter describes the University as a "Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning." The Faculty Club derives its royal heritage from its builder and original owner, Alfred Baumgarten.
An immigrant to Canada, Baumgarten rose to financial prominence as President of the St. Lawrence Sugar Refinery. Having made his fortune Baumgarten devoted his spare time to founding and supporting several hospitals, museums and social clubs in the Montreal area. He would not be out of place in today's Faculty Club. With two PhDs to his credit, he was at home among academics, particularly the scientists. Baumgarten was a chemical engineer who developed the refinery process of sugar beets, which later provided him with his fortune.
Yet Baumgarten was more than a scientist; he was a hospitable host, who delighted in entertainment and pageantry. This was part of his heritage. He was born in Dresden in 1842, where his father was Court Physician to the King of Saxony. As a youth, Baumgarten became familiar with the neo-Gothic elegance favored by contemporary Germans and particularly German kings and princes.
In 1880, Baumgarten bought the land on McTavish Street where the Faculty Club now stands. Following his marriage in 1885, the newlyweds bought and moved into a house adjacent to the original lot. Building commenced on the new Baumgarten mansion which was completed in 1887. It was a wonder of its day, as the home included a glorified sunken bathtub, or "swimming pool" exceptionally rare in the city at the time.
In 1902, a further extension was added alongside the original lots. Service and reception rooms and a ballroom were added to dramatically increase the size of the Baumgarten home. Perhaps the greatest architectural wonder was the light spring floor of the ballroom. It was designed and built by Baumgarten twenty years before, when Baumgarten had it installed in the Hunt Club of Montreal. The floor was transplanted into the Baumgarten's mansion upon the Club's relocation to a new building.
It is widely known that Baumgarten was seeking a proper home in which to entertain and display his wealth. In addition to his professional and social ties, the 1902 renovations were designed to enhance the entrance of his two daughters into Montreal society.
An unsubstantiated rumor also suggests that Baumgarten built the residence and its subsequent additions in anticipation that Kaiser Wilhelm II would be his guest at some future date, when the German Monarch would visit Canada. The end result was a home, considered one of the finest in Montreal's Golden Square Mile and a mansion worthy of royal or imperial residence.
At the turn of the century, the Baumgarten house was a center of social activity for the elite of Montreal. A measure of the mansion's prestige was that the house was a favorite place for the Governor-General when he came to Montreal, "as if it were a transplanted Rideau Hall."
In 1912, Baumgarten retired as President of the St. Lawrence Refinery, but remained active in social circles. War hovering in Europe soon excluded the possibility of a German Imperial visit, yet it was not until the war itself that Baumgarten was faced with his forced retirement from society. As anti-German sentiment flared in Montreal, amid unfounded rumors of German plants, Baumgarten thought it best to live quietly at home. He died in 1919.
The house remained unoccupied until sold by Mrs. Baumgarten to McGill University for a nominal sum in 1926. The mansion's proximity to the McGill campus and the Baumgarten's respect for this academic institution undoubtedly affected the terms of sale.
The Baumgarten mansion became the official residence of the Principal of McGill, General Sir Arthur Currie. After Currie's departure, his successors found the home too grand for their lifestyle and the building remained empty for a few years.
Among the McGill faculty there was a drive to secure a larger Faculty Club than the existing premises on the other side of the campus. The Baumgarten/ Currie home seemed the natural choice. McGill added its own charm to the building, renovating parts and incorporating the teak paneling of the original facility into some of the upper rooms. The home that was originally a haven for the socially elite became the flocking point for the intellectually prominent.
The Faculty Club is today a lively tradition, any day in the week. Stephen Leacock could be found there during the 1920s and in more recent years Frank Scott and Hugh MacLennan graced the club. Captains of industry, bishops, visiting esteemed academics may all be found there.
It seems only a few days ago when the Montreal Executive of the Monarchist League of Canada was dining Rod Wylie, Chairman of the League's Vancouver Branch, and Garry Toffoli, Associate Editor of Monarchy Canada, at the Faculty Club, that I glanced over at the next table and there was no less than Pierre Elliot Trudeau with the Principal and several guests.
The McGill Faculty Club on McTavish Street in Montreal will remain a landmark, not only as the scene of the past splendor of a great monarchist, but also as a place where great minds could meet for friendly discussion.