McGill’s campus today is filled with venerable buildings, but in the first fifty years of its existence, it was virtually empty!
The first shape we recognize today appeared some twenty-two years after the University’s official beginning: the Arts Building’s central and east wings were built in 1843. However, other than the Arts Building, the wooded campus remained a comparative wilderness, nearly entirely untouched for another thirty years.
Early students swam in a small stream—the "burn" for which James McGill’s home, Burnside Place, was named—which ran from the current site of the James Administration Building down to Sherbrooke Street. A pond lay in a hollow where, in 1907, the Macdonald Engineering Building would be built, and several paintings of the Arts Building depict cows grazing on a pasture below its east wing (which served for years as Principal Dawson’s residence, and which was later named after him).Recruited by Principal Dawson, the donations of benefactors like Lord Strathcona, Sir William Macdonald and Sir Peter Redpath funded the development of the University campus during a major period of expansion from 1880 to 1907, by which time McGill had begun to take on the appearance we recognize today. Ponds and pastures disappeared in the construction of more than ten new buildings, but the main campus still centered on broad, open spaces.