McGill Memorial Hall

McGill University, Memorial Hall and Remembrance.

 McGill University’s role in various conflicts and ties to military organizations has been varied over the years. The earliest known McGill participants in war date back to the Boer War, although it is possible that university affiliates may have participated in even earlier events such as the Northwest Rebellion, Fenian Wars and perhaps even as far back the Crimean War. As a result there has been a tradition of commemoration on the campus dating back to the start of the 20th century. The physical location of commemorative events has been a very complicated and at times controversial topic. Today the individual plaques, tablets, sculptures and stained glass windows are dispersed over many areas of both the downtown and Macdonald campuses. This is largely a result of the lack of a dedicated space in the early years of commemoration, coupled with preferences by faculties and donors to locate monuments in specific locations.

For many years the central gathering areas for major events such as Remembrance Day (ex-Armistice Day) took place in the Student Union (on Sherbrooke St, now the McCord Museum) and Divinity Hall (now the Birks Building). At times the Currie Armoury and Gym (now the McGill Sports Centre) was used since that building served as the home of the COTC (formed on campus in 1912) and the armoury hall and adjacent playing fields were used for drill and parade purposes.

Planned -but never built - Convocation Memorial Hall

Following the end of the Great War,  there was a tremendous sense that the university should undertake something substantial to recognize the contribution that McGill had made, both in terms of the 3,059 who served and in particular the 363 who lost their lives. In 1926 the University commissioned the publication the McGill Honour Roll to record the names and photographs of those who lost their lives in the First World War. This compilation, along with numerous memorials placed in the campus buildings comprised the official record of that contribution. Simultaneous with the Honour Roll, an  ongoing discussion took place regarding the erection of a building to commemorate the fallen. Among the many ideas were the creation of a gymnasium/armory complex and construction of a convocation hall. Neither plan took form, however, until the passing of Principal Arthur Currie  in 1933 which led to the development of the Currie Memorial Gymnasium and Armoury  on Pine Avenue in 1939.  With the advent of World War II shortly after the official opening of the complex, it became obvious that McGill’s contribution and subsequent loss would match that of the Great War. Indeed, over 6,000 McGill students, faculty and staff were involved in that conflict and 298 lost their lives. As the war drew to a close, it became a major commitment of the university to move ahead and build a memorial complex that would serve an extension to the Currie complex.

Architect conceptual drawing of Memorial Hall

 In 1944 a planning and fundraising campaign was begun and the 1,500 campaign volunteers were so successful that the original target of $200,000 was exceeded within a few months and in the end $752,000 was raised (approximately $8.25 million in today’s dollars). Based on the flow of campaign contributions the original plan, a Memorial Hall main entrance leading to a new swimming pool , was expanded to include the construction of an arena and  auditorium as well. In all there were 8,000 contributors and alumni alone provided almost 2/3 of the funding. Construction began in 1946 but by the time the cornerstone was laid in October it had been realized that the post-war construction costs (and shortage of material) would restrict the project to the  Hall and pool alone. 

By the time of the official opening of the new additions by the Governor General of Canada  on November 26, 1950 a number of memorial plaques and battalion flags were moved from other locations into the new Memorial Hall and a Roll of Honour containing the names of both Great War and World War II McGill fatalities in a single book. In addition the painting of the Quebec City conference, the Unknown Soldier portrait and other elements were added.  

The interior of the Hall was clad in black marble from Normandy and travertine from the Monte Cassino quarry in Italy. Major campaigns of both wars were inscribed on the wall nearest the Honour Roll, and the Hall was lit with indirect lighting to allow emphasis of the stained glass windows. The opening was attended by 1,200 family relatives and friends of the people listed in the Roll.  

From that point on, the Memorial Hall became the focal point of remembrance activities. Similarly, a memorial archway in the Raymond Building at Macdonald Campus was constructed, and a funds left over from the project were designated for the maintenance of the Hall and pool as well as for an annual lecture at Macdonald.

McGill Honour Roll

While ceremonies continued to be held at Memorial Hall for many years, a number of factors led to its eclipse. Among those was the aging of the veterans who organized the annual ceremony, the reduction of the size of the site due to the widening of Pine Avenue, the disbandment of the COTC in 1968, and the assignment of the balance of the Memorial Fund to the library for the purchase of books. As a result, the last known McGill remembrance event was held at the Hall in the mid 1980s, and the concept of a Remembrance Day function at McGill was lost until resumed by McGill students in 1994.

Since the mid-1980s Memorial Hall had become, in effect, an orphaned structure. Without a specific active vocation, shorn of its funding for upkeep and encroached upon by city streets it now sits unused. In recent years the brass doors have ceased to function, the front steps have been barricaded and the roof leaked.  Beginning in 2005, with the formation of the McGill Remembers project, some rehabilitation is under way. The roof has been replaced, damage to the stained glass windows,  one of  the paintings and the recuperation of the battalion colours  placed in the Hall have been completed. Larger plans to re-incorporate the Hall into the day to day life of the university continue to be developed. However, it is unlikely due to developments since the original plans were unveiled that Memorial Hall will ever be suitable for large scale events due to its limited size and the loss of surrounding space. However it still holds the central collection of commemorative  objects at McGill, perhaps the most important being the Roll of Honour.