An oral history of MacEwan University’s west-end campus
The Centre for the Arts and Communications. CFAC. Jasper Place Campus. The west-end building. The Great Pumpkin. The Big Block of Cheese. Call it what you will, but for more than three decades, students, staff and faculty members in MacEwan’s fine arts and performing programs have been proud to call it home.
The memories of a place or building belong to its people and passed down to preserve its legacy. These are the stories of those people—students, staff and faculty of today and yesterday—and their memories of some of the good times they had in their beloved building before it is time to say goodbye.
Before the west was orange, 1973 to 1981
Though Jasper Place Campus celebrated its official opening in April 1981, few may recall another building known as “Jasper Place.” In 1973, the first iteration of JP opened in west Edmonton at 100 Avenue and 156 Street. As the fourth campus, and in the early tradition of MacEwan’s make-do spirit, MacEwan leased Central Elementary School to house the 1,500 students enrolled in programs housed at JP. (Past campuses include properties and spaces leased from other schools as well as Cromdale Campus, which was a converted grocery store.)
In 1977/78, the Department of Advanced Education and Manpower gave capital funding approval to build a new Jasper Place Campus on the same site. The funding couldn’t have come at a better time. Overcrowding at the old campus had forced the design arts students to a temporary space at Westmount Junior High School.
But construction of the new JP didn’t go as planned. Strikes, weather and the demolition of the old site severely delayed progress, and when the campus opened in 1980, the design arts and theatre programs operated out of temporary facilities at Victoria Composite High School.
Source: Grant MacEwan Community College: The First Two Decades by Glenn David Ruhl
Home away from home
When you’re really passionate about an area of study, it can be difficult to leave the place that nurtures that passion. It’s even harder when the tools and facilities you work with are all there in one convenient location. Many students and alumni in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Communication programs would spend more time on campus than in their own homes. Sometimes with good reason.
I live nearby, but I play drums and I have roommates, so I don’t have anywhere to practice at home. I spend a lot of time in this building—from open to close almost every single day using the practice rooms and gear.
Even post-season, I’ve been here grinding it out every summer, and the rest of the students still in Edmonton for the summer kick around a little bit too. It’s nice to catch up with people and see how their summer is going.
In 1986, I was a music student at the U of A, where they had separate music programs and separate big bands. I fell in love with MacEwan when the big band here said I could come over and play with them for fun. In the U of A music program, nobody hung out. Nobody sat around talking about music and arguing about CDs or artists. MacEwan was exactly like the school in Toronto I had come from, Humber College, and I remember from that moment, this place felt so comfortable to me. I wasn’t working here in any way yet—I was just coming over twice a week to rehearse in the band.
—Allan Gilliland, dean, Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications
In my program, we often worked nights or extremely long hours, and the electives tended to be the least guilt-inducing to skip in favour of sleep. During tech weeks, our core classes would be put on hold, but not the electives. I was usually very good about going to those classes, but I remember one time my roommate and I made it to school, fully intending to go to our Modern Dance elective, but walked into the Theatre Production homeroom and saw those awful futons that used to be in there. That was it. The dance studio shared part of a wall with our homeroom, so as I was lying on the futon, almost completely asleep, I could hear every moment of the class I was missing.
No one said a bright, orange building was going to have a "normal" university experience within. With all the winding staircases, ever-changing art installations and ambient noise, the space came alive with student activity.
I loved holing up in the Wengers. I know that sounds kind of unromantic—they smell a little bit musty because of the old carpet—but each soundproofed cubicle had a different piano and I felt connected to their unique sounds. When I turned off the lights, I was in my own world. That was one of the best things to be able to do, because you were surrounded by people in all the common areas. In one corner, somebody was stretching and in another corner, they’d be working on their tap dance moves or figuring out backup vocals or singing a cappella. It could be total cacophony and chaos outside, and complete serenity in the Wenger. That’s part of what was so inspiring—the clashing of different inspirations and projects.
I remember thinking that this was not the post-secondary experience that I was expecting. You watch movies about college through high school and expect this wild and crazy place, and CFAC was not that at all. But I also felt like, “Oh, this is where my people are.”
I once put a Post-it note that had some pretty obscure Weakerthans lyrics on it on one of the bulletin boards. The next day someone added the next line of the song. It was one of those “only in this building” kind of moments. Overall, though, my best memories of the campus are more feelings than events. It was such a cool thing that we had this little space where it was normal to walk through the halls and see people sitting around playing guitars, or reciting lines or rehearsing dance routines.
It’s such a bold space. Not just the colour, which obviously is striking—the second you walk in everything is orange and yellow—but the openness of the space as well. Even though, from the outside, part of the building looks like an actual box, the space is just so outside the box. I always remember thinking this is such a great space for creative thinking because the space is very creative.
If I ever felt blue or had a problem during the day, I would walk down the corridors and stairways where people were practicing, and that would help me relax and take the stress off a little bit. One stairway is right above a vocal lab, so I could hear people singing. The corridors on the north side had music students practicing their guitar, xylophone—any instrument they could carry into the stairwells. Different corridors gave different views of how people used those spaces. The thing is that when they designed this space, these places were not meant to be used for these activities. But people found their own space and developed it into what they felt it should be.
As I travelled between studios and labs I had to navigate around our photo and video students’ gear over the years. I’m sure I had been one of the most overexposed people on campus because faculty and students would use me as their test subject to check their lighting and angles. My retina have a dark spot from all the flashes popped at me!
I think what I’ll miss most about this building is hearing a live band playing while writing a test. Or being in class and listening to an opera next door. And then walking out into an art exhibit. Or seeing dancers walking around barefoot, and people in costumes wandering around. There was always a lot of weird things happening here.
In the time when going to a restaurant meant answering the question "smoking or non?" Jasper Place Campus was a smoker's paradise. You could light up in the hallways between classes (and sometimes in the band rooms. Before the campus closed its doors, there were even reminders from those days.
“Please bring your ashtray to class”—our drum instructor remembers hanging these signs in the Wengers and some of the classrooms because he was tired of sweeping up all the cigarette ash left in the classrooms.
It’s a whole new world now, and the thought of having to do that is just crazy—we didn’t grow up the same way. It’s so old-school musician—all these kids practicing away with ashtrays beside them full of so many cigarette butts that they looked like boxes of french fries. This building has been here for a long time and there’s a lot of history in this place.
We’re really excited about the new building, but nostalgic about this one. I’ve been really happy here. Our concerts in the spring were the last ones in this building. It’s crazy.
The rules were lax back in the ’70s and ’80s. You could smoke everywhere. I remember people hanging outside the Haar theatre, smoking like crazy. You’d sit in the halls and smoke, or smoke in the theatre while you worked. Back then, we could stay in the building 24 hours a day if we wanted to—we literally could work all night long. The things we got away with weren’t considered “getting away with it” back then. You were just allowed to.
One day we all arrived in the morning and somebody was painting the inside of the building a sort of neutral, beige colour. All of us who love this building and had been here many years said, “No, this is the orange building.” So a committee was struck to shut down the beige painting and to make sure the building kept its architectural integrity, part of which is the colour orange.
When I think about this building and my affection for it, it always comes back to that orange-ness, that dynamism, that brightness. When somebody tried to change that, everybody in this building collectively said, “No, this is who we are. We’re the orange building. Don’t change it.”
I think that was also a manifestation of the people in this building and their concern for aesthetics and artistic integrity. Every day people are working to maintain and teach those principles to students. That filtered down to the colour of the building and what that aesthetic represented. It’s one of my favourite memories when I think of my experience in this building.
—Doreen Piehl, instructional assistant, Theatre department
History of a colour
You either love it or hate it—that orange block jutting out from behind the row of shops and restaurants on Stony Plain Road. For CFAC-bound students commuting to their first day of classes, the building is a beacon.
But why orange?
One story goes that the chosen “apricot” colour matched the brandy consumed during lunch with the architects and a program instructor, who eschewed their original choice—maroon.
“According to [former Theatre Production faculty member Anne] Gurney, the orange façade of the arts campus was chosen at the recommendation of then Fine Arts program instructor, Alice Switzer, who insisted the maroon the architects had planned to paint the building be replaced with the colour of the apricot brandy she had been quaffing over lunch,” writes alum Caleb Caswell, Bachelor of Applied Communications in Professional Writing, in his 2013 article for Avenue magazine.
But the truth might come down to architectural choices during the era CFAC was built. The colour was deemed to be durable “on the porcelain enamel painting surface,” and the construction industry in Edmonton was fond of using porcelain panels. According to Andi Pallas, former MacEwan facilities director, Toronto’s Eaton Centre influenced the use of porcelain panels on other projects—the University of Alberta’s Butterdome is another prime example of porcelain meets pizzazz.
Source: Grant MacEwan Community College: The First Two Decades by Glenn David Ruhl
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of touring CFAC will note, in addition to music being practiced and performed in hallways and classrooms, there is a lot to take in. At any given time, the Fine Art students will have new installation projects to share.
It was very rare to have problems with people taking down our installations, but one time my friend hung containers filled with Skittles and people thought it would be okay to eat from them. Little did they know the artist had covered them in spray fixative and chemicals. So we started hearing about these drama and music students who were getting sick. “Guys! No! Don't touch the art! You don’t know where it's been!” Didn’t their moms tell them not to eat strange things? It's always a struggle to get people to interact with installation when it's intended to be touched, so it was funny that of all of them it was the one people weren't supposed to! But really, unless there’s a sign, you probably shouldn't eat the art.
It was funny that when something like that happened, it would get around, but not in a gossipy way. Sometimes, we would hear about somebody liking one of our installations from a student in another program.
I think that CFAC has been integrated into our identity as Fine Art students and I’m glad I got to be here for two years. I’m sure the new building is going to be great and exactly what the next group of students need, but for my class, this orange campus was what we needed. It’s going to be really interesting to watch the new space become a part of us and the greater landscape of MacEwan.
One man stars in many warm theatre program-related CFAC memories. Tim Ryan was an American theatre director and performer who moved his family to Edmonton in 1979 to found MacEwan’s Theatre Arts program.
Sadly, Tim passed away in 2009, but he left an indelible mark on the program, Edmonton’s theatre community and on three decades of alumni.
After the Christmas break, I was non-committal about returning to the program because one of my instructors said I was wasting his time. But Tim Ryan was my champion. He knew about my addiction, and he was the first person who saw something in me that nobody else saw. He celebrated all of his students—even the ones others had doubts about. He rooted for the underdog. There were other professors that really favoured the classic leading men and leading women, but Tim went for the people—like myself—who tended to be harder to cast. His enthusiasm encouraged me to enjoy the process of finding a character and finding courage.
I don’t think I would be acting if it wasn’t for Tim. He made me believe I could do it. I thought, “If this guy sees something in me, then maybe I have a place within the theatre community and can make a go of it.” So when I came back from Christmas break, I decided that if I was going to be here, I was going to do my very best. I made a commitment to delve deep. That’s my Tim.
The Haar theatre was named in honour of MacEwan’s first president—John L. Haar.
The first musicals performed in the Haar theatre were A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (right) and Pal Joey.
In the early days of the theatre programs, shows toured around the province.
Over 35 musicals and plays have been performed in the Haar theatre.
The final theatre show was Footloose in February 2017.
Nearly every alumni who has passed through the theatre programs has memories of Tim Ryan, but none quite like his daughter, Bridget.
I have a nontraditional relationship with MacEwan because my family moved here from the States when I was nine years old so my dad, Tim Ryan, could start the Theatre Arts program.
I look at these halls and I see a place where I grew up, that my sister and I ran around in. We would go to my dad’s tech rehearsals and fall asleep. We would go to some of the cue-to-cues in our pajamas. And it's funny because for the longest time, I was determined not to go into theatre and not to go to MacEwan—because my dad worked here. But I fell in love with this program. Other kids idolized bands and movie stars, but my sister and I idolized the students here. We both grew up in musical theatre and our mom was an actress as well. It was in our bones at that point.
When I graduated from high school, my yearbook bio said something like, “When she grows up, Bridget wants to be the first female president of the United States,” because I really didn’t think I would go into theatre. Of course, a couple of months out of high school I realized who am I kidding? I’ve done theatre my whole life. I remember telling my dad, “I’m auditioning for the program, but I don’t want any connection with you and you have to act like we don’t know each other.” Then of course on the first day of school, I found myself knocking on his door to see if I could have lunch in his office.
When the new Jasper Place Campus celebrated its official opening in April 1981, invitations asked guests to “go bananas”—promotional material featured the campus being peeled. Even without the fanfare, the building was a sight to behold.
Designed by Bittorf, Holland, Christianson Architects Ltd., Jasper Place Campus was “an ultra-modern, high-technology structure.”
In its early years, the first level provided office space for the dance, music, theatre and design arts programs, as well as spaces for labs and studios. The second level was home to business programs (secretarial sciences, business administration, merchandising, travel and drafting). The main (third-floor) and fourth-floor levels remain the same today, minus the gymnasium and president’s office.
Source: Grant MacEwan Community College: The First Two Decades by Glenn David Ruhl
There were times when not everybody got to be a part of the “new” Jasper Place Campus—there were still space issues for many programs as MacEwan began plans to consolidate some of its satellite campuses into the downtown City Centre Campus.
Our classroom was not even a part of the orange building. In 1989, we were housed above an old Szechuan restaurant in the building across the back alley. We used to laugh at how we would all start getting really hungry because you could smell the food wafting up into our classroom. Needless to say, I remember eating a fair amount of green onion cakes and wonton soup.
I don’t know why the Arts Administration program was in that building, but we called it the “Annex.” It was a general classroom with a window at the front and a little back room, where we could have lunch or relax. I also remember smoking there. Smoking was permitted everywhere on campus, except classrooms.
Whether you had a classroom on campus or visited from downtown, not everyone agrees that the building is aesthetically pleasing. Is it beautiful because of all the good times had here, or is it, over 30 years later, still an architectural triumph? Perhaps beauty is, as always, in the eye of the beholder.
CFAC is the ugliest building and everyone loves it. It has so much character! It’s funny that the art students are in the basement and there is almost no natural lighting. We have a little skylight, but in the winter, it’s covered in snow. The new building is all glass—it’s the exact opposite of this building—and so we have this running joke that if we come back as visiting artists one day, we’re going to complain: “Back in my day, we didn’t have windows!” That’s what I’m going to miss—it’s such an awful building, but everyone loves it so much.
This building was built during Edmonton’s era of brutal architecture. The main campus is so beautiful and so pretty, and here are the art students in the shadows, in the basement of this ugly building on the west end. And yet this little campus has so much character. It gave us our own identity.
In summer 2017, the programs in the west-end campus will pack up and move into the new arts building. The stunning new building is located on City Centre Campus, next door to the Robbins Health Learning Centre, and was built for students and faculty members in the Fine Art, Design Studies, Arts and Cultural Management, music and theatre programs.
“I feel like the building that’s being designed invites the same kind of energy as the building we’re in,” says Allan Gilliland, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications. “Even though we’re connected to City Centre Campus with the pedway, we’re still our own building and it will have its own identity and its own energy.”
He continues, “I have this image of the new building where both faculty and students are doing what they love to do in this purpose-built building that will allow them to do it to a greater degree and greater success than where we are now.”
Every day is a new day at CFAC. You never know what you’re going to encounter. The artwork on the walls changes. The students’ installations change. The songs being sung change. The instruments being played in the stairwells change. And for me, that's normal. But when you go somewhere else, you realize how special it really is. We have a level of activity here that is interesting—always. And there is always something to stop and look at.
—Denise Roy, former dean, Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications
I have lots of beautiful friendship moments in the orange building. Rolling around on the ground with the theatre fam after 9 p.m. Tired and sleep deprived, but there.
Last show. Sondheim on Sondheim in the black box theatre. I was the last solo and I sang “Send in the Clowns.” I was already a wreck, obviously, because it was that song—then it went into the company tune “Old Friends,” which is about long talks and night walks. It was the last time, as a show, we were together. Everyone was crying. I had already started crying by the end of “Send in the Clowns,” and then that music came on and I was looking at people reaching out to each other like old friends. It was beautiful.
—Nasra Adem, alumna, Theatre Arts (’15) and Edmonton’s Youth Poet Laureate 2016
That same level of activity will continue at the Centre for Arts and Culture when it opens in Fall 2017. After all, buildings don’t make memories—the people who live to work and play in them do.
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