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Bankruptcy of Westdale developer led to McMaster coming to Hamilton

Bankruptcy of Westdale developer led to McMaster coming to Hamilton

Next month McMaster University will celebrate its 90th year in Hamilton. McMaster had been a Baptist College situated on Bloor Street in Toronto. Other Protestant denominations had established colleges as part of the University of Toronto (Knox-Presbyterian, Victoria-Methodist). McMaster, however, wanted to remain independent and was looking to relocate. Several cities vied for McMaster but the most attractive offer came from Hamilton through a fortuitous twist of events.

The original McMaster site on Bloor Street in Toronto

It was 1928 and a developer, McKittrick Properties was trying to create the planned community of Westdale. It was an ambitious plan and the developer ran into cash flow problems and was facing bankruptcy over a debt of $130,000 owed to the city. Enter the Hamilton Board of Parks Management, and Thomas Baker McQuesten, its vice-chair. His parks Board had recently taken control of Cootes Paradise and was looking to expand its holdings in west Hamilton. The Parks Board had an independent source of borrowing power, and McQuesten engineered a deal that saw the Parks Board pay off the McKittrick debt. In exchange the developer handed over 400 acres of its land in Westdale to the Parks Board.

It was that land, along with a community fundraising campaign that raised $500,000 for a new science building, that induced McMaster to come to Hamilton. McMaster was originally only given 50 acres for its campus as the Parks Board planned to develop the remainder of the property as parkland, providing a beautiful setting for the University. The first manifestation of the park was the construction of the Sunken Garden that was a major feature and tourist attraction at McMaster before it was bulldozed to create space to build the McMaster Medical Centre.

An aerial photo of the original McMaster campus surrounded by parkland that was eventually filled in as the institution grew.

McQuesten also played an active role in the selection of architects to design the new campus buildings. McQuesten advised McMaster Chancellor Howard Whidden to hire William Lyon Somerville—an acolyte of architect John Lyle, with whom McQuesten had worked on the development of Gage Park. Another McQuesten associate, Howard Dunnington-Grubb was recommended to undertake the landscaping of the new campus, and the construction of the Sunken Garden.

A frame from a 1930’s film showing construction underway on the new campus

McQuesten, the pragmatist, could see into the future and he acknowledged that eventually  the university would grow to the point that it would encroach on all of the surrounding parkland. He expressed his concern to Grubb saying, “all classes of men equally fail in adhering to a plan when it happens to clash with the convenience of the moment. I have no more confidence in the governors of the university than I would have in our own board.”

The iconic University Hall, designed by William Lyon Somerville, that is still the most recognizable landmark on the campus.
McMaster’s first convocation in 1934-four years after it opened.

Still he was thrilled with the idea of a university coming to the smoky industrial town. “Hamilton has become too much a factory town. This is the first break toward a broader culture and a higher education development.  Did you ever think what a great word ‘university’ is? It has never been let down, never become stale or commonplace, always dignified and lofty.” In 1944 the university conferred an Honorary LLD degree on its early champion.

Thomas Baker McQuesten played a major role in attracting McMaster to Hamilton and in shaping the design and “look” of the original campus

While McQuesten is most remembered as the builder of highways, parks and bridges, arguably his greatest achievement was the role he played in attracting McMaster University to Hamilton, paving the way half a century later for the transformation of the city from a branch-plant manufacturing economy to one centered around medicine and education.

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