“Decorating Dalhousie”

James MacLeod Teaching a Night Class, Dalhousie University, [191-?]

1st Alternative Title for This Post: “Kid, Don’t You Have a Test to Study For?”

2nd Alternative Title: “Prof, Don’t You Have Papers to Grade?”

One of the questions I had when I began my research into my grandmother Velma Jane Moore’s education was what campus life would have been like at the time she attended Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (My curiosity had been piqued by photographs in The Family Archives, including several snapshots of men in academic gowns standing around in the snow.)

I was fortunate to find that Dalhousie’s online digital archives include scanned copies of the student newspaper, The Dalhousie Gazette from 1915-1918, when Velma attended. What better reflection of campus life than the student-run newspaper?

“Decorating Dalhousie” was the leading article of the May 18, 1916 edition of The Dalhousie Gazette. Initially, the intent of the article appears to be commentary on the way in which the recently-built science building and library on the new Studley campus reflected the character and tradition of the University:

Dalhousie, it must be borne constantly in mind, is a little sister of Edinburgh, and the Dalhousie tradition is overwhelmingly Scottish. Strictly in accordance with that origin and that tradition, the new Dalhousie rising at Studley is architecturally severe. Indeed the features of of the two new buildings are rugged plainness of rough stones and the honesty of straight lines. The Laboratory has even been denounced for its resemblances to a jail or a factory; the only concessions to a sense of the beautiful are the pillared porches of the two entrances. All has the air of “Caledonia stern and wild”.1

Science Building, Studley Campus

In Dalhousie, the essentials have always come first, the beef and the potatoes before the mustard and the pudding, the mathematics and classics before the “music, French and washing, extra.” This does not imply that that extras are not valuable, or that they should be omitted altogether. Dalhousie has her two new massive buildings at Studley, perfect fortresses of learning to the eye, capable of standing a siege, “pensive citadels” as Wordsworth might call them; . . . 2

I found the preceding passage interesting and enlightening; it seemed to describe a place where Velma would have been comfortable, given her upbringing on the Economy Point farm and her affinity for hard work. Moreover, my own memories of her are that she was not a woman who suffered fools gladly.

However, “Decorating Dalhousie” then takes an unexpected turn and begins to suggest ways in which the severe aspect of the new campus might be softened and beautified:

Concrete is not romantic, but it offers wall spaces and ceilings, ample and virgin-white, which simply cry aloud for the brush of the artist. In the Physics lecture-room, for example, how fine it would be to see the walls covered with Burne-Jones’s “Six Days of Creation!” The dreamy Celtic angels with their wonderful wings and divers spheres might perhaps arouse the dullest to the notion that there was something more in Physics than strings and strains and stresses, measurements, formulas and examinations.3

In the mathematical room, there should of course be a fresco of Archimedes in the sack of Syracuse, so intent on his geometrical problem that he paid no heed to the plundering soldier who was about to cut his throat. This would point to the obvious moral of concentration, regardless of the consequences.4

By the time I reached the apogee of this flight of fancy, my reaction was pretty much, Kid, don’t you have a test to study for?:

Those lunettes, (or whatever they are called)–those semicircular spaces over the windows of the Big Lab–are just the place for portrait busts of the Scientific Professors done up as Della Robbia bambini. I seem to see them all in while and blue majolica, swathed and swaddled more or less (to symbolize the toils of laboratory work) and stretching out their little hands in benediction over all who shall enter the doors beneath them.5

The only byline I could find for “Decorating Dalhousie” was a set of initials: A. M. M. I checked the masthead of the Gazetette to see if I could identify this student was who wasting time writing fanciful drivel to amuse his classmates, all of whom should have been studying for tests or writing papers. There were no names that matched A. M. M. Then I saw the name Archibald MacMechan under a poem that immediately preceded “Decorating Dalhousie.” Of course! I’d see his name in The Family Archives. Archibald MacMechan was Velma’s English professor:  A. M. M.

I therefore believe this august gentleman to be the perpetrator of “Decorating Dalhousie.”


Postscript: From everything I’ve seen in the Dalhousie University archives, Dr. MacMechan was an accomplished and well-respected member of the academic community. In poking gentle fun, I mean no disrespect.

Photograph of James MacLeod teaching a night class Dalhousie University Archives, [191-?], PC1, Box 12, Folder 48, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

1“Decorating Dalhousie,” The Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 11 (May 18, 1916): 1.

Photograph of Dalhousie College Studley campus, [after 1915], PC1, Box 38, Folder 52, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

2“Decorating Dalhousie,” 1.

3“Decorating Dalhouse,” 1.

Image: Edward Bourne-Jones, Six Days of Creation, 1870-1876, Harvard Art Museum, Cambridge, MA.

4“Decorating Dalhousie,” 1.

Image: Death of Archimedes in the sack of Syracuse, http://www.art.com.

5“Decorating Dalhousie,” 1.

Image: Andrea della Robbia – Glazed terra-cotta reliefs of swaddled babies, Gallery of the Ospedale degli Innocenti.


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