All is revealed: A century-old case of mistaken identity

All is revealed: A century-old case of mistaken identity McGill University

| Skip to search Skip to navigation Skip to page content

User Tools (skip):

Sign in | Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Sister Sites: McGill website | myMcGill

McGill News
ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
McGill News cover

| Help
Page Options (skip): Larger
Home > McGill News > 2000 > Summer 2000 > A century-old case of mistaken identity

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Juliet rationalized to herself. but in the art world, a name, with its attendant reputation, means a great deal. Take, for instance, the name "William Morris." For years, McGill's Faculty Club has been proud of the fabrics adorning the walls of the dining and billiard rooms. They may have been old and faded, but they were also thought to be examples of a rare William Morris pattern, and, as connoisseurs are aware, there is no name more renowned in the world of textiles. Last summer, the fabrics were restored to their original glory. But cleaned up and examined closely, they revealed something unanticipated: the hand of a different designer.

The dining room then and now.

The story of the fabrics is also the story of the Faculty Club. The club has known glory and elegance, but not so frequently in its present incarnation; its flashiest soirées took place a century ago, when it was the home of Alfred Baumgarten. A German immigrant with a PhD in Chemical Engineering, Baumgarten made a mint in the sugar industry -- he was owner of the St. Lawrence Sugar Refinery -- and in 1887 put some of his wealth into building a new estate at 3450 McTavish. Even for its time and place, the gilded years of Montreal's Golden Square Mile, the house was extravagant. Baumgarten, a founder of the Musée des Beaux Arts, was also a hunting aficionado who loved high society. The house reflected his interests: a spring-loaded ballroom floor, ornate wood carvings reminiscent of a Bavarian hunting lodge, a stained glass skylight and the elaborate wall textiles. Old photos show an estate that you cannot describe without sounding hyperbolic.

McGill bought the house from Baumgarten's widow in 1926 and it took up new duties as the residence for Sir Arthur Currie, the University's principal. After Currie's death in 1935, it became the Faculty Club. Around the same time, Baumgarten's spectacular two-storey living room, with its winding staircase and upper-level mezzanine, was renovated, with the mezzanine being extended to divide the space into what is now the second-floor dining room and the third-floor billiards room. The carved archways, with their acorns, shamrocks and squirrels, remained, as did the fabric panels.

But over the years that Faculty Club members have clustered together, discussing Schopenhauer, flirting (professors have hearts, too!), or perhaps just recovering from a hard day's pontification, they may have felt a little let down by the Morris decor. Caked in dirt and dust, the residue of a century's cigar smoke and whatever else might have found its way into the textile, what was once a beautiful piece of 19th-century decoration seemed now to be little more than a faded rag pasted on the wall.

Recently, though, the Faculty Club has been engaged in ongoing renovations to recreate the building's original glory and preserve it as a Montreal heritage site. "Our principal target is to do everything possible to restore the building to its original looks," says Nicholas Bourbouhakis, the Faculty Club's general manager. A team of architects and experts on a mission of forensic interior design have been busily digging into its history, reconstructing the original colours and tones. And that, of course, included the Morris fabrics.

For readers who might not understand why there is such a fuss about fabrics, an explanation is in order. William Morris (1834-1896), the most renowned and influential of Victorian designers and textile artists, was the classic Victorian Renaissance man, an overachiever in an era of overachievers. To call him a "textile artist" is to dramatically understate everything else he was: novelist, conservationist, painter, stained glass worker, poet, translator, printer and early socialist. When Morris died in 1896, his physician claimed, only half in jest, that the cause of death was "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men."

view sidebar content | back to top of page