Vincent Massey, heir to the Massey agricultural machinery fortune and future governor general of Canada, revered the world of academe. For his alma mater, the University of Toronto, he envisioned a place for male students to socialize, study, play, attend artistic performances and create. In Hart House (named for his grandfather), he built one of the earliest and most distinguished student centres in North America.
Architect Henry Sproatt designed Hart House in the Gothic Revival style to acknowledge the traditional link between the Church and universities. The soaring arches and monumental weight of the building reflect the dignity of intellectual pursuit. Not that the centre is devoted solely to study: the gymnasium, swimming pool and archery range offer recreational activity, and the theatre, art gallery, music rooms and auditoriums contribute to a lively involvement in the arts.
Hart House has a resident orchestra, and its theatre boasts the debuts of performers from Wayne and Shuster to Donald Sutherland, Kate Reid and William Hutt. Debates at Hart House have included figures of international importance.
In one such debate in 1957, Stephen Lewis confronted John F. Kennedy on the topic of Hart House’s exclusion of women - a firm stricture of Massey’s support. "I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places," Kennedy said. "It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere." Whether Kennedy convinced the audience or not, the rules changed in 1972, and women fully participate in Hart House today.
By Dennis Smith