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March 1, 2001 Renaissance of the Norris Building.






Swift, Marrelli and Prendergast in the lobby of the "new" Norris.

Tom Swift, Nancy Marrelli and Lynne Prendergast standing in the lobby of the “new” Norris. Tom was Director of Admissions of Sir George, then of Concordia, and is now an international recruitment advisor to the John Molson School of Business. Nancy worked in the library in the Norris, and says she met her husband there; she is now Concordia Archivist, and kindly provided the accompanying photos. Lynne worked in Admissions in the Norris from 1964 to 1992, earning three degrees over the years; she is now Registrar of the university.

Photo by Christian Fleury



Exterior of the Norris, circa 1956.

The exterior of the Norris, On Drummond St., looks much the same as when it was built in 1956.


Sir George Bookstore

The Sir George Bookstore


Students had use of the YMCA swimming pool.

Sir George students had the use of the YMCA swimming pool.

Photos courtesy of Concordia Archives.

by Barbara Black

The YMCA’s Norris Building, on the east side of Drummond St. between St. Catherine St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd., has just undergone a $20-million facelift.

Nobody could be happier than the Concordians who remember studying, teaching or working there when the Norris was the home of Sir George Williams University, one of Concordia’s founding institutions. Indeed, Sir George Williams College started with night-school classes given by the Y, the Young Men’s Christian Association, in its 1912 neo-classical building and its 1936 extension.

Built next door to these buildings in 1956 at a cost of $3 million, the Norris was homely and functional, designed specifically to house the mushrooming enrolment of Sir George.

By the 1960s, the tie with the Y was loosening, but students still made good use of the pool and the chapel. In 1964, the new building was named after Kenneth E. Norris (1903-1957), the principal of Sir George from 1936 to 1956. Under his leadership, the College grew rapidly, granting degrees in 1936, and obtaining its university charter in 1948.

In 1966, when the Henry F. Hall Building was built, SGWU severed its financial ties with the Y, but the legacy of education as a life-long process, long upheld by Kenneth Norris, had been firmly established.

Space in the Norris continued to be rented by Concordia. The library was the last to leave, in 1992, when the J.W. McConnell Building opened.

Writing in the Gazette last weekend, architect Susan Bronson said that the Norris “was an unequivocal statement of its time and a symbol of the Montreal Y’s progressive educational role in the 1950s.”

She went on: “From an environmental perspective, the reuse of the Norris Building represents a more ecologically sound approach than a new building. . . . Although much of its interior is unrecognizable, those who knew it before will recognize certain qualities, such as its abundant natural light and some finishes, like the original terrazzo floors.”

She noted that the Y, once white, English-speaking and male, has for many years now been as eclectic as any institution in Montreal.

This is the oldest YMCA branch in North America, and this project caps its 150th anniversary. Along with state-of-the-art fitness equipment, its renovation includes some poignant touches of history, such as the chapel, a little gem built in 1931 and long closed to the public, which has been reconstructed in the newly renovated building.

Our hearty congratulations to the Y and all its members.

— With information from Jane Shulman.


We invited some Concordians to share their memories of the Norris Building:

Professor Sandra Paikowsky

I was a fine arts students in the Norris Building, although most of our classes were held in the building at the northeast corner of Drummond and de Maisonneuve in the mid-1960s.

My main Norris memory is of working in the library. Having come from the Maritimes, I had never seen a library with so much art material — it was a treasure trove. I think that the library, almost more than my classes and professors, motivated me to become an art historian.

This experience was all the richer as I worked at the circulation desk part-time for a year and then got the job of my dreams as I ran the separate periodicals room at night for two years.
Since very few students showed up in the evenings, I had the place and the time to myself. As a result, I read every art periodical and other publications in the humanities, providing myself with a superb education. I look back on that experience with nostalgia and envy, particularly because of the fact that for four evenings a week I had the luxury of reading simply for the pure pleasure of learning.

Professor Clarence Bayne

Guys wandering through the office corridors with nothing on but a bath towel, thinking that they were on their way to the shower. Some of us wonder if they had genuinely descended a level too low from their YMCA overnight room. And then there were the transparent objects that came to rest on our window sills, on their descent from the rooms above us.

The curtains in our offices were held together by the dust that had gathered for years. The Drummond St. elevator that worked less frequently than the escalators in the Hall Building do now. offered service at last resort if you found the winding staircase a challenge. Your flight along the corridor past the Registrar and Accounting services took you, mercifully, into the Stanley Tavern, where, after many drafts, the mind was freed from the oppression of Erudites.
From these humble spaces, Concordia set its foundation firmly on the education of the less privileged: the city’s working class, the immigrants and domestics.

The Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal had its beginnings there. For a year, free of charge, it used Birks Hall for teaching its members dance, movement, speech, and acting. Its first major public performance, How Now Black Man, was rehearsed there. The Negro Theatre Guild held several performances there.

Good Gad! Thirty-three years ago, I was attending a meeting of the Trinidad and Tobago Association in the Norris Building when I got the news that my daughter was born. Back then, we were still using the slide rule and Pascal approximations for inverting a matrix. Sitting here in this digital moment, I can’t imagine that time has gone by, it seems, so imperceptibly.

Professor Stephen Scheinberg

I came to Sir George Williams in 1962, and have many memories of the Norris, including the “faculty-and-staff-only elevator” and being asked for my i.d. to ride it. There were the long, hectic registrations in Birks Hall, with the lines stretching on forever.

Later, there was [writer] Hugh MacLennan, who lost his office at McGill but who took up our offer of an office there. Others who passed through were [architecture historian] Phyllis Lambert and former governor-general Romeo LeBlanc, both of them teaching on a part-time basis.

I could go into the odd incidents in the men’s washroom which adjoined the YMCA, but you have a family readership, so no details will be given.

One should not ignore the convenient location of the building. On the Stanley St. side in the 1960s, one could find a marvelous Hungarian restaurant [the Pam Pam] with mouth-watering ludlab (chocolate nirvana). There was also a radical bookstore, appropriate to the Sixties, and later, a faculty member opened a bar in that location.

On the corner of St. Catherine and Drummond some of us found the best croissants at Aux Délices, and others, mainly in the English Department, had a friendly watering hole upstairs at the Yacht Club. There was the library confined to the top floor, where the librarian seemed most interested in zealously guarding her collection. Unforgettable characters included English Department chair Neil Compton, confined to a wheelchair, who made a deep impression on many of us due to his intellectual depth and engaging personality. There was the History Chair, Ed McCullough, who ranted about the First World War and British responsibility while keeping his eyes fixed on those women with ample bosoms. Registrar Donald Peets was a large presence who never seemed to talk when he could bellow.

Student politicians could be found in the basement, where some of them, even then, found interesting ways to divert student funds.