University of Alberta plans to demolish historic Ring Houses

The University of Alberta is moving ahead with plans to remove historic homes from its north campus despite a letter with more than 1,000 signatures asking to delay the demolition.

University says it's open to proposals to take houses off campus

Four of the homes, built in the 1910s, still remain on the University of Alberta's north campus. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The University of Alberta is moving ahead with plans to remove historic homes from its north campus despite a letter with more than 1,000 signatures asking to delay the demolition.

Andrew Sharman, vice-president of facilities and operations, said Tuesday that the university plans to demolish the Ring Houses sometime in the spring. The north campus area will then be converted into a green space. 

Sharman said the century-old buildings have not withstood the test of time.

"The ongoing costs needed to make and keep them safe are just unsustainable," he said.

The buildings have $4 million in deferred maintenance costs and would likely require additional work, including making the spaces accessible for people with disabilities, Sharman said,

"Given their size and purpose-built design as individual family dwellings, they do not provide adequate space for modern teaching, research or work activities."

The Ring Houses were built in the 1910s in a perimeter around the campus of the time. The university's first president was among the faculty members who for decades made their homes in the 10 original houses.

The four houses that remain were used most recently used as office space before being decommissioned in 2020.

Request to delay demolition

Over the weekend, an open letter circulated online and garnered more than 1,100 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. It asks the university to delay demolition for at least 12 months and start public consultations.

"See what comes forward in the way of creative ideas, possible funding, reimaginings, repurposings of these buildings," said Ryan Dunch, a professor of history who authored the letter after discussions with colleagues.

"That seems to me to be a moderate request and one that I hope that the university will entertain."

Dunch said the buildings "represent a visible connection to a very different era of the university.

"Like old buildings, they have a story to tell us," he said. "Of course we can't save every building — and I understand that."

Dunch said he knows the university is under financial pressure and has done a good job to preserve historic buildings like the Emily Murphy House.

"It's just in this particular case, it turns out that there is public attachment, public interest in these buildings, which is at a level that may not have been taken into account in the decision-making."

The university held a town hall on Tuesday to hear questions from members of the university community.

"We have a passionate community who are interested in everything we do," Sharman said of the meeting. He heard comments suggesting there was a need to balance investing in core infrastructure with understanding the emotional attachment to campus spaces.

He said updates had previously been provided through governance processes.

"They're not the first, we have sold other properties over the last year or so," he said. "We're trying to be fiscally responsible."

The University of Alberta plans to demolish the houses sometime in the spring following an asbestos abatement. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Sharman said the decision to demolish any infrastructure is never easy but that the legacy of the Ring Houses would live on in written histories as well as items that will be housed in the university's museum collection.

In the past, the university has communicated with organizations, including Fort Edmonton, about moving the buildings off-campus, he said.

Should a group step forward, timelines could be adjusted, he said. As to a suggestion of receiving donor funding, Sharman said he would rather that money be put elsewhere at the university.

"I have so many priorities that we need to address that I would not want to put the money into, sadly, a brick house that I cannot use."