“Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness”

D moved to Kingston, On the same month I moved to London, On.  The second apartment he had there was right downtown on Princess Street, the tallest building in Kingston, a stack of early-70s brutalist boxes that steadfastly resists gentrification or modernization. It’s called Princess Towers. On the ground floor you can get poutine from a place named Bubba’s, and there are a half-dozen bars are on that block and the next.

Elrond College, before it was Princess Towers. No Elf-Lords in sight.

Inside, the apartments have been remodeled with the cheapest, ugliest fixtures available at Home Depot, made of that special particle board with white veneer, the kind that warps slowly and inevitably every time water drips from the faucet or the pipes. D’s front door had a two inch gap under it, through which he heard at night the flip-flopped pacing of Queen’s students who carried their fast-food packaging through the  fire door to the garbage slot.  The slamming doors—one out, one back usually after midnight—meant he knew their garbage-disposal habits, as he knew their pre-drinking habits and what time they got home on Sunday mornings. When we talked on the phone I could hear the metallic echo of slamming fire-doors all the way across the province.

Utopia is Harder Than you Think

Before Princess Towers was Princess Towers it was called Elrond College, an experimental residential college and co-op housing project affiliated with Queen’s University in the early 1970s, and named after an Elf-Lord in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Being who we are, both D and I have trouble believing they called it “Elrond College” without even a whiff of irony, especially considering the distance between Rivendell and Kingston.  After all, the squalor D and I saw in 2009 had its origins not long after its first, utopian days as an alternative to more conventional student housing at Queen’s.

I do, however, like the weird schism that happens in my head when I try to reconcile D’s particle-board apartment with Rivendell, as it appeared in Peter Jackson’s films or as Tolkien described it (the title of this post comes from Tolkien’s description of Elrond’s house). It makes me wonder what the founders intended for this place: I imagine beautiful, neomedieval adolescents dressed in velour pirate shirts, with long hair and guitars, doing those swaying-arm folk-festival dances to The Incredible String Band. In my mind they are always stoned and always talking about the wide, orgiastic future they would build for themselves, starting in a brutalist slab on Princess Street in Kingston, Ontario.

Elrond College was a kind of sibling to the University of Toronto’s far more famous Rochdale College, which also offered alternative curriculum as well as housing. Neither experiment lasted very long, and both of them crashed spectacularly, as they morphed from experiments in communal living to major distribution centres for the drug trade, into squalor and disrepair.  Since they were largely manned by undergrads, this does not surprise me.

This is not Princess Towers. This is Rivendell, where Elrond lives.  I don’t know how he’d feel about his name being used in Kingston.

“Where the ‘they’ is ‘you’ and the rules are your own”

It is strange to look at Princess Towers, and see how easily it turned from social experiment into vertical slum. It seems telling, to me that I didn’t know the Tower’s provenance until after D had moved out, and that I walked by Rochdale quite often without realizing what it was. I knew Rochdale existed, but until I knew to look for the Sculpture of the Unknown Student out front, I took it for another of the concrete towers on Bloor Street.

I’m sure The Senator David A. Croll Apartments (that’s what Rochdale is called now) are pleasanter inside, but from the outside it looks a lot like Princess Towers.  Both buildings seem to me incompatible with the kind of community those 60s idealists wanted to build:  too large to foster a sense of personal responsibility, too busy, too corporate, too much like slabs.

Rochdale College. 1971. My mother’s memories of Rochdale college are about lunch. It had a good cafeteria, she says, so in the early seventies when she and my father were visiting my Aunt in Toronto, they ate there a lot.

Despite my love for mid-century architecture, it makes me wonder if there’s something about it that resists the kind of communalism to which both colleges aspired, and that encourages the kind of alienation they both produced. As I mentioned, both colleges ended up being significant distribution centres for the drug trade, and it’s interesting to think of Rochdale as a kind of shadow-version of the more obvious manifestations of capitalism a few blocks south in the Financial district. Rochdale’s architecture– like its underground free market– fits in well with those glass and concrete towers.

Elrond College’s original promotional materials promised students that in Elrond, “‘they’ is ‘you’ and the rules are your own.”  In some ways, that sounds more like a curse than a promise.

Yeah, that’s a really depressing thought, and I feel too much affection for those early idealists to end with it. Instead, I’ll end with Theatre Passe Muraille, and Coach House Books and This Magazine, and the House of Anansi Press, all of which had their origins at Rochdale College, and for which I am grateful.

4 thoughts on ““Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness”

  1. Interesting to learn the history of Princess Towers! I lived in two different apartments on Princess Street (neither were Princess Towers) several years ago when I was completing graduate studies at Queen’s. I had no idea that Princess Towers was once a site of social experimentation for the university. Thanks for reminding me of the sites and sounds of life in downtown Kingston.

    1. It’s a funny story, isn’t it? I had no idea, either, until I googled Rochdale and then found the link to Elrond in a wikipedia article. It was hard to believe that D’s horrible apartment could have once been the “site of social experimentation” as you say. I wonder what else is hiding in Kingston?

  2. While Experimental Living in the 1970’s at places like Rochdale College, and Elrond did ultimately fail. One such place has not only succeeded, but flourished. Neill-Wycik Co-operative College Inc in Toronto. The Wikapedia page tells the highlights of the story, but not all of the facts. Today however Neill-Wycik College (as it was known in 1970) has become Neill-Wycik Co-operative College Inc one of the most successful examples of Co-operative Living. Today as then it is a democratically run Co-operative that is governed by the “membership” who are mostly students. Neill-Wycik has been called ” Vertical Village” because it truly is a community. Still privately funded; Neill-Wycik stands as an inspiration to other student Co-operatives.

  3. I lived in Elrond College for the first two years of undergraduate studies at Queen’s (1974 and 1976). It was relatively new at the time. I think I moved in during Year 2 or 3.

    The spirit of cooperative living was very much alive in those days — quite an achievement considering most residents were only 18 to 22 years old. Residents were required to dedicate time each week to the communal task of running Elrond, e.g., kitchen help (where communal suppers were prepared six evenings per week), light housekeeping of common areas (e.g., sweeping floors), volunteering in the office, and so on. Residents of Elrond produced a newsletter, sat on committees, organized educational events, and ran a coffee house, with live music performed by residents.

    But the model of co-operative living was unsustainable. Many residents did the absolute minimum; some managed to do practically nothing. Hired staff were needed to administer the place: an executive director, an office administrator (Susan Smith), maintenance people (Syd Mitchell and ???), and a professional cook to keep the kitchen humming. There was little revenue once the students moved out in April. During the summers, the place was mostly empty, despite efforts to rent out rooms, and administration hired a large crew of students to scrub and prepare the building for September. (I was on that crew in 1976.)

    I don’t remember it as a drug haven. Drugs were available, but I don’t think this was a defining characteristic, at least during the two year I was there.

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