The little residence that could: Bidding farewell to Eliza Ritchie Hall

- August 28, 2015

Eliza Ritchie Hall's front door sign. (Danny Abriel photo)
Eliza Ritchie Hall's front door sign. (Danny Abriel photo)

Jen Bond’s first memory of Eliza Ritchie Hall is pulling up to the building in her uncle’s pickup truck on her first day at Dal in September 2002.

“The first thing I saw was this huge banner hanging from the front part of the residence with a giant red devil on it,” she says, referring to her initial encounter with the house’s mascot. “The whole residence council was outside, helping all these nervous 18-year-olds feel welcome while they were blasting [Trooper song] ‘Raise a Little Hell’ out of the windows.

“I was like, ‘I think I’ve found my people.’”

* * *

Bond’s anecdote is not unique: talk to just a few of the thousands of individuals who’ve lived or worked in Eliza Ritchie Hall at some point over the past 28 years and you’ll hear similar stories. They’ll likely mention how being separated from most of campus by South Street (and not having their own dining hall) led to a community that turned its outsider streak into a point of pride. They may note how the residence tended to retain more students into their third and fourth years than other houses did, creating a sort of “elder class” feel to the place. And many will tell you that when it comes to spirit and enthusiasm, Eliza Ritchie Hall was often unrivalled at Dalhousie.

“Eliza was always a very special community,” says Heather Sutherland, assistant vice-president of Ancillary Services, who oversees Dal’s residences as part of her portfolio. She also worked for several years in the “farmhouse” around which the residence was built, first as director of alumni affairs and subsequently with the university’s residence office when it was located there.

“Eliza students looked at themselves as family,” adds Sutherland, saying its occupants always were “a tight-knit group known for their spirit and participation.”

That Eliza spirit lives on in its alumni, but the rooms and hallways of the building have seen its last occupants. Earlier this month, Eliza Ritchie Hall’s final summer residents moved out. In a few weeks, the building itself will be torn down.

As outlined in the university’s Campus Master Plan, the Eliza Ritchie site has been flagged as the future home of Dalhousie’s new fitness centre for some time now — an addition long-needed to address the fitness and recreation demands of a Dal community more than double the size it was when Dalplex opened in 1979. And so as other residences have seen major renovations in recent years, and new housing offerings like LeMarchant Place have been added, Eliza Ritchie has been marching towards the end of its noble service to the Dal community.

“The aesthetics might not have been the best [in its final years], but the community always won out,” says Nicole Cross, who served as the residence life manager for Eliza Ritchie from 2007 until this past year. “It was a community where everyone knew everyone.”

* * *

Eliza Ritchie Hall was conceived in the midst of a Halifax housing crunch in the mid-eighties. As outlined in a September 1985 Dal News article, students faced many challenges finding housing in a city with a vacancy rate below the national average for nearly a decade. While the vacancy in on-campus housing did improve somewhat the following year, the university had already committed to doing its part to improve matters by moving quickly to increase capacity with a new residence complex.

Designed by architects Preston and Associates to blend in with the surrounding neighbourhood, the new residence was built around an existing “farmhouse” on the site. (Initially used as Dal office space, the interior of the house eventually became part of the residence proper, thereafter earning the nickname “The Hive.”) The total cost for the construction was $1.4 million, with $485,000 coming from the Province of Nova Scotia as a donation through the university’s capital campaign underway at the time. The residence welcomed its first 84 residents in the fall of 1987, with an official opening ceremony on October 20 of that year featuring Premier John Buchanan and Dal President Howard Clark.

To name the new residence, Dalhousie looked to its past, and to one of its most noteworthy 19th-century alumni. Eliza Ritchie (b. 1856, d. 1933) earned her a Bachelor of Letters with first-class honours in Philosophy in 1887, just four years after women were first admitted to the university. She completed her doctorate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York shortly thereafter, making her one of the first Canadian women to receive a PhD.

Though Ritchie was a teacher for a decade or so, she focused much of her life on research and community activism. She was a staunch feminist, heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and considered education and the arts her great passions. She believed the Maritimes should be to Canada what she felt New England was to the United States at the time: “a centre for high thinking and for the fostering of art.”

Ritchie volunteered for Halifax’s Victoria School of Art (which would later become NSCAD University), was a charter member of the forerunner of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and made many notable donations to Dalhousie’s art collection. She was the first woman to serve on Dal’s Board of Governors, was on the founding editorial board of the Dalhousie Review, and was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the university. When she became president of the Dalhousie Alumnae Association in 1911, she spearheaded the establishment of Forrest Hall, the university’s first residence for women — an accomplishment that helped make her an ideal choice for the name of a new women’s residence more than 75 years later.

* * *

That Eliza Ritchie Hall was a women’s residence when it first opened isn’t surprising, and not just because of the legacy suggested by its name. In the 1980s, single-gender residences were the norm at Dalhousie. The university even had separate administrators (dean of men and dean of women) to oversee student life on campus.

But times were changing, and Dal was increasingly behind them: by this point most Canadian universities had at least one co-ed residence environment, but Dalhousie had none. After consultation with students, the DSU, administrators and alumni, the Board of Governors approved a pilot project for two co-ed spaces on campus in 1990. The first was Howe Hall’s Bronson House, and the second was Eliza Ritchie Hall.

Eliza made sense for the pilot, given its small size, but it meant a massive change to the residence’s character, almost overnight. Nick Pearce, an English student entering his second year of studies at Dal at the time (and a future Eliza Ritchie house president) was one of the first male students to move in.

“You had these women who had lived in this residence for a year or more, and all of a sudden all these boys were moving in,” says Pearce, who today is a staff photographer with Dalhousie Communications and Marketing. “But it was pretty relaxed. Guys behaved differently in Eliza Ritchie. It was really respectful.”

Those sentiments were echoed in a March 1991 Dalhousie Gazette article looking back at the first year of co-ed residence life at Dal. The article noted a jump in the number of applications for co-ed spaces for the upcoming year and quoted Eliza residence assistant (RA) Pam Trueman saying the year-end tensions she’d seen in the past had dissipated. “It’s much more relaxed,” she said. Fellow RA Kevin MacIntosh said male residents were learning to look at themselves differently: “It’s so much better than a single-sex residence… it’s the one real-life scenario.” (Today, while there are select wings or houses that are reserved for male or female students, all of Dal’s residence buildings are co-ed.)

Eliza Ritchie Hall’s character would take shape from there. It eventually adopted its defining “devil” mascot, which replaced an initial penguin mascot. Over the years some of the residence’s popular traditions included an annual BBQ, a community banquet and outdoor movie screenings on the back of the building. As an example of how tight-knit a community it was, from the very beginning Eliza’s residence council leaders would pool their individual honorariums together towards a fund to support additional programming or purchase new equipment for the lounge or kitchens.

And the fact that Eliza Ritchie was ever-so-slightly separated from the rest of campus, along with its smaller population, continued to define its character — best embodied by the solidarity its students showed in always sitting together in the Shirreff dining hall.

“It was an incredible community,” says Anne Bartlett, who was residence coordinator/residence life manager for Eliza from 1994 until 2001. “There was something unique about being a smaller building on its own… Everybody respected one another.”

* * *

(Click image to enlarge)

While Eliza Ritchie always hosted a vibrant group of students, one of its more famous features through the years was decidedly black and white.

For the past two decades, the residence’s downstairs lounge has featured a two-toned, wall-length mural full of iconic individuals and characters — everyone from well-established “legends” like Michael Jordan and John Lennon to of-their-time personalities like Olympic rower Silken Laumann and Brandon Lee as “The Crow.” It even includes one Dal legend: Harold Weston, the card-checker at the Shirreff dining hall who has been with Food Services for nearly all of Eliza Ritchie’s lifespan.

The sketches for the mural were hand-drawn by Gord Hannah, an RA in Eliza for three years in the mid-‘90s. The drawings were then painted on the wall by a team of students during Study Break 1996.

“We worked day and night,” says Hannah, “We really wanted to do something special.”  

Hannah credits then-house president Mike Webster (better known by his frosh name “Elvis”) with suggesting the mural, part of a major revamp of the lounge made possible through some highly successful fundraising efforts by house council. All students who lived in Eliza Ritchie that year were invited to submit their ideas for who should be included in the mural via a sign-up sheet in the building’s main lobby. Nearly all their suggestions were incorporated.

The creators’ original thinking was that the mural would be updated each year with new personalities, but that didn’t happen. Instead, it lived on as a unique time capsule into the popular iconography of the 1990s.

“I can’t believe it’s still there after all this time,” says Hannah with an enthusiastic laugh.

* * *

Like some of the mural’s figures, Eliza Ritchie Hall began to show its age in recent years. Given the haste at which it was built, many saw the residence as a “temporary” addition to Dal’s housing offerings, but as the years went by it continued to support students through rain, snow, sleet, hail… and hurricanes.

Bond, who is now a lawyer based in Ottawa, remembers how students in Eliza pulled together when Hurricane Juan hit Halifax in the fall of 2003. Without power, and with a small section of the roof torn off in the storm, students made sure to check up on their fellow housemates and worked to limit the potential damage to personal belongings.

“For years, we kept a piece of the roof hanging in the front lobby, with the signatures of all of us who lived in Eliza and were there during the hurricane,” says Bond, who would serve as house president the following year.

She also recalls how dozens of Eliza students spent part of that week helping out at Fenwick Tower, then a Dal residence, forming a human chain down the building’s many flights of stairs to help occupants cart out storm debris. It was a shining example of the spirited volunteerism and support that seemed to define Eliza’s residents.  

“The community was so strong,” says Christine Squire, who was residence life manager for the building from 2001-2007. “It was a place where people could be who they wanted to be. Because it was so small, they felt comfortable to be who they were.”

She says the fact the building lasted as long as it did is “a true testament to people treating the building with respect… so many great students came out of that building.”

* * *

A few weeks from now, that building will be no more.

The Eliza Ritchie name will live on in the Eliza Ritchie Doctoral Entrance Scholarship, an award for outstanding female students entering their PhD studies first created in 1985 to mark the centennial anniversary of Dal’s first female graduates. As well, the university is considering how best it can re-purpose the Eliza Ritchie name on campus and continue to celebrate her legacy.

As for the impact of the residence itself, it continues in the success of its alumni, in those individuals who’ve been inspired by its community spirit and gone on to do great things in their lives and careers.

Brandy Morrow gets to claim being one of the last of those Eliza Ritchie alumni, having served as an RA in the building for the past two years. (She also lived there in her first year on campus.) She says she’s sad to see the residence go, but that it will be nice to see the additional fitness facilities available to students.

“Of the 92 students in Eliza, I was friends with almost every single one of them,” she says.

Despite being separated by more than two decades from some of the residence’s earliest occupants, Morrow’s description of Eliza Ritchie’s character is remarkably similar to her predecessors. She mentions the house’s tight-knit community, incredible spirit — winning the inter-house O-Week competition last fall — and that students who lived there learned to embrace their self-image as “the underdogs” on campus.

“I think that’s what created such a great community atmosphere,” says Morrow. “We were a wonderful residence to be reckoned with.”

Eliza Ritchie Hall present-day photos: Danny Abriel
Eliza Ritchie portrait: Library and Archives Canada
Mural landscape photo: Nick Pearce
Mural under construction: Ginette Pitcher
Eliza Ritchie Hall under construction: Dalhousie Archives


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