The “Dawson” in Dawson hall

Sir John William Dawson was one of McGill’s earliest principals, working from 1855 to 1893. His tenure at McGill was marked by major transformations in the school’s appearance. When recalling his first impressions of the campus back in 1855, Dawson said:

“Materially, it was represented by two blocks of unfurnished and partly ruinous buildings, standing amidst a wilderness of excavators’ and masons’ rubbish, overgrown with weeds and bushes. The grounds were unfenced and pastured at will by herds of cattle … The only access from town was by a circuitous and ungraded cart-track, almost impassable at night.”

Upon his arrival to McGill, Dawson moved into the east wing of the Arts Building, which to this day is still called Dawson Hall and now houses the Arts and Science administrators and advisors. One of the most notable dilemmas Dawson faced was that of rogue cattle from neighbouring farms grazing the fields of the McGill campus. With funding from some of Montreal’s wealthiest citizens—specifically the families who lived in the “Golden Square Mile” surrounding McGill and made up 80 per cent of Canada’s wealth at the time—Dawson supervised the construction of many of the buildings that are now mainstays on campus. One such building was the Redpath Museum, the oldest North American structure built solely for the purpose of being a museum. In 1860, Dawson hired the well-known architect J.W. Hopkins to add an impressive wooden entrance to the Arts Building, lined with Doric columns. The Arts Building as we know it today was completed in 1925 by the architects Harold Lea Fetherstonhaugh and J. C. McDougall, who also created the entranceway in front of Moyse Hall. Dawson died in 1899, leaving behind a very different McGill than when he had first arrived: architecturally transformed, and more importantly, free from wild, roaming herds of cattle.

—Isabel Luce is the President of the Redpath Museum Club, for more information visit their website  at

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