Our Past and Future Reflected in the Sun Centre

This week I announced that we are beginning construction of the Sun Centre, our new Dining Hall and Student Commons. The Sun Centre – named for major donor and alumnus Cliff Sun ‘72 – will be a two-storey, 26,400 square foot building located in the heart of the Richmond Road campus, adjacent to the Schaffter Hall Music Centre, Christine Duke Theatre and Symons Boarding House. As a beautiful space where students can socialize and learn, and a much needed gathering place for our whole School – from Kindergarten to Grade 12, the Sun Centre promises to be the axis around which our community life will turn.

The Sun Centre project is a significant milestone for our School – it marks the beginning of a new phase of our campus development in which we will focus on the creation of spaces that strengthen our sense of community.

For me personally, the start of the Sun Centre also marks an ending – it’s the last major project I will start as Head of School and it also marks the completion of the campus revitalization plan we kicked off in 2000.

When I arrived at SMUS to take up the position as Head of School in 1995, the Board’s expectation – and the community’s expectation – was that we would enhance the school’s reputation for excellence but also that we would develop the physical facilities to match the level of excellence in the rest of the School. To any observing eye the facilities were cramped and the classrooms ageing. A music program that even then was the envy of other Canadian schools operated out of two used portables with low ceilings. Seismic upgrading for School House was a fundamental need but at the time, it seemed doubtful that we would be able to keep more than the façade of our campus landmark.

Our facilities master plan evolved over several iterations with the input of students, teachers, staff, parents, alumni and all other members of our community, each new draft reflecting a new stage of our thinking. In the end, we created a vision for our future campus that still resonates today.

We believe that students should have a place to learn the importance of gathering their community, the importance of identifying their community and making sure people feel they belong to it. We want our buildings to serve all of these purposes to be effective, purposes both utilitarian and profound. They need be more than simple structures for the teaching of mathematics, or languages, or music, or physical education. They should also answer the need for students to gather, for adults and students to have a meaningful communal experience where our shared values would be lived out and passed on.

Once our vision was established, we identified an architect – Paul Merrick – who distinguished himself from the others by his understanding of the School’s ethos and Mission. From the start he carried this vision forward into a design that respected our past, our present and future. Paul’s inspirations – in addition to modern examples, some of which he had built himself – were also the stately and inspiring architecture of old cities and universities. These are places that bring people together rather than separate them. One of his most memorable phrases is: “buildings don’t fill space, they create it.”

The Sun Centre will be a dynamic and inspiring fulfillment of this maxim. The ground level of the Sun Centre will feature the new Student Commons. With comfortable, flexible seating and study areas, this vibrant, accessible space will change the way our students, teachers and staff interact and connect on campus.

Connected to the Student Commons will be our University and Personal Counselling services, where our dedicated team of counsellors and advisors will help students set goals and overcome barriers, championing their efforts to discover the promise in themselves and in the world.

The stately and uplifting new dining hall, with capacity to seat more than 380 people, will serve our boarding and day students, allowing everyone to eat, relax and connect. During special events, this space – with its lofty cathedral ceilings, natural light and views of the fields and quadrangle – will play host to visitors, parents, students, alumni and friends. It will be a truly spectacular setting in which to celebrate the milestones of SMUS community life.

Within seven years of kicking off the campus revitalization plan of 2000, we had completed construction of the Crothall Centre, Schaffter Hall, the Monkman Athletic Complex and the new library. Most importantly, the talent of Paul Merrick and his team allowed us to preserve School House as an abiding symbol of our past and present. Not only did School House receive the necessary seismic upgrades, but we managed to include similar treatment for the Chapel, Brown Hall and the existing gymnasium. Boarders, whose needs had taken a back seat to other needs during expansion in the 1980s, received the benefit of the new library as well as athletic and recreational facilities that were vastly improved.

More than two-thirds of the costs to complete those projects came from donors – almost $20 million in gifts over the course of the campus upgrade. Graeme Crothall, a past parent whose last child graduated from SMUS in 1995, was among the first to contribute a significant gift that helped to make our vision of excellent facilities a reality. For Graeme and the others who followed, these gifts represented no personal benefit other than an inspiring investment in St. Michaels University School of the future, contributing to a vision that would sustain the values and opportunities of the school, and allow it to flourish into the new century. In the last month, I have spoken to all the major donors to these facilities – they are all thrilled with the clear and profound impact these facilities have made in the academic, athletic, recreational and cultural life of the School.

Over the years, students, parents and alumni have told me that the SMUS experience is different – that our culture of community, excellence, and service is the foundation upon which our students grow, learn and thrive. Just as Graeme Crothall started the wave of gifts that made our campus transformation possible, we will look to support like that of alumnus Cliff Sun ‘72 to make it possible to create the SMUS of tomorrow.

Cliff Sun sees his contribution as a generational responsibility. As past families – such as the Brown family who donated Brown Hall and the Barker family that donated the original library – created the spaces that Cliff benefitted from during his time at the School, so he intends that his gift and his sons’ future generosity will provide benefits to students decades from now. In institutions like ours, this concept is known as “generational equity;” the current generation in its turn, as it experiences the equity of excellence endowed by past donors, will also play a role in sustaining and enhancing the School for future generations. It is a powerful concept, and on this concept are great schools built.

On important and solemn occasions at the School – Founders’ Day, Alumni weekend, Graduation – I mention that the founders of the School, over one hundred years ago, could not possibly have imagined the physical school that we live in today. They did, however, establish a foundation that has endured, framed by the mottos of our two founding Schools: mens sana in corpore sano: a healthy mind in a healthy body, and nil magnum nisi bonum: nothing is great unless it is good. As we watch the construction of the Sun Centre – this new, transforming and civilizing structure on our campus – I am conscious of how we got here, and where that vision will take us in future; of the hands that have formed our past, that now pass the baton to those who are entrusted with the future. As a soon-to-be former Head but a lifelong champion of St. Michaels University School, I feel privileged to be part of both our school’s past and its future.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.

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