By MacKay Smith
Born in Glenaladale, P.E.I. in 1831, William Christopher Macdonald (until his knighthood in 1898, he spelled his family name McDonald) moved to Montreal in 1852. There he started a business with his brother that later became the W.C. McDonald Tobacco Merchants and Manufactures. The company flourished, particularly during the American Civil War, when tobacco leaves grown in the southern U.S. were imported to Montreal, turned into plug and pipe tobacco and sold to tobacco-deprived Northerners. The company enjoyed another boom in the 1920s and beyond, when cigarettes became a major part of its business.
Macdonald was an exceedingly frugal life-long bachelor who, ironically, abhorred tobacco use in his presence. For many years he lived alone in the Prince of Wales Terrace where he became interested in McGill activities. In 1883, he became a Governor of McGill and through generous financial gifts, he proceeded to fund the construction of three separate buildings for the University (including Macdonald Physics, Engineering, and Chemistry).
Designed by Taylor, Hogle and Davis, the Engineering Building was built in 1893. The administration committee of the building was headed by Macdonald and it is said whenever he visited the premises, everyone stopped smoking and opened their windows.
In 1907, the Engineering Building was gutted by fire and Macdonald immediately took over the remains and hired Percy Nobbs to design a building restoration that included making it fireproof. While it was being rebuilt Nobbs placed his sculpture “ Phoenix rising from the Ashes” on the blank southern wall.
During 1946, a two storey addition was built on its front facade to add more administration offices and was designed by C. Macdougall. In 1999 the front steps were renewed.
Beside the building, is the Workman Wing of Macdonald Engineering that was originally named the Workman Mechanical Engineering and built in 1889. During 1924-5 two storeys were added for offices and classrooms.
Hidden behind these two buildings is a 70+ foot chimney built in 1889 to exhaust the smoke and cinders from the Workman and later the Macdonald. When the heating systems were changed it became dormant and later was used for exhausting the ventilation system. It was repaired in 2007.
Macdonald gave $14,000,000 to McGill between 1885 and 1905. An equivalent to giving over $300,000,000 today.