By MacKay L. Smith
James Ross was a Canadian businessman, art collector and builder, who oversaw the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway across Canada. In 1892, he commissioned Bruce Price, an American architect who has also designed McGill’s own Royal Victoria College and Quebec City’s Chateau Frontenac, to build a house on Peel St. on a huge lot along Montreal’s famous Golden Square Mile.
The massive house’s 41 rooms were set in a garden that extended almost to Sherbrooke Street. When McGregor St. (now Doctor Penfield) was extended, the property lost its garden. The house, though, kept getting bigger, with Ross commissioning a series of redesigns and expansions of his home from 1897 to 1912. During this period, Ross and his wife were instrumental in founding the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which officially opened its doors in 1912.
When Ross died in 1913, McGill Principal Sir William Peterson paid tribute to the University’s benefactor (Ross had bequeathed $100,000 to McGill upon his death) by saying “Mere splendor without taste would always have been repellent to him. Perhaps his best memorial, apart from the magnificent collection of pictures which he got together with such care and discrimination, and which was the joy and pride of his wide circle of friends, will be the beautiful building on Sherbrooke street… Such men lend valuable aid in the way of enabling a community to realize some aspects of its higher self.”
Upon Ross’s death, his son, John Kenneth Leveson Ross, inherited the house.
An avid horse breeder, philanthropist and bon vivant, J.K.L. was as well known for his lavish lifestyle (he kept 30 servants and a pair of Rolls Royces) and donating vast sums of money as for winning the first Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing in 1919 with his Hall of Fame colt, Sir Barton. Having inherited $16 million upon his father’s death in 1913, J.K.L. found himself down to his last $300 a mere 15 years later in 1928.
In 1929, J.K.L. auctioned off the houses and moved to Nassau.
J.W. McConnell bought the James Ross house in 1948 for the Faculty of Law and it was named Chancellor Day Hall after Charles Dewey Day, the University’s first Chancellor from 1864-1884. The McConnell Foundation’s gift in 1968 started off the construction of the New Chancellor Day Hall, a six-storey building that contained the Law Library on the top floor until the Nahum Gelber Law Library was built in 1998.
McGill Memories is a regular feature based upon Mackay L. Smith’s 2009 book, Memories and Profiles of McGill University. The book is available at the McGill bookstore.