The Faculty Club: A well-carved niche

General Manager Carel Folkersma takes a moment to shoot some snooker on one of the massive tables in the skylit third-floor billiards room. Much of the vintage equipment, including the tables, has been donated over the years. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

The history of McGill’s Faculty Club (3450 McTavish ) reads like an old-style Hollywood script: Alfred Baumgarten, a wealthy German sugar tycoon and son of the Court Physician to the King of Saxony, constructs an opulent mansion along Montreal’s famed Golden Square Mile at the turn of the 20th century. With a taste for the extravagant, the sugar king spares no expense, adding one of Montreal’s first indoor pools, the city’s first electrical lighting in a private residence and a lavish ballroom to better introduce his daughters to society – complete with a spring-loaded floor to make dancers feel lighter on their feet.

Over the years, Baumgarten becomes the toast of Montreal’s high society, hosting any number of lavish parties at his luxurious home adorned with exquisite carvings and dramatic ceilings. But, at the onset of the World War I, Montreal is swept by a wave of anti-German sentiment and Baumgarten withdraws from public life. He dies in 1919. Draw curtain. Roll credits.

But the story has a sequel, in which the stately mansion gets a second life.

McGill purchased the grand old greystone from the Baumgartens in 1926 and made it the official residence of the University’s Principal, then Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, who died in office in 1933. Currie’s successors didn’t follow suit. “They found it a bit too sumptuous,” said Carel Folkersma, the Faculty Club’s General Manager.

Following renovations in 1935, the Baumgarten House re-opened its doors as the McGill Faculty Club. Since then, the Club, which has preserved most of the original outstanding architectural heritage, has hosted prime ministers and poets, fed bishops and biologists and served as the downtown sanctuary for Chemistry profs and captains of industry.

Although its historical roots are long, the Faculty Club has changed with the times. The quintessential symbol of male-dominated society, the men-only Faculty Club (then in other premises) began accepting women members in 1925 with the admittance of the indomitable Maude Abbott, one of Canada’s earliest female medical graduates. Today, members – which include faculty and administration personnel – can repose in the stately elegance of the Maude Abbott Room on the second floor.

Tony Austin, the Club’s longstanding maître d’hôtel has seen a lot of changes over the course of his 35-year career. “You couldn’t come into the dining room without a jacket and tie and you certainly couldn’t wear short pants,” said Austin. “They didn’t have music [being piped in] here because the members didn’t want to be disturbed. They came to have their drink, to relax, to smoke, or maybe take a nap before going back to teach.”

Now, of course, you can’t smoke.

“And they had poker nights on Friday,” Austin said with a smile. “And I’d have to stay until they were finished – which often wasn’t until one or two in the morning.”

Folkersma says McGill’s continuing program of academic renewal has changed the face of the Faculty Club. “The professors are getting younger, and this younger guard has a different outlook,” he said. “They are very busy, they eat lunch at their desks, they are working hard to get tenure and they have young families.

“Our challenge has been to attract these newer faculty members to join the Club.”

The Club now organizes regular family outings such as sugaring off in the spring and apple picking in the fall. As well, once a month it hosts a Sunday brunch on the premises.

The Club’s restaurant remains one of its main attractions. Executive Chef Pierre Majois, raised and trained in France, creates daily culinary delights that range from the $11 Daily Express lunchtime treat to a full menu à la carte that can include everything from smoked breast of duck with port sauce to baked scallops served on spinach with anis liquor. “We work with Macdonald Campus and Food Services to buy as much local food as possible,” said Folkersma. “And we’ll be composting by fall.”

The facilities are available for book launches, meetings and conferences, such as last week’s Annual Conference of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (see front page) as well as weddings and other events. And members can take part in the Club’s monthly events, including Lobster Week (May 10-14) in which 200-300 pounds of fresh lobster will be flown in from the Magdalen Islands.

Of course, like all century-old mansions worth their salt – certainly those in Hollywood films – the Faculty Club can have its spooky side. Austin has heard tales of doors slamming shut and untouched billiard balls suddenly rolling toward a pocket. “I’ve never seen a ghost myself, but when you’re all alone in this house at the end of the night it can be a little creepy with all those portraits staring back at you.”

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