The Downtown Colleges: Trent’s DNA Then, Now, and Into the Future


In the beginning, there were the downtown colleges.

Trent University’s first home was a meticulously renovated public school on Rubidge Street. Rubidge Hall had everything a fledgling academic institution required. There was a Junior Common Room where students could relax, as well as a corresponding Senior Common Room where the university’s new faculty could become better acquainted.

The basement boasted a buttery, or small cafeteria, that the first students affectionately dubbed “the crypt.” Lecture rooms, science labs and administrative offices rounded out the interior of the building. It was a self-contained, collegiate hub of expression, learning, and sociability.

Rubidge Hall was the essential centre of university operations while Master Planning architect Ron Thom completed the renovations on Peter Robinson (PR) and Traill colleges and developed his plan for a large, twelve-college main campus at the north end of the city.

After the closure of Rubidge Hall in the early ‘70s, PR and Traill became the university’s main presence downtown. Both PR and Trail blended original Victorian structures with mid-century modern architectural flourishes. The Link at PR and Wallis Hall at Traill offer but two outward examples of the fruits of this creative milieu.

Every detail, from the dining hall tables to the furnishings in the student rooms, was carefully designed and executed.

The nascent university purposefully brought together downtown Peterborough’s existing built heritage with the latest in modern design. It was hoped that these inspirational spaces would fuel the new pedagogical philosophies and student optimism that embodied the 1960s in Canada.

Like Rubidge Hall, both PR and Traill were self-contained academic communities replete with their own libraries, dining halls, lecture halls, entertainment and athletic facilities, and common rooms. Peter Robinson College was originally intended for male students. It was named after the nineteenth-century immigration agent who brought over 2500 Irish settlers to the region.

At its height, PR contained eight separate buildings spanning from 733 to 755 George St. (Abbott House, Sadleir House, Denne House, East Lodge, Reade House, Stratton House, “The Cottage,” and North House). Its student-run pub, The Jolly Hangman, became a Peterborough institution inspiring a generation of student poets and musicians (see page 6).

Traill College, on the other hand, was founded as Trent’s first all-women’s college and dormitory. Honouring Catharine Parr Traill, the famous nineteenth-century settler and author, the college’s first seven buildings were named after prominent women in the Peterborough area. The Trend, its pub, continues to be a vibrant hub of sociability and activity.

The college’s most recent structure, Bagnani Hall, is named after Gilbert and Stewart Bagnani whose teaching, council and kindness touched Trent’s early students. From the very beginning, both downtown colleges were intended to be part of the community, embracing the people, past and present, of the Peterborough area.

Originally, all Trent students were to live in the colleges. However, the university soon became a victim of its own success and by the early 1970s, the student population had outstripped the colleges’ residence capacity. In spite of this, the downtown colleges remained important hubs for student life. In those days, there was no need for a central student centre.

In a collegiate university each college is its own student centre, a comfortable and intellectually-engaging home for college members, faculty and staff. Students that could not live in college found accommodation nearby and integrated into the daily life of Peterborough.

The downtown colleges themselves became an important part of the city, a tangible presence, an indelible reminder to the citizens of Peterborough of the fruits of their labour that brought an institution of higher education to the region.

Trent University is in a unique category as one of the few collegiate universities in the world. Collegiate universities, by their nature, are decentralized and expensive to run. Administrators in higher education often find these conditions difficult to abide by. For most of its 50 years, Trent has existed under the spectre of deficit and the relationship of the colleges with the central university administration has been one of continuing negotiation and debate.

Tensions came to a head in 2001, when PR was closed in a controversial cost-saving decision that continues to divide faculty and alumni. The impact on the greater Peterborough community, although less fractious, has been one of a gradual diminution of Trent’s presence and its importance in downtown life. In 2007, Traill also fell under the threat of closure and was only saved from PR’s fate by becoming a college for Trent growing graduate student population.

The future, like the beginning, is in the downtown colleges. For 10 years, Sadleir House has continued to be Trent’s conscience and sense of social justice downtown. Home of Arthur Newspaper and OPIRG, with Trent Radio nearby, the spirit of PR lives on and grows stronger every day thanks to the passion of countless students.

Traill College, where engaging departments such as Cultural Studies, Canadian Studies and English Literature reside as well as the Trent Centre for Community Based Education and Trent’s Continuing Education program, remains—as originally intended—a welcoming space to the wider Peterborough community.

Under my mandate as principal, I would like to make Traill College more relevant to graduate students and even more accessible to members of the Peterborough community. I would also like to oversee the long-overdue return of undergraduate members to the college.

This article, of course, can only scratch the surface in relating the rich history of Trent’s downtown colleges. Please drop by the Bata Library and the University Archives during this anniversary year for more information on Trent’s incredible history. Also, make sure that you make it a regular habit of visiting Sadleir House and Traill College and participate in lectures, concerts and other events. The downtown colleges are home to Trent’s beginnings and its future.

Engaged alumni and the Peterborough community have fashioned a wonderful past for this university together. It is now your turn to ensure Trent has a vibrant future downtown with the community that helped start it all.

Dr. Eamon is the newly-appointed Principal of Traill College and former Principal of Lady Eaton College (2012-2014).