Students have been Acadia’s raison d’être. Since 1838, students have been the driving force of change, be it social, economic, or physical, here in Wolfville. Acadia students have found their identity as a collective, and with it the need for a truly student centred space.
The Acadia Students’ Centre (known by students as the SUB) is currently composed of two parts: Old SUB and New SUB. The need for a dedicated student space was discussed for many years. In 1939, an article in The Athenaeum suggested that a rec room where men and women could study and play games under moderate supervision was published. A week later the editor pitched the idea of a dedicated student union building.
The original Old SUB was opened in 1949, after the Board of Governors and Students’ Union approved the $40,000 plan. Harrison McCain, of McCain frozen food glory, was the chair of the building committee when it opened on November 10th, 1949. Services like an older version of the Student Resource Centre and Residence Life made it their home soon after.
The building was expanded in 1962 following an increase in postwar Acadia students. This cost approximately $100,000 funded by a referendum, with an increase from a $5 yearly fee to $10. Adjusted for inflation it would be $85.23 in 2017 currency. This was based on a plebiscite where 529 of 711 eligible voters (74.5%) cast their ballots and voted in favour of a larger SUB. A committee was then formed to determine exactly what was needed, with their final recommendation becoming the floorplan for the expansion of the Old SUB.
The need for the New SUB evolved naturally, as a larger space space centred around students was needed. In the late 1960s the university was expanding, and across the country governments were investing heavily in post-secondary education. The need for a new students’ centre was reflective of the government’s desire to engage with youth at the height of the counterculture era.
Originally the Old SUB was to be torn down after the New SUB was finished, but money ran out before the entirety of the plan was realized. Funding for the project operated on “10 cent dollars”- for every 10 cents put forward by students, 90 would be put forward by the university and government.
Fowler Bauld & Mitchell (FBM) was selected as the architectural firm to design the New SUB. Their vision for the space was one that won an architectural award back in its heyday. The design at the time was open, evolving gradually as the needs and priorities of students changed. At one point, both mezzanines where Safety & Security and The Athenaeum resided were completely open. Since the New SUB FBM has had several large projects to their name, including the Halifax Central Library, Cabot Links in Inverness, and the Mona Campbell Building at Dalhousie University.
Today the New SUB is the subject of architectural criticism. Its fiercest opponents say its ugly, brutalist, out of place, and grey. Interestingly enough that was the intention of students at the time. With the counterculture of the 1960-70s in full swing, students wanted a space that was the antithesis of University Hall and other buildings on campus, characterized by their neocolonial architecture. The university approved of the design and let students stand out, breaking from tradition.
Funding has been a contentious issue. The Old SUB Project took a long time because of the lack of available funds and manpower due to the outbreak of World War II. Government was a strong supporter of campus infrastructure in the 1960s and 70s, with buildings like the New SUB, Huggins, Denton, BAC, and Wheelock Dining Hall constructed within a 20-year period. For projects sponsored by the ASU, students contributed financially to cementing their legacy at Acadia.
Class gifts were instrumental in shaping different aspects of the SUB. Initially the entrances to the New SUB were found in each of its four corners, with its main westward facing entrance only completed in 2004, with class gifts contributing to its development. A commemorative plaque describes the process of how the construction occurred.
The New SUB has changed with each generation of students. The original info desk, now located in the Union Market, was once in the current mail room. The Athenaeum, The Axe Yearbook, and Axe Radio were once located where Safety & Security is, only to switch locations. A TV lounge used to occupy the current Student Conference Centre. The Swinging Axe Restaurant was located where Perkins now stands, before it moved into the games room and became the Swinging Axe Lounge in 1974, and then the Axe Lounge. The Wolfville’s Children’s Centre, which celebrated its 45-year anniversary this year, was founded and housed in the New SUB.
Art was a focus of the student union. The Class of 1961 Boardroom used to be the Class of 1961 Art Gallery, with a singular piece from its collection now found in the Beveridge Forum. The status of the rest of the art is unknown.
Maintaining the complex has proved difficult. Nova Scotian winters are brutal, and they have taken their toll on the building. Since its construction there have been few exterior developments on the SUB, the most notable being the 2014 addition of a main entrance and addition of student washrooms at The Axe Lounge. Concerns about the envelope of the complex, which leaks heat and is criticized for wasting money, resulted in the walls of the Old SUB being replaced at a quarter of a million dollars. Today the building is still not as energy efficient as it can be.
The interior of the building has been continually renovated. In 1991 The Axe Lounge was renovated, and the mid 1990s saw a renovation of the downstairs portion of the Old SUB. On Exec Row, outside the current VP Student Life’s office, there used to be a staircase that led to the bottom level of the Old SUB. The idea behind this was to create a “Merchant’s Row” of student businesses, resulting in The Athenaeum, Cajun’s and the former office of the Chaplain moving to the New SUB.
The future presents new challenges for the student union building. Accessibility has been an issue identified by many as a source of contention in the coming years. New provincial legislation mandates that all buildings must be physically accessible by 2030 and much of the current complex is currently not accessible, including the Beveridge Forum, Mackeen Room, and mail room. Accessibility is not just physical, but social and mental, with today’s government putting an increasing focus on safe, responsive, and social spaces.
Lack of physical accessibility creates problems not just for people, but for things. Moving chairs, desks, food, beer, or construction equipment becomes difficult with narrow corridors and low ceilings. This is a result of the age of the building, and the lack of a guiding vision. In the 1940s and 70s there was not the same focus on providing for future generations that there is now, evident in the lack of contingency funds set aside during construction.
Sustainability initiatives have changed the building’s character since its creation. Acadia University has standards to conserve energy, with most lighting fixtures changed to LED. Water conservation has been an important focus in the past few decades, and experiments in renewable energy are still visible: engineering students planted solar panels and a windmill, both of which are still visible on the roof of the New SUB, in 2005.
Air quality continues to be an issue throughout the complex. In addition to the excessively loud fans, the stuffiness of the building has been the subject of much discussion, provided one can hear over their roar. Spaces like the Michener Lounge, boardrooms, and even the Main Level have very low levels of air circulation, making the building stuffy and uncomfortably warm.
Though students have changed the building endures. The Acadia Students’ Union continues to support, advocate, and represent students to the best of their ability. As time goes on and the character of our campus changes, priorities will undoubtedly shift. The SUB has taken on a multifaceted character: a middle finger to the university, a statement of progress, and now the centre of student life on campus. Its age has begun to show and its critics will only grow rise in their opposition. Perhaps it’s time to throw out the playbook and write a new one.