How a 1960s Queen’s student utopia fell from grace

Now Princess Towers, Elrond College was a student-run housing cooperative in the ’60s

Elrond College exemplified student advocacy.
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Princess Towers—an aging 16-storey apartment building that looms over the Hub—began its life as a student-run utopian commune in the 1960s.

An idealistic solution to a campus-wide housing crisis, it was first named Elrond College, a reference to The Lord of the Rings. Students were promised the building was something different by its promotional material: “Elrond College—where the ‘they’ is ‘you’ and the rules are your own.”

Within 10 years, suffering from a fierce market, debt, and dwindling hopes of success, it was sold to developers. They renamed it Princess Towers.  

“They” is “you” 

In the fall of 1968, Queen’s was committed to providing every first-year student with housing. However, times were changing; more students were enrolling in the university than ever before, and Queen’s couldn’t accommodate all of them.

For first-year students, the university held true to its promise. When some accepted students couldn’t fit into residence, Queen’s rented a motel and a school bus, bussing students to their temporary accommodations multiple times a day.

Upper-year students were left with an insufficient Kingston housing market. It seemed every house, apartment, or room near Queen’s campus was either already rented out or unwilling to take in students.

In a September 1968 Journal article, Al Steven, Sci ’71, said he wound up sleeping on the floor of a co-op after all 125 housing listings he pursued were unavailable. David White, ArtSci ’71, said he had no place to stay since July, and the only listing provided by Queen’s Housing Service was 24 km outside Kingston.

Stories like these were common around campus. According to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall, some students turned to living in between library shelves, eating their meals in the student centre and showering in the gym.

Throughout 1969, four Arts students—Michael Vaughan, Dave Peters, Dan Burns and Ross McGregor—looked for their own inspiration, researching co-op housing efforts elsewhere in the province.

There was already a precedent at Queen’s. In 1941, co-op housing came to campus, when a group of students from Sci ’44 ran a house they’d bought on Earl Street. 

Later, the community-centred culture of the ’60s brought a renewed interest to sharing living spaces on campus, leading to Elrond. 

McDowall’s book, Testing Tradition, outlines the historical factors that led to Elrond. When David Pakrul was sworn in as AMS president in 1968, he made solving this housing crisis a top priority. 

Later, McGregor was elected for AMS president on the platform of continuing this legacy.

Under Pakrul’s leadership, the AMS gained control of the university’s housing service. It transformed itself into a new organization: Students for a New University (SNU).

Student activists from SNU soon took their housing concerns to the Board of Trustees, claiming the University failed to provide students with fundamental needs.

They asked the trustees to let them take the problem into their own hands. All they needed was some financial support.

It was the first time the Board of Trustees had encountered radical student politics. They didn’t know how to face it.

They decided to take a chance on the students. According to McDowall, The National Housing Act had recently been amended to permit 90 per cent financing of student residences over 50 years. 

The AMS only needed to find the money to make a 10 per cent down payment.

In a groundbreaking move, the trustees passed a motion at a meeting in October to lend the AMS $50,000 for the down payment. Queen’s students then found their way to Ottawa, seeking financial backing from the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CHMC), and eventually winning federal government support.

As a result, the AMS took out a $178,000 option on a car-dealership lot at the corner of Princess and Division Streets, making their dream a reality.

Communes and Car Dealerships

The students aimed to create an alternative way of student life that included communal eating in a cafeteria, daily chore duties, and counter courses—sessions which didn’t count for school credit, but allowed residents to discuss relevant topics in an educational manner.

The students contacted renowned architect Irving Grossman, who’d made a name for himself in Toronto with creative designs of parks, apartment buildings, and synagogues.

Grossman’s design plans sought to reflect the building’s community-minded ideology—even at the expense of conventional functionalities. Each suite held eight to 12 people and was called a “neighbourhood.” 

Foyers and empty corridors became communal hangout areas, and elevators avoided service on some floors so residents would have to pass other residents before reaching their rooms. The building was projected to house 400 beds, with the actual number coming in at 410.

Vroom Construction was hired to build the building that Grossman envisioned, and by the early ‘70s, plans were up and running.

The College had a Board of Directors, which included students and Queen’s professors interested in the project.

The students promoted the building with a The Lord of the Rings themed marketing strategy. They even built off a franchise-inspired slogan, “A perfect house whether you like food or sleep, or story telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking, or a pleasure mixture of them all.”

To them, it meant that Elrond was a magic kingdom, unlike other housing options which were simply a place to stay and a cheque to a landlord each month. 

Elrond meant community.

 

Paradise Lost 

Although Elrond at first seemed like a dream come true, challenges were inevitable. 

Within a few years, a city alderman charged Elrond and Queen’s with exploitation of the Kingston labour market, according to McDowall’s book.

When Elrond went into debt, Vroom abandoned their contract and sued them for $300,000 in cost overruns.

By 1972, the total cost of the project was $3.37 million. In today’s market, that number is equivalent to well over $20 million. The students didn’t stop there.

In the fall of 1973, Elrond was open for business and John Blanchard was appointed as general manager. Students paid their rents, met their new suite-mates, and finally called somewhere in Kingston home.

However, financial struggles persisted. The Board of Directors assumed the building would be treated like other Queen’s residences, and thus immune to municipal property taxes. The City of Kingston didn’t agree, and Elrond’s overhead charges forced them to increase their rent prices.

In addition, Elrond hadn’t taken into account that students at the time didn’t pay rents over the summer months. 

In an attempt to cover these costs, the Board nicknamed the building Hotel Hobbit, unsuccessfully trying to rent it out as a hotel for tourists in the summer.

These extra costs forced Elrond’s reasonable and attractive prices to increase to typical market ones.

Inevitably, the building struggled to gain occupants. With time, it became known for drug trafficking, and high rates of student turnover made the dream of an ideal community impossible.

With vacant rooms, Elrond was in $3.86 million of debt by 1977—equivalent to over $15 million today.

In the rest of Kingston, the housing market was stabilizing. Students were no longer sleeping in libraries. Busses were no longer driving groups of students to motels multiple times a day. Students found homes, and Elrond’s financial burden fell hard.

In 1980, the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation took ownership of the building. No longer able to function as a student co-op, Elrond was offered to Queen’s, who declined it. 

The building was then sold to a developer who renamed it Princess Towers. It now stands behind The Brass and is rented out to students at market prices—but its elevators still don’t stop on every floor. 

Elrond College can either be seen as a reflection of naïve ’60s idealism—or, as McDowall said we should see it, one of the earliest and strongest testaments to the power of student activism. 

While students elsewhere in Ontario were staging aggressive protests against rising market prices, Queen’s students were taking matters into their own hands.

The October 1968 meeting, where Queen’s students successfully procured funding for Elrond from the Board of Trustees, set a powerful precedent. 

It was one of the first moments in the university’s history where the AMS truly embodied what is now a common belief: Queen’s students can be trusted to oversee matters governing their own fate better than anyone else.

The creation of Elrond College marked the first of many demonstrations that Queen’s students are active and engaged—and have been since at least 1968.

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