by Aparajita Bhandari

One day while scurrying through Hart House Circle I noticed a bronzed sculpture of a crushed bike on the side of the UTSU building. Now, I have passed that image many times before and have often even made a mental note to Google the history of it later. However, this recent occasion of passing the sculpture was not noteworthy due to the fact that the bike caught my attention again. Rather, it was noteworthy because it made me realize that almost every location on campus has its own unique story and hidden history. I began to wonder about the countless other chapels, college buildings, quads and libraries I pass every day. I decided to research some of these locations to try to find out a little bit of the cool history of the University of Toronto. In this post I’m going to share with you a few of the stories I discovered: consider this a Throwback Thursday post dedicated to our campus.

Broken Bicycle Memorial

It makes sense to start with the sculpture that initially inspired me. It’s tucked behind the UTSU building and is actually a memorial piece for students killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Depicting a bicycle crushed by tank treads, it is a striking image. In my research I learned that the group who made the piece originally created a replica of the Goddess of Democracy that once faced down Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. The group offered the replica to the University of Toronto in 1992. However, the University, concerned about the possible repercussions for its relationship with China, declined the offer. So the group created the bike wall sculpture, which they put up on the wall of the student union building, the premises being beyond the administration’s control.

University College Building and Fireball

The University College pile is an iconic part of campus, and is the building that comes to mind for many when they hear “University of Toronto”. Most of us have passed this central building countless times. But how many students know that the original UC building was almost burnt to a complete crisp many, many years ago? My guess is that most students, at least most students who aren’t part of University College, probably don’t know much about this fire. Allow me to tell you the tale.

The year was 1890 and the day was February 14th—Valentine’s Day. The University College Literary and Scientific Society was hosting a conversazione, an annual traditional event that many colleges still have today, that featured literary readings, exhibits, and a large ball. The attendance for the event was said to have been over 3,000. At around 7 p.m. two servants were climbing the southeast staircase with a tray of kerosene lamps to be used to light the event. Unfortunately, the tray of lamps fell and the fire from them spread almost immediately to the wooden staircase. From there, it reached the upper library in the east side of the building. Toronto’s fire brigade at this time consisted of only two fire engines and one hydrant, and the water pressure from the small hydrant was not strong enough to reach the upper floors. The fire wasn’t under control until 10 p.m. and flames lasted in parts of the building until almost midnight. The building was severely damaged, with the eastern side irreparably burnt.  The library’s collection was destroyed in the fire, with the exception of about a hundred books that have been preserved.

John Edwin Usher's depiction of the fire at University College (1890)

John Edwin Usher’s depiction of the fire at University College (1890)


Café Reznikoff and Diabolos’ Coffee Bar

Cafe Rezknikoff, U of T

Diabolos' Coffee Bar is located in the Junior Common Room at University College

Diabolos’ Coffee Bar is located in the Junior Common Room at University College

This legend is connected to these two popular cafés on campus. It is said that during the construction of University College in the 1850s there were two very different stonemasons working on the building, Reznikoff and Diabolos. Ivan Reznikoff was said to be huge man with a violent temper. In contrast, Paul Diabolos was a pale, handsome sculptor from Greece. Diabolos was credited with much of the best-carved work in the east wing of University College that was destroyed in the fire of 1890. The two men did not like each other in the slightest; Diabolos was even said to have mockingly used Reznikoff’s face as the model for one of the gargoyles in the building—check out the gargoyles near the Croft Chapter House if you want to see for yourself.

However, the legend really starts, as so many epic legends do, with love. The two stonemasons were in love with the same woman who, unfortunately for Diabolos, was Reznikoff’s fiancée. Despite this, the handsome Diabolos managed to persuade the young lady to run away with him, taking Reznikoff’s savings with them. But before they could leave, Reznikoff learned of the affair and on the empty worksite of the college building Diabolos and Reznikoff finally confronted each other. Reznikoff chased Diabolos through the unfinished building with an axe. One of his missed swings hit an oak door in the college, where the mark, it is claimed, can still be seen today. The two men ended up high in the unfinished tower, which is where accounts of the story vary. Some say that Reznikoff took a mighty swing at Diabolos, missed, and plummeted to his death. Others insist that Diabolos actually snuck up on Reznikoff, pounced on him with his dagger, and then buried his body in the unfinished cement of the tower.

Which account is true we will never know for sure. Following the death of Reznikoff, Diabolos and Reznikoff’s fiancée both vanished from the city, never to be seen again. Many students report hearing strange, inexplicable sounds from the University College tower in the dead of the night, possibly noises from Reznikoff’s ghost. The legend has given its name to the Café Reznikoff and the student-run Diabolos’ Coffee Bar, both of which have equally good coffee, in my opinion.

Hopefully you found the history behind these locations interesting. Writing this post really made me realize just how old and rich the history of our school is.  If this post made you want to discover even more history you’re in luck as we plan on doing similar posts again with a whole new cast of places on campus. Let me know in the comments if there is location in particular you’ve always wondered about!