A recent letter from my old employer, the University of Toronto, reminded me of one of the city’s more interesting buildings: The Chemistry Department. Decked out in alchemical symbols, the building stands as a reminder of chemistry’s origins in the occult. (More on the controversial nature of that, shortly.)
I worked at the Chemistry department in 2010 before returning to school. Despite the outward appearance, I can confirm that, while the experiments inside were just as ambitious (e.g. curing cancer), no lead was turned into gold while I was there—at least that I know of!
In fact, the alchemical symbols were a bit of a sticking point for many of the scientists, who felt it had more to do with magic than their work*. Though some staffers (myself included) did enjoy the references.
I recently got together with a friend from the Chemistry department and had the opportunity to take some photos. Without further ado, here’s a tour of Toronto’s alchemy building!
The Chemistry Depart at U of T is actually two buildings: Lash Miller (the one with the alchemical symbols) and Davenport, a snazzy new wing (we’ll see a bit more of it later).
The lobby is very 1960’s—all metal and marble. One almost feels out of place without a pair of horn-rimmed glasses!
Just inside the lobby entrance is a key to the building’s alchemical symbols listing what each one stands for. Obviously, someone at some point cared about the reference enough to try to explain it!
(Pssst…you can view a large version of the symbol key here.)
The Davenport wing is more modern, but again, someone was thinking of alchemy. check out this sign for the washroom, it’s the symbol for urine! Ha!
Outside is where the most references exist. Here are a few shots of the building:
For those who like their alchemy a bit more up close and personal, here are some close-ups of the symbols. You can see that it’s not just chemists who have taken up residence at Lash Miller, a number of sparrows also call it home.
While not everyone at Chemistry can agree whether the alchemical symbols are appropriate, I’m sure most readers will find them very interesting. Many thanks to Nina at Chemistry for showing me around and helping me to share some of Toronto’s (occult!) architectural history with you.
* There was one chemist who referred to nitro-hydrocloric acid as Aqua Regia, so maybe not all of the faculty was ardently opposed.