An inspirational teacher, who taught at OCA:
She took joy in sharing her knowledge; An architectural historian spread her passion for art and esthetics to her students, colleagues and the public
26 August 2008
Someone once called Marion MacRae "Upper Canada's architectural historian," and the fit of the phrase was obvious.
Ms. MacRae wrote a series of books that spoke of Ontario history through the buildings of its early history. The first, The Ancestral Roof, published in 1963 with co-author Anthony Adamson, read this history through private homes dating back to the late 18th-century arrival of the Loyalists. In 1975, the pair published Hallowed Walls, an exploration of early religious architecture in Ontario that won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction. Their final collaboration from 1983 was Cornerstones of Order, which looked at pre-20th-century courthouses and townhouses in the province. The Ancestral Roof, 45 years after its publication, is still used in university architecture and art history classes.
For her work, Ms. MacRae was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1982.
Quite apart from her writing, Ms. MacRae taught several generations of students at the Ontario College of Art and Design -- which she entered in 1943 as a student and only left 43 years later, upon her retirement as a professor of design history.
Though she spent much of her life in Toronto, Ms. MacRae had strong connections to the Ottawa area. She was born and grew up in Apple Hill in Glengarry County, and died on Aug. 11 at Glengarry Memorial Hospital, after spending the past decade at Maxville Manor in Maxville. She was 87.
William Hodge studied under Ms. MacRae at OCAD and later, when he joined faculty, came to know her as a colleague. "If you ask nearly anyone about Marion, you're going to hear the word 'amazing,' simply because no other word quite describes how she was as a teacher, scholar, or human being."
There were several things that always struck him about Ms. MacRae. She always conveyed a feeling of equality, of stepping beyond any sense of rank, when she dealt with students. She could make connections between developments in historical design even in societies separated by oceans, the kinds of connections that no one else in Mr. Hodge's experience seemed to make. And her love of her subject was absolute and contagious. "Marion was never putting anyone down or herself up -- she just took tremendous joy in sharing her knowledge, of giving it away, and you never left a conversation without feeling that you had learned something from her."
Her writing was as approachable as her teaching style. Anyone with a high school education and curiosity could have a gratifying encounter with her books, Mr. Hodge said, a compliment he would not pay to most academic writing.
Her nephew, Allan MacRae, of Hayward, California, recalled spending hundreds of childhood hours with her at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. "What was remarkable was how much detail she could convey about the objects we would look at. We might examine a piece of jade, something perhaps 2,000 years old -- and she would want me to understand not only the beauty of the object, but all the skill and effort of the artisan who made it."
This fascination with esthetics, design and history came to Ms. MacRae early on. As Mr. MacRae noted, "Art and esthetics was a passion from her early years."
In 1943, she entered what was then still known as the Ontario College of Art, which she joined as a member of faculty two years after graduation. In 1951, she entered a PhD program in the Fine Arts Department of the University of Illinois, bypassing the normal requirements for a Masters degree.
Her studies were interrupted each summer by work for the St. Lawrence Seaway Commission, then collecting as much information as possible on the seven Loyalist villages that were to be submerged by the St. Lawrence Seaway. She was a consultant on the project, suggesting which buildings were especially important to preserve.
Ms. MacRae received many other honours besides her Governor General's Award and her Order of Canada. She was a member of the American Society of Architectural Historians, of the National Trust (U.K.), the Ontario Historical Society and the Victorian Society of England.