Anyone interested in the history of Dalhousie and Halifax will soon notice how frequently the names 'Sir James Dunn' and 'Lady Dunn' appear on buildings and cultural spaces. Indeed, the Dunn name can be found on schools, hospitals, and scholarship funds around the country. Born in Bathurst, New Brunswick, in 1874, Dunn made his fortune in the early-20th century as a financier and industrialist. When he died in 1956, his wife, Marcia Anastasia Christoforides, set about fulfilling his wishes to generously fund charitable, cultural, and educational initiatives through the Sir James Dunn Foundation.
The Sir James Dunn Building was one such project. Dunn had long been a generous donor to Dalhousie, having graduated from its law school in 1898. When he died, Lady Dunn was interested in using the Foundation to support the law school. The Weldon Law Building had only recently opened, however, so Lady Dunn was advised that her money would be most useful in funding a building for Physics, Engineering and Geology (though funds were used to create the Sir James Dunn Law Library in the Weldon Building).
The architect hired to design the new Science building was E.W. Haldenby of Toronto, from the same firm which had designed the Henry Hicks Academic Building in 1949. The Georgian style of the other campus buildings was used again. Ironstone from Purcell's Cove was ornamented with sandstone trim. Spaces were even left in the foundation for creeping vines to fill in. The building would be hailed as the best example of Georgian architecture in the Maritimes. Contracting responsibilities went to A.G. Sullivan.
The sod-turning for the building took place October 29, 1957, the anniversary of Sir James' birthday. On the same day one year later, the cornerstone was laid. University Chancellor C.D. Howe declared the day a half-holiday and hosted a dinner for 150 at the Nova Scotian followed by a ball for the graduating classes in Arts and Science, Law and Engineering.
Construction proceeded turbulently. Lady Dunn was a powerful woman who asserted her desires and protested loudly when they were not satisfied. She faced off with the Board of Governors, architects, and representatives of the Physics department over numerous issues, insisting on nothing but the best in materials and construction standards. She also refused to let tenders be called for the proposed Men's Residence, as it might 'distract' the attention of the architects away from the 'more important' Science building. She didn't want the elevator shafts to protrude from the top of the building, so a parapet was added at a cost of $250,000. The door handles were not to her liking, so they were replaced, as was the marble in the foyer. The building plans were constantly changing, as the costs rose above estimates and delay followed delay.
Finally, on October 29, 1960, the $2.5 million Sir James Dunn Science Building opened its doors, with great pomp and another of C.D. Howe's impressive dinner parties. The opening ceremonies' speakers included distinguished scientists such as Sir John Cockcroft and Dr. Gerhard Herzberg. The building featured a lecture room with a capacity of 240, a drafting room, labs, a library, and research facilities. The nuclear and physics equipment were "unique in their type of any establishment east of Montreal" (Gazette October 7, 1959).
Today Dalhousie's Physics department occupies most of the Dunn Building. The building has classrooms, computer labs, a planetarium and Dalhousie's Lidar, an atmospheric laser. The Engineering department retains some offices, classrooms and labs; the growing Geology department was relocated to the Life Sciences Centre in 1971 and 1982.