A few years ago, before this blog existed, Linda & I used Winnipeg’s old schools for our 12 Days of Christmas. The school articles originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press starting in 2004. I have expanded and updated the features, added many more pictures and helpful links. I begin the series with one of my all-time favourite buildings.
There is no better place to begin my series about Winnipeg’s grand old schools than standing here in front of Earl Grey School’s glorious façade with its asymmetrical towers above the entrances and contrasting brick and limestone details. Earl Grey School is my alma mater, though not in the usual way. I was raised and educated in rural Manitoba and never attended any Winnipeg schools. Let me explain.
At the beginning of 2004, I had surgery, which required a long recovery time. As part of my recuperation, I decided to take three months and teach myself everything I could about architecture. My aim was not to design and build buildings but rather to recognize and describe various architectural styles, details and eras.
Being a lifelong learner I had done this before, teaching myself about subjects as far ranging as spirituality, nanotechnology and futurism. As a writer, I find broad knowledge and studied references essential.
Once I began to learn architectural terms and designs from library books and online, I needed to find explicit examples of them in the world. I live two blocks away from Earl Grey School and had walked by it for 25 years without really seeing it. With my new-found appreciation of the built environment, suddenly Earl Grey School “existed.” I saw it for the first time now that I was able to describe it and appreciate its wonderful style and detailing.
Since then, I have often walked around Earl Grey School with my clipboard, noting its roofline and masonry style, its fenestration and glorious entry towers. I took pictures of it to study at home, researched its architect and was given a thorough and gracious tour of the interior by Principal Gail Singer. At Linda’s urging, I started to write about it. My first “This Old School” feature in the Winnipeg Free Press was about Earl Grey School back in late 2004.
Earl Grey School is one of Winnipeg Schools architect J. B. Mitchell’s spectacular ones – huge, beautiful and expensive. I wrote extensively about J. B. Mitchell.
Settled handsomely at the corner of Cockburn Street and Fleet Avenue and towering above its neighbourhood, Earl Grey is truly one of Winnipeg’s grandest old schools. It was constructed during Winnipeg’s boom time when population growth on the newly opened prairie was exploding.
Detail of decorative arches on rear of Earl Grey School by school architect J. B. Mitchell. There are ten arches in this picture!
On July 3, 1914 the City of Winnipeg granted the school board permit #2244 to build a school on the west side of Fleet between Helen (now Cockburn) and Garwood. Construction began in 1914. Total cost was nearly $186,000, an enormous amount of money for a school. To replace Earl Grey School today would require at least $4 million. The 2.4 acre lot the school sits on was a relative bargain at $7,559. That’s about $152,000 today.
The result was Earl Grey School – three-storeys tall with 25 rooms and able to accommodate 675 students. In 1915 Earl Grey, as this section of Winnipeg is known, was a burgeoning neighbourhood with large wood frame houses sprouting everywhere on streets freshly cut from the surrounding pastures still dotted with a few greenhouses.
Let’s take an architectural tour of the place. While my pictures provide context and some detail, to get the full impact of the building and appreciate its complexity you need to walk around it, be there with it.
Like many of J. B. Mitchell’s schools of the time, Earl Grey School’s design is loosely based on British Board schools from 1870 to 1900. These massive solid buildings became symbols of progress and enlightenment, qualities that Mitchell felt were essential to Canada’s future. When you look at the building, its impact is one of stability, openness and hope.
Earl Grey School’s architectural imprint is an eclectic mix of styles as were British Board schools of the late Victorian era. Architect Mitchell combined Romanesque, Gothic and even a few Queen Anne elements to make the school an exceptional delight. The combination of styles captured the public imagination and became representative of the Enlightenment.
Typical is the red brick exterior with Tyndall stone details. Set on a tall limestone foundation, this stately building’s facade features two dramatic towers above the entrances, their height difference a hint of the complex symmetry of the building. The rear sections of the U-shape plan are uneven sizes to complement the uneven towers.
The pavilions on which the towers sit are identical with deep smooth limestone arched entrances and the monograms E and G. As you ascend the stairs, the muscular arch with its robust curved keystone draws you deep inside to a sheltering alcove before you pass through the elegant doorway into the school.
Moving upward both towers feature limestone quoins, two small multi-diamond-paned windows, a larger rectangular window with limestone surround, a scroll under a short pediment at eave level. Each pediment has a stone emblem inscribed with The Maple Leaf our
Emblem Dear and God Save Our Gracious King.
The stubbier south tower (above) has pilasters, corbelling, a smaller window with a stone sill and a parapet dressed up with Dutch gables pierced with round lights. The taller north tower (right) sports a false balustrade in limestone beneath an arched window under fine corbelling in an inset. Its uneven parapet sports Dutch gables with small lights.
Earl Grey School’s glowing facade.
The façade section between the towers is fascinating. Here the use of two slightly different colours of bricks is used to great effect. Notice the fenestration. The foundation has six wide arched windows with segmented heads allowing plenty of light into the basement. Above, five bays separated by pilasters, capped at the second floor level, sport 36 rectangular windows with limestone sills and stained glass transoms. Effective brick detailing on the spandrels is a lively addition. A stone belt course runs across the façade at the third floor. Craved in limestone and bracketed by rosettes are the words The Earl Grey School. (I don’t think the sneakers hanging from the name were part of Mitchell’s design.) Thereafter a compelling vertical sweeps up past the school name to the only two dormers with peaked roofs. Beyond, sky’s the limit!
Another dramatic feature, typical of early J. B. Mitchell schools, is the strikingly exuberant use of arches all around, especially on the dark-roofed dormers – sixteen in all – that face every direction. There are window arches, arched insets, curved entranceways, Dutch gables and arches within arches.
The two-and-a-half-storey-tall arches over south side entrance - arches within arches.
Notice the side entrances. On the north, two narrow doorways are surmounted with a deep curved inset. Its small balcony has an iron railing. Two windows, the top one arched to complement the feature, are set in the indentation. On the roof directly above, an arched dormer takes your attention to the huge blue sky. A similar entrance experience occurs on the south side.
Elegant arches of Dutch gable surmounting the south rear entrance. Even the steps are arched.
At the rear of the building are two entrances each with its own masterful design and execution. Each has a pair of doors separated by an arched window deep inside a raised porch with a wide fanciful archway. Above, stepped corbelling and yet another variation on the arches theme, a Dutch gable, complete both entrances. Notice the interplay between the brickwork in the corbelling, the wall behind it and the outer rim of the arch with three rows of headers. The north entrance is now obscured by the gymnasium.
Inside the rear U of the school, the white terra cotta detailing stands out against the red patina of the brick.
Most of the decorative features are inexpensive, not requiring special materials or artisans. The exception is the upper detailing on the inside corners of the rear sections. A variation on a Dutch gable with modillions is set in a white terra cotta wall panel with false limestone balustrades and brackets.
In this rear view the delicate asymmetry of Mitchell’s plan is obscured by the brick gymnasium. Note the arched dormers.
If you’ve ever wondered what one million bricks look like in one place, look at Earl Grey School. That’s how many contractors W. M. Scott and Company needed to build the original building, not including the gym. The bond is a tight American bond with every fourth row headers, requiring more bricks. Usually American bond has fifth, sixth or seventh row headers. The builders used 1,000 cubic metres of concrete to create a concrete slab and concrete joists. There are 325 cubic meters of limestone on the school, 9000 square meters of superficial plaster. The lot has 114 feet frontage to a depth of 164 feet. The cornerstone was placed on October 2, 1914.
Two of Mitchell’s major design concerns were safety and lighting. Made of fireproof material with wide hallways and many exits, the building satisfied all safety requirements when built and still does today. At one time Earl Grey School had spiral metal fire escapes, basically chutes in silos, to evacuate the third floor in case of fire. Read my feature Cheap Thrills and Fire Drills on spiral metal fire escapes on Winnipeg schools.
Large plentiful windows provide sufficient light and provide cross-ventilation. Earl Grey had Winnipeg’s first direct alarm connection to a fire hall. The school library opened in 1941, an intercom system was installed in 1958 and the new gymnasium was completed in 1965.
The school was heated by coal furnaces in the basement which burned mud-like Souris coal requiring much stoking and shoveling. On cold winter nights, the firemen worked all night to heat the school.
One of the rooms of the custodian’s suite as it looks today. Most of the rooms still have remnants of garish flower wallpaper, popular in the early 1900s.
The need for a constant presence to mind the furnaces and maintain the building meant a custodian’s apartment was provided in the attic of Earl Grey School. The custodian and his family lived in the large apartment, using a separate entrance. The last live-in custodian left in the early 1950s. The school was converted to gas in 1961.
In this picture the dormer windows of the dilapidated apartment offer a fine view of a mature neighbourhood, very different from the young suburb springing up when Earl Grey was built. Read my feature article about custodian suites in several of Winnipeg’s old schools.
The striking Art Deco double entrance inside Earl Grey School.
Once you pass through the Art Deco entrance, the interior of Earl Grey School is a strikingly practical design with wide hallways, tall ceilings and dark wood paneling carried throughout the building. Stairways have wrought iron railings and wooden banisters polished smooth by decades of childrens’ hands. Skylights brighten the third floor and the custodian’s apartment. And more arches! In a design rarely seen today, the school’s warm air vents are vertical arches.
For many years the school’s gymnasium had shared the basement with the woodwork and metal shops and two classrooms but its low ceiling precluded sports like volleyball. There were no change or equipment rooms. A new gym was proposed. Built by contractors B. F. Klassen Construction Ltd., the large gymnasium on the school’s west side was completed in October 1965. The bricks on the gym, though not matching the school’s brick, complement both buildings. The gym’s chevron roofline less so.
Gymnasium built in 1965 with chevron roof.
The school is named after British nobleman Albert Henry George Grey, the 4th Earl Grey (left). A popular personage, (at one time he was Chief Boy Scout of Canada), he acted as Governor-General of Canada between 1904 and 1911. An avid sports fan and a strong advocate of fitness and health, Lord Earl Grey initiated the Grey Cup in 1909. Earl Grey tea is named after the position, actually the 2nd Earl Grey, not specifically our Earl Grey.
The first students attended Earl Grey School in September 1915. Over its almost hundred-year history, the school has educated thousands of children and produced many illustrious alumni, among them lawyer Robert Steen, (right) who was a Manitoba MLA in the 1960s and Winnipeg’s 38th mayor from 1977 to 1979. In 1980 The National Film Board produced a documentary about Steen called The New Mayor. Another Earl Grey alumnus is media philosopher and fusionary Marshall McLuhan (left) who received all his formal education in Winnipeg. Among McLuhan’s major contributions are his Laws of Media. Musician and social activist Neil Young (below), the soul of Buffalo Springfield, the Y in CSN&Y, also attended Earl Grey School.
At one time, both signatures on Canadian paper money were Earl Grey graduates: James E. Coyne (below) was the second Governor of The Bank of Canada (1955-61), and John R. Beattie, Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada. This $20 from the 1950s has both signatures.
Another Earl Grey graduate was journalist, spy and WWII hero Frank Pickersgill. A film called Canadian Special Operations Executive Stories of WWII documents the exploits of Pickersgill and other spies. Watch it on YouTube.
In 1919, Earl Grey School became the site of a major educational innovation; it was the first Junior High School in Canada. Read my feature article on how this came to be.
Today Earl Grey School educates 220 Nursery to Grade 8 students, about one-third of its capacity, with 28 staff members. Asked to characterize her school, Principal Gail Singer said, “We’re a close-knit family, creative and innovative.”
Still the scene of innovation, since 1995 Earl Grey has offered an all-girls program for grades 7 & 8 that has a strong academic focus and emphasize math, science, and technology. Research indicates that girls can benefit academically in an all-girls environment where they are encouraged to take risks and to develop positive self-esteem.
The school features state-of-the-art computers (they are the iPad generation now) and science labs that benefit all students. In 1999 Earl Grey School was made a member of the Network of Innovative Schools.
Always ready to innovate, today Earl Grey School participates in Building Student Success with Aboriginal Parents which aims to increase the involvement of Aboriginal parents in education. ABC Montessori School is also located in the building.
Earl Grey School’s centennial is next year! If you are an alumnus of Earl Grey School, please call the school office at 204-474-1441 or email email@example.com to add your name to our 100th anniversary contact list. Celebrations are planned for May 15 & 16, 2015. To prepare for the centennial, a school yard beautification project is underway. While maintaining its proud historic connections, Earl Grey School continues to look to the future.
Simply by being there, Earl Grey School taught and inspired me. Special, familiar and precious, a neighbourhood icon, it galvanized my attention and gave me wisdom, educated me. Because of that, I will always think of Earl Grey School as my alma mater.
Earl Grey School
Materials: red brick and limestone
Style: Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival three-storey
Architect J. B. Mitchell
Builder W. M. Scott and Co.
Original cost $185,548
Rebuild cost $3,622,604
Current assessed value $4,169,000
Acreage 2.4 acres