I began this series on Winnipeg’s grand old schools with Earl Grey School due its unique position in my development. The rest of the schools will be offered chronologically by the year they were built, starting with an overview of Winnipeg as the 20th Century began.
Winnipeg 1898 – 1909
The new millennium brought radical changes in the way we travel thanks to the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford and the creation of General Motors. The new era of transportation began in Winnipeg with the first “horseless carriage,” reputedly owned by Professor Edgar Kenrick, appearing on the streets in 1901.
Other than bicycles and electric streetcars, horses were the major transportation mode. Livery stables abounded (there were nine of them on the south side of Portage between Main and Donald in 1905) as did blacksmiths, harness makers and sellers, and horse troughs. To house their trade, carriage and harness companies built massive multi-storey buildings in what is now called the Exchange District. Great West Saddlery Company’s two buildings at 112-114 and 113 Market Avenue are fine examples.
By 1905, there were a dozen “benzene buggies” which, as they passed, often elicited shouts of “Get a horse!” from bystanders. By 1910, cars were a common sight on Winnipeg streets. The last horse trough, dismantled in 1952, was across from City Hall.
The T. Eaton Company opened their huge Winnipeg store in 1906 and the Redwood Bridge opened in 1908 providing further access to the Municipality of Kildonan. Largely due to European immigrants, many of whom lived in the Dagmar District, by 1900 Winnipeg’s population had grown to 40,000, to 100,000 in 1906 and 213,000 in 1913.
This rapid growth challenged school systems. In this decade, at least 27 schools were built, very few of which remain standing.
During this period, new curriculum concepts developed to educate the influx. Innovative ideas like William Sisler’s direct method of teaching English, night schools and Household Arts (Home Ec) were introduced.
ISBISTER SCHOOL/WINNIPEG ADULT EDUCATION CENTRE
The oldest public school in Winnipeg and the last old downtown school sits rather anonymously, preciously on Vaughan Street, just north of The Bay. In fact, the land Isbister School stands on once belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Reserve. To accommodate the school the Board purchased a block of lots at $100 each from the Hudson’s Bay Company. To assure good water, one of the major challenges in the city’s early development, a 160 foot-deep well was dug.
On June 14, 1898, the contract for a ten-room, three-storey building was let to the construction firm of Sutherland and Wood at a cost of $29,336. Construction began one week later. Architect Samuel Hooper supplied the plans.
In the architectural drawing of Isbister (above), you can see Hooper’s intent was to employ Queen Anne style architecture, an eclectic style used mainly for residential buildings in Winnipeg. This makes any public building using the style particularly special.
A cornerstone laying ceremony was held on September 26, 1898. Building committee chairman Angus Browne presided. Joseph Carman, the school board chairman, said, “The walls that you see rising before you are an expression of the universal desire of our citizens to give their children who will succeed them such a training as will enable them to carry on worthily the work of nation building which their fathers have so well begun.”
By early November the brick work was nearly up to the top of the third storey so construction was rushed to get the roof on before winter. On January 5, 1899 the new Smead-Dowd Heating System was fired up to provide warmth for the interior plastering. The interior work was handled by C.W. Sharp.
Isbister School opened its doors to its first students on March 27, 1899, just slightly behind schedule. What grandeur awaited the first pupils! Their school became a showcase proudly displayed to visiting dignitaries for the modernity of its design, heating, ventilation, lighting and electrical system. In many ways, Isbister School was the prototype for a dozen Winnipeg schools that followed it. The school still evokes a sense of wonder 115 years after it was built. Current (2014) WAEC principal Roz Moore says, “It is certainly an honour to work in such a beautiful and historic building.”
For a number of reasons, some inadvertent, in Isbister School we have an extremely well preserved example of fanciful Queen Anne architecture on a public building. Delightfully, despite the recent addition, we can still experience both the exterior and interior more or less as it was when Hooper brought it forth from his imagination.
The school has many striking features: its picturesque roofline flowing from a medium-pitched hip roof into large gables on every elevation, richly detailed chimneys that bracket the building and an unusual entry tower with multi-tiered, pagoda-like cupola. The school measured 75 x 81 feet (22.7 x 24.7 m) giving it 6075 square feet (561 sq. m) on each floor. The entry tower induces a feeling of ascension beginning with the ground-level steps that lift you into a landing in a small pavilion bracketed with columns and an elaborate rough limestone surround. A short balustrade in sandstone at the landing off-sets the entrance and appears to be an after-thought but it is included in Hooper’s original drawing. Beyond, large double doors invite you inside. Above the entry, a wide graceful limestone arch embraces a pair of rectangular windows, each capped with a limestone lintel and linked brick arches. Note the brickwork (cross-hatching, sunburst) that infills the large arch above the windows includes a ghost arch. Upward, just above a stone belt course, another pair of rectangular windows with stone lintels are bracketed with pilasters and surmounted by a dentil then the school name carved in stone.
The tower that extends above the roof has an open arcade of three arches with balustrades along the front and a single window one each side executed in rough stone. The first roof above an extended cornice is a foursquare convex design with round hooded windows. The cupola is composed of a short square section with a blind arcade of hooded arches in every direction. Above heavy brackets, a concave roof ends in a pinnacle, a peak and a flagpole. The highly accomplished craftsmanship on the entry tower in both stone and brick lives up to the expectations of Hooper’s plan.
Similar to British Board schools, which were usually three-storeys, square with boxy massing, Hooper built his design on a tall foundation with stone up to the sills of the first floor windows cut by low rectangular windows.
There are two different stones used in the school’s high foundation. Typical Tyndall limestone alternates with paler sandstone. The brickwork on every elevation is highly decorative and expertly executed. In this regard, notice the brickwork around its wide variety of windows and openings, the tops of the pilasters and the chimneys.
The subtle asymmetry of the front facade is balanced by the fenestration. Three rows of windows adorn the front facade. Notice the first and third floor windows are rectangular but the middle row has arched crowns to complement the large central tower arch and the three arches it encloses. The gables denote where the pilasters divide the facade. The smaller south (left) gable covers just two rows of windows while the larger north gable covers all three rows.
The school originally had ten classrooms, four on the first and second storeys and two on the third, shared with an assembly hall that was later converted into two additional classrooms. The classrooms were spacious and well illuminated with cloak rooms in each room and blackboards and carved wainscoting along the walls. Colourful stained glass panels with magenta and blue floral motifs filled the transoms. Adjustable desks (right) were attached to the maple floors. These cast iron and wooden desks were made by A. H. Andrews Co. in Chicago and were called desk benches due to the combination of chair and table. In the basement, the school had a playroom; we’d call it a gymnasium.
The interior of Isbister is slightly changed; many distinctive original elements remain. Passing through the double doors you enter a vestibule, three more steps, through double doors and you arrive on the main floor of the school. Wide stairways on the east and west sides greet you. Every hallway, foyer and classroom has the original pressed metal ceilings in a variety of floral and geometric designs. Block and column detailing surrounds the classroom doors. The maple floors throughout the building have a lovely creak to them. The stairs, uprights and banisters are oak which glows with a hundred-plus-year-old patina. The handrail and globes of the newel posts have been smoothed by the caresses of countless hands
over the decades, leaving them almost soft to the touch. The 1899 Annual Report by the Winnipeg Public School Board described the interior of Isbister:
The character of the finishing, the pleasant effect of the colouring in the furniture, walls and ceilings has an important value as one of the educational influences by which the children are affected. With no museums or picture galleries or other agencies for the cultivation of taste and promotion of art amongst us, it is important that the school should not fail in its duty in this respect, for no educational agencies have greater claims on the ground of utility alone than those concerned with the education of taste.
As you can see in this picture postcard of Isbister School (below), it once had wrought iron filigree cresting along the roof peaks and metal fire escape slides on the north and south sides. The slides were installed in 1907 and could evacuate all students in less than two minutes. In August 1909, the British Association for the Advancement of Science held their convention in Winnipeg. Isbister along with Carlton (at Carlton and Graham) and Alexandra (at Edmonton and St. Mary) schools were pressed into service for meetings. Delegates must have felt right at home in buildings similar to ones they attended in England.
By 1939, lip-reading classes for the deaf were offered at the school. Though the post-WW2 baby boom helped fill some desks, demographic changes downtown and sliding birth rates meant ever-dwindling enrollments. On June 30, 1964 Isbister School closed its doors and it seemed inevitable the old place would be demolished. Not to be!
Isbister School received a reprieve when it became the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre (WAEC) in September 1967. Eleven years later, enrollment was so large that portable trailers parked around the school handled the overflow. Today WAEC provides high school education in Grades 9 to 12 to mature students, ESL and computer classes. Current enrollment is about 900 pupils with a staff of 45.
In 2004 the steel, glass and concrete L-shaped addition, designed by Penner Prins Architectural Collaborative, was built onto the west side. Structural work was done by Wolfrom Engineering at a cost of $2.5 million. From the third floor, the addition offers some stunning views of downtown. While an incongruent juxtaposition in design and materials, somehow the addition doesn’t detract too heavily from the old building, a testament to the timelessness of Hooper’s design and the empathy of the modern architects. Luckily, the Vaughan Street façade retains its 1898 face, glorious even with pollution-darkened brick and stone.
The experience of entering the new addition from inside is like passing through a time warp. (right) Surrounded by rich wood and arcane designs with creaking floors beneath, at the end of the hall is a blinding white glow, the doorway into the 2004 addition.
The floor of the addition is concrete and feels as if it’s vibrating. The wall of glass is not connected to the floor, the space between the floor and the window contributes to a mild sensation of vertigo. The view of the upper brick detailing on the old school from the addition is spectacular! In the above picture, notice the visible section of the chimney with its dentil, sunburst arches and belt courses. Wow! There is a matching one on the north side of the building. Now move down to the dentil under the building’s eaves and the exquisite brick and stone work thereafter. Note the cross hatch carved in limestone under the rough stone sill.
The south facade of Isbister shows a fine view of how the chimneys are incorporated into the exterior design. Bracketed by exits on every floor, the elaborate chimney protrudes out of the top of the gable. Wide metal stairway fire escapes have replaced the spiral metal slides.
The north side reflects the south in design. The grey wall on the right is the north side of the 2004 addition. I like this shot for the contrast between the old and new school and apartment buildings beyond.
The school is named for Alexander Kennedy Isbister, the son of Orkneyman Thomas Isbister and Cree Mary Kennedy, born in 1822 at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River. A smart and promising student, at 16 he became an articulated clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Later he studied at universities in Scotland and England becoming a lawyer, teacher and writer, completing 21 textbooks. He died on May 28, 1883. A strong supporter of the Red River and Northwest regions, Isbister established a scholarship fund still offered to undergraduates at the University of Manitoba though now paid for by the province. Isbister bequeathed his 5,000 volume library to the U. of M. Regrettably, most were lost in a fire in 1898. In addition to the school, he is commemorated with Isbister Street and the Isbister Building at the U. of M. Fort Garry campus.
Isbister School’s designer, Samuel Hooper, became Provincial Architect in 1904, a position he held until his untimely death in 1911. In addition to designing Isbister School and St. Mary’s School (1904), he created plans for the Carnegie Library (1903-05) and Normal School (1906) on William Avenue. In his role as Provincial Architect, he created three designs for Department of Education one-room schoolhouses in 1903, which were replicated all over rural Manitoba; Land Titles Buildings in Neepawa (1906) and Portage la Prairie (1906), and Courthouses in Brandon (1908-1910) and Morden (1905). Among Hooper’s last designs, in fact one completed by his successor V.H. Horwood, was the University of Manitoba Administration Building (1911-12) on the Fort Garry campus.
Another prominent figure in the story of Isbister School is Daniel David Wood, (left) of Sutherland and Wood Contractors, the builders of many early schools in Winnipeg including Isbister, Somerset, Gladstone and Norquay. Wood, a highly-regarded and successful businessman, served on city council and the Board of Trade. Little is known about his business partner, A. C. Sutherland.
Though opened without fanfare, Isbister School quickly became a
downtown fixture. Notable features of the school included its award-winning mouth organ band which so impressed a visiting Sir. H.G L. Joly, the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia at the time, that
he donated a drum to accompany the harmonicas.
Among the illustrious alumni of Isbister School, you’ll discover Skuli Johnson (left), an early Rhodes Scholar and professor who studied history, philosophy, and classics at Oxford University and taught at the University of Manitoba.
Other Isbister students include star 1912 hockey player for the Winnipeg Victorias and World War 1 hero, George Hamilton (Hammy) Baker (right) who turned down the opportunity to became a professional hockey player, and singer/comedian/good guy Pat Riordan, (left) known to many as Winnipeg’s King of Comedy for his long-standing gigs at The Zoo and The Gort. Watch Pat sing Bobby Darin’s hit Beyond the Sea.
Now that Somerset School has been razed, Isbister School is especially precious because it is the last 19th century school left in the city and one of a very few left in the province. Since Isbister was one of the schools on the demolition hit list of the 1948 Reavis Report, it is even more remarkable that we still have this beautiful old place.
Isbister School/Winnipeg Adult Education Centre
Materials: buff brick, limestone, sandstone, concrete
Style: Queen Anne three-storey
Architect: Samuel Hooper
Contractors: Sutherland and Wood
Original cost $29,336
Current assessed value $6,734,000
Acreage 1.5 acres