Because of the method used to heat schools, usually a coal furnace that required stoking day and night, many of Winnipeg’s grand old school built a hundred ago had living quarters on the top floor for the custodian and his family. The first school in Winnipeg with a custodian’s suite was Laura Secord. Other schools that offered accommodations for the caretaker were Earl Grey and Isaac Brock. Located in the building’s large attic or garret, the suite had direct access to the furnace room, typically by a separate narrow staircase.
Though the last custodians to live in schools moved out in the 1950s, Earl Grey School retains the rooms from the suite. Located on the northwest corner of the attic, there are seven large rooms off a wide central hallway. Since there is no reason to maintain it (it is securely off-limits to students), the suite has fallen into disrepair. Long empty, the rooms still have the once-garish, now-faded flowered wallpaper.
The suite is surprisingly bright since only the large rounded dormer windows and skylights, or light wells as they were called at the time, in almost every room provide light. The views out these windows of the surrounding neighbourhoods as they grew would have been spectacular. Today the view is of a mature forest with sundry houses nestled among the protective elms.
There is a separate entrance for the custodian and his family as well as six flights of stairs to the basement. The stairways have the original cast iron uprights and oak banisters. This is a picture of the custodian’s stairwell to Earl Grey’s furnace room, still with original light fixture. The floors in the suite look like hardwood but in fact are concrete, striated and painted to appear wood-like.
For the school’s 75th anniversary in 1987, Aileen Gunter, principal at Laura Secord School from 1961 to 1976, recalled an experience with the old custodian’s suite: One day a workman left unlocked one of the doors to this desolate area. The small entrance was discovered by some bright curious Grade 6 girls. They proceeded to set up a playhouse in the abandoned caretaker’s suite. As the area was very old, they could have been in considerable danger. Some time later, their aerie discovered, they were suitably contrite and promised fervently never to so endanger themselves again. They are young women now. I wonder if they still remember participating in The Mystery of the Narrow Staircase.
Find many more stories about Manitoba schools on my Schools page.