Imagine Winnipeg in its boomtown days – 1890 to 1915. The population grew by thousands every month. Immigrants, mainly from Europe, converged here, some passed through for points south, west or north. Others saw their opportunity in this brand new city at the confluence of two old rivers.
Over two decades of post-railway bustle that changed a floodplain into a city, almost fifty schools were built to educate all those new western Canadian children. Between 1900 and 1913, school enrolment increased 200%, from 7,500 to 22,000. By contrast, enrolment during the 1950s baby boom increased 25%.
One of Winnipeg’s grandest old schools from the boomtown era is La Verendrye School (left, not long after it opened) in Fort Rouge. Though residential and business areas quickly grew up around it, when it opened in 1909 La Verendrye School was on the outskirts of the city. Reporting on the school’s cornerstone laying on July 8, 1909 by Ward 1 Trustee F.C. Hubbard, the Manitoba Free Press reported, “Yesterday visitors journeyed to the ground or within 100 yards of it by electric car and found there was still something of Winnipeg beyond them, though the streets lose some of their garb of traffic and dwellings are hidden in areas of native bush.”
In the early 1900s, education was viewed as a panacea for ignorance and the buildings in which it occurred had to reflect that optimism and hope. In contrast to the few wood frame homes around it, the scale and solid mass of La Verendrye School still provides a feeling of promise and stability.
Centred perfectly between Jessie Avenue and Warsaw Avenue on Lilac Street, the location takes full advantage of having an empty square block without competing buildings. Based on a design by School Division Architect and Commissioner of School Buildings J. B. Mitchell and constructed of local materials, La Verendrye School is a commingling of Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival and Classical Revival architectural styles.
The school’s weathered exterior is pale dun-coloured brick with Tyndall stone trim set on a raised limestone foundation. The façade features end wings with wide semi-circular windows accentuating Dutch gables (right).
The front entrance (left) is very formal with a shallow pilastered portico topped with a cut stone balustrade. Above that an arched tri-part window leads the eye upward toward the school name carved in stone and beyond to the dramatic arch with ball pinnacles (below).
The side entrance on the north side of the building (left) has a deeper portico with similar balustrade under a Dutch gable with a bull’s-eye window. The south side entrance is obscured by the gym.
Mitchell’s objectives were student safety and adequate natural lighting. The corridors are wide with plenty of exits and large windows flood the classrooms with light. Though not the originals, the façade features leaded stained glass windows. Most of the rooms still have original pressed tin ceilings.
The total cost to construct the 20-room school was $81,184. Contractors Saul and Irish were paid $69,920 to build the school. The Steam Power and Heating Company got $10,200 to install the state-of-the-art heating and ventilation systems with stylish arched vertical vents midway up the walls, a giant step up from rooms heated by stoves. Though proposed, a third floor caretaker’s suite was never built.
The school’s first principal was David Merritt Duncan (left). Duncan had been classics master at Winnipeg Collegiate Institute and later would principal at the new Kelvin Technical High School. A founder of the Community Chest, Duncan became Superintendent of Schools for the Division in 1929, succeeding Daniel McIntyre.
Obliged to accommodate mentally handicapped children, the school system struggled to find workable solutions. In 1914, La Verendrye School was the site of a program called “Opportunity” which brought handicapped children together in special classes. Over the next decade, various methods were tried, with 300 children attending classes by 1926.
Anna Gibson, who had a school named for her, was a novice teacher at La Verendrye School in 1918 when the Spanish flu hit Manitoba. She volunteered to help in a hospital and succumbed to the flu within a few weeks.
The gym was added onto the south side in 1964, a benefit to the students that offered the drawback of precluding the building from being named a heritage site. In the late 1980s, the school was saved from demolition by an area parents group.
Operated as a high school for two years, La Verendrye became an elementary school to handle the overflow from Fort Rouge School. Today La Verendrye is the oldest school in Winnipeg School Division continuously used for students.
Among La Verendrye School’s century plus of alumni, you will find Terry Fox’s father, Rolly and artist Nathan Carlson.
Named after early Quebec explorer, Pierre Gaultier de Verennes, La Verendrye School is one of a handful of early schools not named after stalwarts of the British Empire. Since 1983, the school has offered French Immersion classes for Nursery to Grade 6 students. Today 310 students attend École La Verendrye taught by 31 teachers.
The centennial of La Verendrye School occurred in 2009. To quote the school’s website, “In June 2009, École La Vérendrye celebrated its centennial with a major community barbecue and carnival, as well as numerous historical projects. A circa-1909 heritage classroom was made a permanent part of the school, offering students from across the Division a chance to experience history in an immersive environment.” Due to increased enrolment since the centennial the heritage classroom no longer exists as it was needed for a regular classroom.
La Verendrye School
Materials: buff brick and limestone
Style: Queen Anne, Classical Revival two-storey
Architect: J. B. Mitchell
Contractors: Saul and Irish
Original cost $81,184
Current assessed value $3,240,000
Acreage 3 acres