Monday, 28 December 2015

Laura Secord School at 960 Wolseley Avenue

Article by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.   
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.


"The great economic prosperity enjoyed by Manitoba through most of its pre-war decade clearly produced a substantial growth in the size and quality of its schools... Winnipeg's energetic building program thrust Manitoba into the forefront of Canadian school building construction during the years 1904-14. It would appear that these architectural and administrative advances were the product of a prosperous maturing society able and willing to avail itself of the best of contemporary school construction technology." 
~ Ivan Saunders ~
(A Survey of Manitoba School Architecture to 1930
C.I.H.B. Research Bulletin No. 222 November 1984 p. 9 & 10.)

Quick Facts


Laura Secord School Crest.
  • Named after Laura Secord Ingersoll, Canadian heroine from the War of 1812
  • Built in 1912, completed in 1914
  • Featured the latest in education practices and fire safety technology at the time
  • Part of a boom in school construction and a change in attitudes towards education in Manitoba in the pre-war era
  • Contractors for the construction were Thomas Kelly & Sons, who later became notorious for their role in the Legislative Building Scandal
  • The building's design was intended to be as fireproof as possible, following a tragedy in Collinwood, Ohio that resulted in the deaths of nearly half the students attending the elementary school


Education & Schools in the Early 1900s

Front entrance. Image courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

The era from 1890 to 1914 saw explosive growth in the Canadian West and the City of Winnipeg in particular saw thousands of new immigrants. When Laura Secord School was built in 1912, the West End was a new and rapidly growing middle-class community. The pre-war era brought with it a boom in school construction as more value came to be placed on proper education than had been in the past. 

A partnership between two Winnipeg school officials - Superintendent of Schools Dr. Daniel McIntyre and Commissioner of School Buildings Colonel J.B. Mitchell - made for the keen implementation of the latest ideologies and practical technologies of education at the time. Together they built an education system in Winnipeg that was at the forefront of Canadian progressive education theory. 


Dr. Daniel McIntyre

Dr. Daniel McIntyre. Image courtesy of the Manitoba Historical Society website.

Dr. Daniel McIntyre served the Winnipeg Public School Board as the Superintendent of Schools from 1885 to 1929 and spent his career pushing for the reform of the public school system. McIntyre saw education as the best long-term solution for society's ills, particularly in a system that privileged the development of the individual. 

In his view, education was more than curriculum and classrooms, leading to a more holistic approach that included the provision of proper nutrition (hot lunch program), medical and dental care (regular inspection and treatment of students), special education for children with disabilities, and a well-rounded, progressive curriculum including practical training. Night school, ESL and community use of school buildings also fell under his jurisdiction.

Described as a "shaper of educational policy in Manitoba and a leader in educational thought and practice in Canada", McIntyre was awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of Manitoba in 1912 and the Order of the British Empire in 1935 for his contributions to Canadian education (City of Winnipeg Historical Report).

Colonel J.B. Mitchell 

J. B. Mitchell. Image courtesy of the Manitoba Historical Society website.

James Mitchell served the Winnipeg School Board as the Commissioner of School Buildings from 1892 to 1928. He received his architectural training at the Montreal Art Institute and served in the North West Mounted Police for four years. He also fought with Wolseley's troops against the Metis in 1885 and led the 100th Winnipeg Grenadiers as Colonel to France in WWI.


"It should be known, appreciated and remembered by every parent in this Dominion that education is more important than good streets... and more public money should be spent to thoroughly equip the children for the battle of life, than is now being devoted for that purpose."
~ J.B. Mitchell ~
("Winnipeg's School Building" 
During his time in this position, Mitchell designed and supervised the construction of 48 school buildings with a total value of $8 million. The complete list can be found here and includes the old St. John's and Kelvin high schools, Strathcona (1904), Luxton (1907), Lord Selkirk No. 1 and No. 2 (1909 & 1912), La Verendrye (1909), Earl Grey (1914), and Laura Secord (1912). 

A New Kind of School

In 1908, a fire in a Collinwood, Ohio elementary school took the lives of 172 students, who became trapped inside the building. It was determined that flaws in the school's layout were partially to blame and this tragedy helped change the way schools were designed.

Isaac Brock School is another example of a Winnipeg school designed by J. B. Mitchell. Image courtesy of the Manitoba Historical Society website and the Winnipeg School Division.

Mitchell's elementary schools were only two storeys tall, with broad hallways between 14 and 18 feet wide. Metallic ceilings were incorporated along with exits on the front, back, and side of the building that were well separated from one another. New schools were built of steel and brick with floors of reinforced concrete and a stone foundation. Partition walls were brick, with plaster laid on hollow tiles instead of lath. Staircases were made of iron. As little flammable material as possible was included in the construction. 

High schools and older three-storey elementary schools had new fire escapes installed as well. Consisting of large steel tubes shaped with a gentle spiralling curve and attached to the building with an iron balcony, the fire escapes were designed and manufactured in Winnipeg by Vulcan Iron Works. The new fire escapes could clear a school's population in two minutes.

The History of Laura Secord School

1912 sketch of Laura Secord School. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report, reproduced from the Winnipeg Free Press August 17, 1912.

When Laura Secord School opened in September of 1913, it incorporated all of the features mentioned above. The contractor for the job was Thomas Kelly and Sons, who became notorious for their role in the Legislative Building scandal. They would be convicted in 1916 of defrauding the Manitoba government and ordered to repay $1.2 million ($21.6 million today). 


Built at a cost of $208 000, the building was nearly square (165' x 152' x 72'). Upon opening, only ten rooms were finished, with six more becoming available in January and the remainder of the school completed by the summer of 1914.


A large interior courtyard isolated the shops room from the rest of the building in the interest of safety. A long gabled skylight of fire glass topped the room, providing plenty of natural light.

960 Wolseley Avenue, no date. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report and the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.
The school was two storeys high over a raised basement. The exterior was pale brick with limestone trim and rustication. The front of the building faced onto Wolseley Avenue and featured symmetrical end pavilions each of three arched bays, as well as a tall central tower (since removed) that eased into an open portico with side staircases.

The sides had large central pavilions with projecting stone porticos, while the rear had one large pedimented projection. These wall projections corresponded with variations in the roof line. Semi-eliptical dormers peeked out from the roof, outlined with iron cresting.

Image courtesy of the Manitoba Historical Society website and Reid Dickie.
The attic space was mostly empty, supported by wooden rafters. Vacant rooms on the Ruby Street side were originally used as the janitor's suite, with space for his family as well. Extra windows facing the courtyard provided natural light and a narrow staircase lead directly to the boiler room, allowing the janitor to stoke up the massive coal-fuelled boilers during the night to keep the school warm for early morning.

Ornate as well as functional, the interior design of the school incorporated small decorative elements. The stairwell's iron balustrade integrates a small plaque with the school's initials; the school crest was also displayed in the glass window of a little teacher's room at the base of the tower overlooking the roof of the portico. Each of the original classrooms had four long windows, with a strip of stained glass in each. Several other windows in the building had stained glass as well, including the first floor offices. 

Commemorative plaque for Lillian Beynon Thomas on the school grounds ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the Manitoba Historical Society website.


A large assembly hall at the south end had a stage as well as a small balcony, and also served as the gymnasium. The building's corridors were exceptionally wide and were occasionally used as extra rooms for showing movies, running races, etc. In later years, two classrooms on the northeast side were converted into a library.

The school yard extended for an entire city block behind the building, the land for which was purchased by the School Board for $37 000. The school was also served by a School Board dental clinic in the early years, one of four serving the city's school children at the time.

Students, Staff, & Curriculum


Due to the rapidly growing community, Laura Secord School was immediately filled to capacity upon opening, with 774 students in Grades 1-9 by 1914. The school's jurisdiction stretched from Portage Avenue to the Assiniboine River, Chestnut Street to Dominion Street. 


In 1921, Wolseley School opened at 511 Clifton Street to relieve overcrowding at Laura Secord. At its peak in the 1940s, over 1000 students were attending the school. In 1960, Junior High (grades 7-9) moved to Gordon Bell High School at 3 Borrowman Place.

Wolseley School at 511 Clifton Street. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
After its opening, Laura Secord School quickly became an integral part of the neighbourhood with a high level of community involvement. This was partially due to the first principal, A.G. McArthur, who was especially keen to develop a firm relationship with the parents of his students. An experienced educator, McArthur was principal of the school at its opening and remained there until his retirement 25 years later in June 1938. A framed portrait was placed in the front hall of the school following his retirement.

McArthur was succeeded by Fred Barager, who was principal from 1938-1957 and is commemorated with the Barager Memorial Library, an expansion of the regular library completed in 1965. Laura Secord's first female principal, Marguerite Aileen Gunter served from 1961 to 1976. Gunter was also one of the first chairpersons of the Canadian College of Teachers. A more complete list of Laura Secord's staff over the years can be found on the Manitoba Historical Society's website


Laura Secord School ca. 1915, with the tower still intact. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report and the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.
The curriculum at Laura Secord in 1913 was not all that different from schools today. Grades 1-4 studied reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, geography, singing, drawing, and elementary handiwork. In Grade 5, history classes were added along with sewing for the girls and benchwork for the boys. Grade 6 brought grammar as a separate subject and Grade 7 added geometry, cooking, forge, and woodwork. The school had a good sports program due to the size of the schoolyard and a partnership with the City's Community Club, which sat on the south border of the schoolyard. 

In 1940, the school had 1013 students in twenty-four classes, with morning and afternoon kindergarten added shortly thereafter. At this time, the majority of students were completing their entire elementary education at this institution as a reflection of the stability of the neighbourhood. In the 60s and 70s, rents lowered in the district and many of the large houses were subdivided, causing changes in the student population.

By 1985, French immersion classes, a school band, preschool classes, and computers had been added. 402 pupils attended the school from preschool to Grade 4.

Modifications, Renovations, & Threats

The rear facade of 960 Wolseley Avenue ca. 1970. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report and the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.
Over the years, changes have been made to the school to maintain its structural integrity and bring it up to modern standards. The central tower was removed in the 1960s because it was structurally unsound. The shops room in the centre of the courtyard has had its skylight darkened and was converted to use as a craft room. Hallways, rear exits, and the assembly hall have been modified to meet updated fire codes. The rear of the school has also undergone alteration. Nevertheless, the majority of the school's exterior and a good deal of its layout is original to 1912. 

"The fight has just begun to save Laura Secord School" Winnipeg Real Estate News November 1, 1985. Click here to read article.
"The fight has just begun to save Laura Secord School" continued. Click here to read article.
"Laura Secord is saved" Winnipeg Real Estate News July 10, 1987. Click here to read article.
"Laura Secord is saved" continued. Click here to read article.

In More Recent Years

Click here to read the article in full
Click here to read the article in full.
February 1991 - Laura Secord School awarded an Annual Preservation Award by Heritage Winnipeg for preservation work. 
October 1995 - School thankful despite fire (Winnipeg Free Press)

Click here to read article in full.
October 5, 2011 - Students flee fire at Wolseley-area school (Winnipeg Free Press)
October 5, 2011 - Fire Evacuates Laura Secord School (ChrisD.ca)
February 2014 - Laura Secord School was awarded an Annual Preservation Award by Heritage Winnipeg, in recognition for their stewardship in the conservation analysis and detailing of the Heritage Roof Replacement Project at Laura Secord School.
April 15, 2014 - Historic Wolseley-area school to get new gymnasium (CBC News) 


Laura Secord Ingersoll

The local school board wanted to name their schools after Canadian heroes; with the revival of her legend and the dedication of a monument to her memory in Queenston, ON in 1910, Laura Secord was a natural choice.


A young Ontario woman, in 1813 Laura Secord trekked through hostile American territory to warn Canadian troops of a planned ambush during the War of 1812. For more information about Laura Secord, watch the Heritage Minute above or click here.

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