Education evolves with the society around it. When looking back on education, we can observe what type of economy and government existed and what kind of technology was available during that time period. During colonial times, church and government were of the most important entities, religion played a robust role in the foundation of education and maintaining the authority of government. Of course, it was necessary to educate people properly, so they could function in society. Primarily, the only attendees of school were wealthy males as to be educated signified status of wealth and power. As the country grew, public schools were established to unite all cultures that were immigrating to the country to help the nation grow and develop. In the Industrial Age, education became a way to prepare children for greater academic opportunities and upon completion, entering the workforce. To this day, it is an educational rite of passage that has continued to stay the same.
I will say, there is something comforting about seeing your old elementary school, at least for me anyway. It’s as if my childhood memories are safely archived and preserved inside the pedagogical walls that taught me all about my ABC’s, understanding how matter is composed of tiny particles and everything in between. Whenever I have the opportunity to pass the elementary school I once attended as a young child, there is a strangely quixotic feeling that all is right knowing the next generation of students are being ushered through their childhood within these walls.
From a historical context, schools can provide a tremendous insight on the kind of communities that flourished throughout the city. Additionally, as a learning institution, they also provide a unique narrative that encompasses both the social and educational experiences teachers and students had. Depending on the year the school was constructed, it may also represent a beacon of economic and social vitality. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many schools were erected in St. Catharines in what would today be considered historic school neighbourhoods. But what has happened to these irreplaceable community landmarks that were once responsible for scaffolding the minds of children? The first school I have chosen to highlight is Alexandra Public School (1910 – 2015).
It is worth noting that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each electoral ward within the boundaries of St. Catharines had its own public school. In 1908, before Alexandra Public School was built, the Public School Trustees of St. Catharines were aware of the need for a new school to replace the old St. Patrick’s Ward School in order to help alleviate the crowded conditions in the current facilities. Constructing a new school posed to be a difficult task due to the high cost of property. In September 1908, an agreement was made between William Proust, the owner of Lots 3-18 and the Board of Public School Trustees to sell this land for $2500. An adjacent lot was purchased from Gertrude and Henry O’Loughlin in November 1910 for $250. Upon the purchase of the new land, Mr. Malcolmson, the board member responsible for selecting the new site for construction was met with criticism for choosing a location so far out in the country. The selected land for the new school originally formed part of Grantham Township and had been purchased and subdivided by Calvin Brown, Mayor of St. Catharines in 1876-1877. The new school would be located within the block bounded by Henry Street, Dufferin Street, George Street and Pleasant Avenue which was originally named Derby Street.
The design of the new school was produced by the Hamilton architectural firm of Stewart and Witton, a partnership of Walter Wilson Stewart (1871-1917) and William Palmer Witton (1871-1947), one of the most recognized firms for the City of Hamilton at the time. A construction contract of $23,000 was granted to Newman Bros. and the plumbing contract of $1,568 to A. Riddell & Son. The new school design would replace the prevalent one and two-roomed schools being used throughout the nineteenth century. The original exterior structure consisted of a symmetrically designed, two story, patterned red brick building with parapet walls and window openings constructed in the shape of keystones. The interior included eight rooms large enough to hold several students, as well as a high basement, lavatory and coal storage. Throughout the construction process, the well-being of staff and students was taken into consideration in order to accommodate a positive and healthy learning environment by providing bright lighting, good ventilation, adequate plumbing and proper heating equipment.
On February 14th, 1910, Alexandra Public School opened and become home to 303 students. The school was named after Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia (1844-1925), consort of Albert Edward “Bertie” (1841-1910) who ruled as King Edward VII. The first principle of the school was Miss Millicent Holmes until 1912. Another principal of popularity includes Mr. J. S. Eliot.
During the following years, enrollment increased from 303 to 465 students. To reduce the shortage of space, additions to the school were added in 1913 and 1916 with the inclusion of four new rooms. The board purchased another section of adjacent land from John and Sarah Riley for $2300. The entire purchase covered a block of land bordered by Henry, Dufferin and George Streets. This time around, designs were completed by local architect Thomas H. Wiley (b.1873 ), a descendent of William. By 1916, the number of enrolled students had increased to 610. Once again, in order to alleviate this shortage of space, a second enlargement of four more rooms was added by Wiley with construction completed by Newman Bros.
Decades later, the school that was a great reminder to the community of population growth and industrial prosperity, would be faced with an unfortunate event. On the night of Thursday January 30th, 1958, parts of the school were damaged by a fire. Investigation of the incident led authorities to believe it was caused by the actions of an arsonist, however no one was ever apprehended for the crime. Given the circumstances, the Board made the decision to renovate and remodel the building. Plans included the addition of an auditorium/gymnasium built by Thorold Construction Co. After an expensive renovation, the newly remodelled Alexandra Public School opened with an enrolment of 507 students, 15 teachers and a principal.
Based on my analysis of photographs we have in the Museum’s collection. One could easily assume that for it’s time, Alexandra Public School was a thriving institution of learning that hosted a number of organized sports and clubs for students in which students participated.
Over a century in age, Alexandra Public School was designated as a Heritage Building in 2013. Shortly afterwards, the DSBN made the decision to close the school in June 2015 along with Memorial Public School, Maywood Public School and Queen Mary. In order to support the City’s growing population, a new school would need to be constructed, but the decision on where to build such a school proved to be exceedingly difficult for both the Board and parents. Ultimately, a plan was made for the removal of Alexandra Public School and demolition began in July 2015 to make room for a parking lot.
Eventually a new school was built in the same location – Harriet Tubman Public School, named in honour of Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and political activist who is one of the most well-know ‘conductors’ on the Underground Railroad who led escaped slaves from the southern United States into Canada. Tubman, took up residence in St. Catharines on North Street and was heavily involved in the community including the British Methodist Episcopal Church (Salem Chapel).
Harriet Tubman Public School opened on September 8th, 2015 at 84 Henry Street providing accommodations to a capacity of 600 students. Similar to Alexandra School, the architecture of Harriet Tubman incorporated a two-storey design with bright windows, dropped ceilings, and terrazzo flooring encompassed by red brick and incorporated the usable keystones salvaged from the Alexandra School.
It is clear Alexandra Public School contributed to our community’s identity and gave shape and texture to the neighbourhood it was a part of. The narratives of faculty and students go far beyond it’s social and historic value. Perhaps the untouched physical structures of schools offer a sense of tranquility to their alumni and are a reminder of their childhood.
Lauren Curtas is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre