Friday 24 May 2013

Central School

This postcard depicts the old Guelph Central School, as seen from the east at the intersection of Norfolk St. and Cambridge St. (now Commercial St.) The address of the school was 93 Dublin St., that street being in behind the building from the perspective of this postcard. It is unusual for postcards to show the back of a building, but there is an interesting reason for it in this case.

The postcard was made for A. L. Merrill, who had a stationary business in Toronto. As with many postcards of the era, it was colourized and printed in Germany. The postcard also has very explicit instructions to the user: "The address only to be written on this side", meaning the entire back of the card. The now-familiar divided-back format, in which a message was written on the left side of the back and the recipient's address on the right, became common after 1905. Probably, this card (and the photo in it) were made before that year. The card is postmarked Oct. 16, 1907, and was addressed to a Miss Eliza Beacock, Wolseley P.O., Ontario. It reads, "We got your letter safely & I am watching the mail every day & will come to the station to meet the train you say, with love to all." With the back wholly taken up with the address, only the small white space on the front was left for recording messages.

The card also provides another illustration of how postcards were often used to make quotidian arrangements in the Edwardian era.

Prior to the construction of the Central School, secondary public schooling in Guelph was held in "three or four rented rooms in the Guelph Cartage Company building, at the corner of Essex St. and Gordon" (Waugh 1961, vol. 1, no. 4). These accommodations had become too meager and, along with the need for more educated workers and Egerton's Ryerson's 1871 Education Act, the local Board of Education decided to build a new, larger school on the ridge of Dublin St., next to "Catholic Hill." The Board acquired the necessary properties, which included a slice of Cambridge St. which, according to the official survey, went straight over the ridge from Norfolk St. in the east to Yorkshire St. in the west. In fact, the ridge was much too steep for vehicles of the day, so no one was inconvenienced by having the street divided. In 1956, the short part of Cambridge St. in the foreground that connected with Norfolk was renamed as "Commercial St." (Irwin 2002).

The Toronto architectural firm of W. R. Strickland won the contract to design the school. Construction began in 1873 and finished in 1876. The Guelph Herald of 1876 gave the following description of the city's shiny new building (Pollard & Pollard 1981, "Guelph's building boom of 1875-76", pp. 70-73):

It is built of Guelph stone, the dimensions being 120 ft. in length and 86 ft. in width, four storeys in height, consisting of basement, ground and 1st floors and mansard storey; 9 ft. 14 ft. 13 ft. and 12 ft. in height respectively. The centre portion of the building breaks out from the line of the building 4 ft. and is carried up 10 feet higher in the centre than the surrounding parts, which gives relief to the structure and from the additional height affords space for a large assembly hall. The roof is of the French or Mansard style, covered with purple and green slate arranged in appropriate patterns, and the deck or flat portion of the roof is covered with tin, surrounded by a handsome railing. The slopes of the roof are pierced by dormer windows, by which the upper rooms are lighted, and by which the plain surface is relieved. ... The basement contains the caretaker's apartments, lunch rooms, fuel rooms and heating apparatus. Upon the ground and first floors are situated the class rooms, 16 in number, 8 on each flat, also the teachers' and apparatus rooms. The upper or Mansard storey contains the assembly hall and 4 ante rooms two on either side. ... The belfry stands 45 feet above the roof, terminating in a handsome wrought iron finial 12 feet in height, with weather vane, and scroll work with gilded points, &c. The belfry is octagonal in shape, with louvred ventilators, and is covered with galvanized iron on the sides, the roof being slated."
A broad staircase connected the back of the building with Cambridge (Commercial) St., although it seems to have been removed in favour of a more modest link by the time of the photo in the postcard.

As noted by Gilbert Stelter (1989, "Henry Langley and the making of Gothic Guelph"), there was a "profusion of spires" in city skylines around the English-speaking world at the time, as churches were built with tall spires in order to dominate their city skylines. The vertical thrust of the Central School, capped by its 45 ft. belfry, seems like a secular entry into that competition. The school, sited near the resplendent Church of Our Lady, and on the shoulder of the same drumlin, was designed not merely to provide room for Guelph's students, but also to stake out a slice of the city's horizon.

This gesture also explains why the school is pictured from the rear. It is the back of the school that looks out over downtown Guelph, while the front faces Dublin St., in the other direction. Downtown Guelph is where the attention was that the school building was meant to attract, so the building faced that way. Knowing this, the photographer took his picture from that vantage point.

Central School endured, with many changes, until the 1960s when it began to seem more-and-more behind the times. The belfry was removed about 1963 and the building demolished in 1968 (Anderson and Matheson 2000, p. 76). It was replaced by the modern Central Public School, with quite a different set of architectural priorities, as you can see from the photo below.

The new building is long and low, reflecting a priority on cost-efficiency, as it is cheaper to build along the ground than up in the air, at least when land is inexpensive. The low profile also probably makes it much more accessible than the old one. In addition, the building has firmly turned its back on the downtown core, with a fence to separate the yard from Commercial St. No doubt this measure is for security, to help limit the number of places where students and others can access the campus. A remnant staircase is still present on the side of the hill.

A much better view of the building is afforded at its front face on Dublin St., as you can see from this Street View image.

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Waugh (1961) records an interesting observation about the Guelph limestone used in the old building:

If you look carefully at the stone in the front of this building, you can see the imprints of sea animals.
You'll find no fossils embedded in the concrete of the new school. However, you will find a relic there: The bell from the old school was preserved and mounted beside the entrance of the new one. It is hard to make out in the Street View picture, but can be seen more plainly here.

The inscription on the bell reads, "The Jones & Company, Troy Bell Foundry, Troy N.Y., 1876." The plaque says, "CENTRAL SCHOOL BELL // This school bell was cast in Troy, New York, and was hung in in the original Central School on this site in 1876. It remained in use until the school was demolished in 1968. This plaque was presented to the Wellington County Board of Education by Craig, Zeidler & Strong Architects, September 1969."

What would the old bell say about its new perch, I wonder, if it could?

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