You could easily walk, cycle or drive by the Grand Trunk Cottage School on 5thAve NW near Crowchild Trail and never realize it is anything special (let alone a century old school). No signage or plaque tells you about its storied history. Even those who live nearby are often surprised to learn it was one of Calgary’s first schools when I tell them.
So, I thought it would be interesting to dig deeper, to see what more I could find about this quaint, unassuming schoolhouse that could easily be mistaken for an older “infill-like” house.
Grand Trunk School a community initiative
The early 20thcentury was a boom time for Calgary with its population increasing from about 10,000 at the turn of the century to 47,000 in 1912. Classrooms were operating in rented space in the community of Grand Trunk as early as 1907. However, in September 1911, a petition signed by fifty residents of Grand Trunk requested a school be built in its community to serve the growing number of families. The Calgary Public School Board responded immediately by approving the purchase of a suitable site at the corner of 5thAvenue and 24thStreet NW (now Crowchild Trail) for the construction of a two-room, two-storey school.
In accordance with provincial regulations set out in the Education Act, it and other cottage schools were designed to look like residential buildings to allow for their future resale. How visionary is that? Often placed on two to three lot parcels, they blended well with neighbouring residences, however, little room was made available for outdoor play space.
The Grand Trunk School opened in 1912 as a temporary school, continued to operate until the spring 1958 when new larger schools like Queen Elizabeth and Louise Dean replaced it.
FYI: The Queen Elizabeth School was founded in 1910 as "Bowview School" which was originally a boarding school. Evidence for this can be found above the SW entrance by the cafeteria, where the previous school name is displayed. It was renamed in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The original three-storey building (which includes the Drama room that was the original auditorium and cafeteria) opened in 1930. A large addition (including the band room, wood shop, north gym, current offices, classrooms) was opened in 1953. The third addition was completed in 1967 and includes the library and science labs.
In 1959, the City leased the Grand Trunk School building to the Western Canada Epilepsy League who established a residence for twenty people, as well as space for workshops for those suffering from epilepsy.
Then in 1981, the school became the home of the Maritime Reunion Association (MRA). At its height, the MRA had over 600 members with the Grand Trunk Cottage school as its clubhouse. A paid recreation director tended to the day-to-day business and organized monthly dances. The events were very popular not only with members but non-Maritime Calgarians also.
After ceasing operations in 2007, the site was rezoned from a single use Direct Control district to a new Land Use to permit a broader range of uses including businesses offices, personal service businesses, restaurants retail stores, child care facilities and commercial schools. The reason for the bylaw change - to help ensure the continued use of the Grand Trunk School and not let it sit empty and deteriorating.
The bylaw was passed and the City issued a request for proposals both internally and externally. It was leased out to the City of Calgary Police Department in August 2007 for non-operational purposes, i.e. education and training. They are still the current occupants which unfortunately means the building is used only a few times a month.
The School’s Architecture
The architectural style is vernacular, the architect was William Branton and the builder was J.A. McPhail. The building’s design with its verandah, pediment dormers, bevelled wood siding and wood shingles makes it look like the cottage houses that populated the community at the time, albeit larger. At the time, it would have been one of the largest buildings in the community. Today it is about the same size as a new single family infill.
The school was comprised of a classroom on each level, small storage spaces, and cloakrooms at the rear. The basement contained coal rooms and two lavatories for students. Classrooms could be entered separately through two distinct front entrances - a central door to the main floor classroom and a second door providing access to a stairway that lead to the upper floor.
The building’s subsequent interior alterations have left little evidence of the original classrooms. The exterior has also undergone modification, including the addition of a modern fire escape, reworking of windows and new front stair configuration.
All cottage schools were identified by a sign board which denoted a date and the building identification as a "cottage school." Unfortunately, no identification of the building’s name or history remains on the site today.
Why the name “Grand Trunk?”
The subdivision plan, for Grand Trunk (now called West Hillhurst) filed in 1906 stated the landowner as well-known lawyer Clifford T. Jones. Speculation is Jones was involved in the early Calgary land acquisitions by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and probably happy to honour the company by naming his new community after them.
Backstory: Fort Calgary was decommissioned in 1914 and sold to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway who operated it as a rail yard for 61 years. During those years, the site was home to MacCosham’s warehouses, Calgary Scrap Metal, a battery factory and an abattoir to name a few. The only memory of the Fort was a cairn erected by the North West Mounted Police Veteran’s Association. Fortunately, in 1975, through the efforts of John Ayer, the City purchased the site and began the reclamation of Fort Calgary, which continues today.
Although West Hillhurst (Grand Trunk) was annexed by the City of Calgary in 1907, substantial development did not start until 1945 when many of the houses were built as "Victory Homes" for soldiers returning from World War II. Walk through the community today and you will still find a number of these homes still standing despite the fact many were intended to be temporary. Nicknamed “Strawberry boxes,” they looked similar to the boxes used to hold strawberries at that time. Today, they add charm and a sense of history to the community.
Despite enquires to the City of Calgary, Federation of Calgary Communities, West Hillhurst Community Association, Calgary Real Estate Board and Calgary Heritage Authority, I was unable to discover when or why the Grand Trunk community name was changed to West Hillhurst. Old maps of the area continued to have old community names like Grand Trunk, Upper Hillhurst, Westmount and Broadview on them until the mid ‘40s.
Even the West Hillhurt Go-Getters history book “Harvest Memories” doesn’t say when the name changed, but it appears to have happened around 1945 when the West Hillhurst Ratepayers Association was formed. The book states, “In 1948, a group of men riding home on the old Grand Trunk streetcar decided to form the West Hillhurst community association to get playgrounds and various new facilities. The first playgrounds were at 23rdSt and 5thAve NW (Grand Trunk Park, next to Grand Trunk School) and 21stSt and 2ndAve NW. In 1953, the Parkdale Community Association was formed for people living west of 28thSt NW.”
Note: For years, I wrongly assumed Grand Trunk Park, next to the former school, was the school’s playground, later being converted into a park when the school closed.
The Grand Trunk Cottage School is a City-owned property that is on the City’s Inventory of Historic Resources but has yet to received formal designation that would protect it from redevelopment.
Grand Trunk Cottage School was one of seven cottage schools, built in the early 20thcentury. Two others are included in the City of Calgary’s Facility Management’s Heritage Program: Capitol Hill Cottage School (1522 - 21 Ave NW) which is currently leased to the St. Cyprians Cubs and Scouts and North Mount Pleasant School (523 - 27 Ave NW) which is now home of the North Mount Pleasant Arts Centre.
Surely, the City of Calgary can find a better use for the charming Grand Trunk Cottage School than its current use. And let’s hope a historic plaque can be installed to help tell its story, including the fact Miss M. McKinnon, the school’s first principal, remained as such until her retirement 28 years later in 1939.
To learn more about Calgary’s Heritage Preservation Strategy, check out this link:
Did you know that it is Calgary Heritage Week, July 26 to August 5th 2019?
If you like this blog, you will like these links: