July 21st, 2018

Heritage in the Hat: The city’s oldest extant school

By Medicine Hat News on December 23, 2017.

Currently known as St. Louis School, the former Montreal Street School located on Fourth Street S.E. is our city’s oldest standing and second permanent school. Although the original St. John’s Presbyterian Church wooden building served a dual purpose as the first school, Toronto (3rd) Street School downtown was the first purpose-built school building (1888), long since demolished. It was on the site of the current CORE Association offices.

In the early 1900s, with the rapidly expanding population on both sides of the CPR tracks, a second school was urgently needed to serve the children in the River Flats area. A temporary wood-frame cottage school was built on the site by contractor H.C. Yuill, with the plan that it could be resold as a residence when no longer required. Plans were approved for the new school in 1904. The Montreal Street Cottage School, with seven teachers, was utilized until the masonry school opened in 1905, although it was not actually removed until 1964.

The Romanesque Revival-style school was designed by local architect and contractor George G. Kerr, who had opened an office in Medicine Hat in 1904 and who designed many high-end homes and churches in Medicine Hat. The building features a hipped roof with front gabled projections detailed with scroll cut modillions, symmetrical banked window openings and sandstone decorative elements.

Masonry contractor R.A. Green constructed the school using wirecut brick from the local Purmal brickyard with a rough sandstone base.

The two-storey school, which opened April 10, 1905, was constructed with two identical floor plans consisting of four classrooms per floor separated by a central corridor, and had washrooms, separate boys’ and girls’ recreation spaces and janitors’ quarters in the raised, full-height basement. The school featured the latest comforts including electric lights, steam heating and telephone. Only the first storey was ready at time of opening, with two additional classrooms on the second completed in August by contractors Brown & Preston. In 1907, it was discovered that the contractor had not connected the sandstone facing to the structure and it was replaced with brick and concrete. The final two classrooms on the second floor were completed in 1909 by J.E. Lussier. Immediately at capacity, two additional classrooms were outfitted in the attic in 1910. The school remained full until Elm Street School was opened in 1912.

A gymnasium was added to the west side of the building in 1963, designed by Calgary-based architects J. Stevenson & Associates. The school operated as a public school until 1997 when it was closed due to low enrolment. The board then followed its process of offering it to other boards and then the market and for a while, it had an uncertain future.

However, it was transferred to the Catholic Board of Education in 2001 and re-dedicated using the historic school name of St. Louis, transferred from an existing school building nearby. A compatible single-storey addition was made at this time, distinguishable from the original structure. The original St. Louis School building (1913) was taken over by CAPE but that program will be transferring this summer to renovated space in the Medicine Hat High School.

Montreal Street School (now St. Louis School) is valued as a landmark in the community, due to its century-plus presence in the neighbourhood and its remarkable craftsmanship as our now oldest school.

Malcolm Sissons is the chair of the Heritage Resources Committee.

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