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Isbister School (now part of Winnipeg Adult Education Centre ) is a three storey brick structure at 310 Vaughan Street. Designated a heritage building in 1984 by the Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba, it is now the oldest surviving public school building in Winnipeg.
The school, built during 1898-1899, was named after Alexander Kennedy Isbister, an educator of Metis ancestry. The architect who designed the building was Samuel Hooper (later the first Provincial Architect ) and the contractors were Sutherland and Wood. Actual construction began during the third week of June,1898. The official cornerstone laying ceremony took place on the 26th of September,1898.
Almost on schedule, the new Isbister School welcomed its first pupils on March 27,1899.
The building is a fine example of what was known as the Queen Anne style of architecture, a style that had nothing to do with Queen Anne or the formal architecture that was in vogue during her reign. This eclectic style, which featured irregularity of design and variety of detail, symbolized the wealth and success of the newly rich, for Winnipeg in the late 19th century was booming.
Fortunately, no significant changes have been made to the exterior of the sand-brick structure. The building measures 75x81 feet. The shortened hip roof features a tower with small round hooded windows; the tower in turn is crowned by a cupola with a flagpole. The brick walls are trimmed with limestone and at the high foundation with strips of lighter sandstone. The north and south sides have small bays which were supply spaces for the original classrooms. The spacious attic is further enlarged by large gables on the east and west sides of the building.
In 1899, when Isbister welcomed its first elementary school pupils,the front steps of the building led to a porch that was flanked by two large stone columns. The double doors into the building opened onto a reception hall and main foyer. Wainscotting decorated the foyer. At the east and west ends of the hallway, oak stairways rose to the third floor.
The school had ten classrooms, a playroom in the basement and an assembly hall on the third floor, later converted into two additional classrooms. The classrooms were spacious and well illuminated, with cloak rooms in each room , and blackboards and wainscotting along the walls. Block and column trim set off the doorways. The classroom ceilings were composed of embossed sheet metal; colourful stained glass panels with floral motifs topped the large windows . "Andrews Adjustable Desks" were attached to the maple floors.
That these splendid touches to the interior of the building had a purpose and were not of a frivolous nature was confirmed in the 1899 Annual Report by the Winnipeg Public School Board:
The character of the finishing, the pleasant effect of the colouring in the furniture, walls and ceilings has an important value as one of the educational influences by which the children are affected. With no museums or picture galleries or other agencies for the cultivation of taste and promotion of art amongst us, it is important that the school should not fail in its duty in this respect, for no educational agencies have greater claims on the ground of utility alone than those concerned with the education of taste.
One hundred years later, the interior of the school, unlike the exterior, shows alterations, but not so extensive as to threaten the integrity of the building. The oak stairs, wainscotting, tin ceilings and stained glass remain to give us an unusual insight into the school architecture of the period.