Description of Historic Place
The solid, intricate brick facades of three-storey Isbister School, built in 1898-99, contrast with the adjoining glass and steel expanses of a 2004 addition. The eclectically styled, late Victorian-era educational institution is located amidst a collection of high- and low-rise residential, commercial and institutional structures on the busy streets of Winnipeg's downtown. The provincial designation applies to the 1898-99 school and the grounds it occupies.
Isbister School, the oldest surviving public school building in Winnipeg, is a rare example of the three-storey square facilities favoured by local education authorities at the turn of the twentieth century. Built to relieve enrolment pressure, the structure also served as a model for how to translate the era's reform orientation and willingness to invest in education into well-designed buildings that were safe, comfortable, inviting and supportive of prevailing pedagogy. The school's elaborate and largely intact exterior, designed by Samuel Hooper, who later became Manitoba's first provincial architect, showcases fine brickwork, varied surfaces and an eclectic mix of elements taken from the Romanesque and Queen Anne revival styles. The interior likewise retains its bright, airy classrooms and some of its fine original materials and finishes. Isbister School, named after scholar Alexander Kennedy Isbister, recalls the type of impressive and richly decorated structures that came to be seen as necessary, not frivolous, means of encouraging parental confidence in the school system, as well as regular attendance, academic progress and good taste among students.
Source: Manitoba Heritage Council Minute, January 13, 1984
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Isbister School site include:
- its location in Winnipeg's downtown core amidst residential, commercial and institutional complexes alike, with hectic Colony Street to the west and Vaughan Street to the east
- the grounds somewhat buffered from the bustling surroundings by landscaping, and the east lawn featuring formal walkways and a fence
Key elements of the school's eclectic style include:
- the three-storey rectangular brick volume marrying elements from the Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne Revival styles to include a truncated hip roof, pedimented gables, and projecting bays on the north and south elevations
- a collection of varied surfaces and materials with richness of detail and near-perfect symmetry on each elevation
- the walls of sand-lime brick trimmed with limestone, with lighter strips of sandstone on the foundation
- the highly detailed central tower featuring a recessed entrance flanked by stone columns and balustrade, pairs of flat-headed windows with one pair set in a highly decorative arch, three small round-arched openings with a balustrade, a stone banner inscribed with 'ISBISTER SCHOOL', a metal-clad cupola, and a square lantern, all topped by a high bellcast pyramidal roof and a finial
- recessed windows throughout with continuous, rough limestone sills, including square-headed windows on the first and third floors with rough limestone lintels and round-arched windows on the second level capped with decorative brick arches
- the details, including columns, pilasters and chimneys with decorative brickwork, gable ends with centred bull's eye and half-circle windows, a limestone date stone in the northeast corner, etc.
Key elements that define the school's functional, yet cultivated internal appearance include:
- the formal plan based on a central hall bisecting floors
- the oak staircases rising to the third floor, accessed at the east and west ends of the hallways and featuring finely carved wooden banisters varnished in a honey tone
- the spacious, well-lit classrooms, some featuring cloakrooms, blackboards and maple flooring
- the colourful floral-motif stained-glass panels inset in the tops of numerous windows
- the practical, yet appealing details and finishes throughout, including wainscotting, period door trims of a block and column design with transoms, ceilings of embossed sheet metal, etc.