Opinions still differ on historic Elora Centre for the Arts building

The following is a reprint of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.  Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The building now housing the Elora Centre for the Arts is one of the more confusing pieces of architecture in the village.

Built as the Elora Public School, in stages between 1856 and 1939, it is a disarray of styles and forms that seem to have been assembled with little logic and forethought. Many people consider the building to be one of the village’s important heritage structures, while others consider it an inefficient monstrosity.

The earliest part of the building is the first story of the southeast corner. This was constructed in 1856 as the village’s girls’ school.

A girls’ school had operated since 1852 in rented quarters in three different locations, none of which was satisfactory. Enrollment was now topping 100 and a permanent home was a necessity.

It was standard practice to operate separate girls’ and boys’ schools in the 1850s. The female curriculum featured art, household skills, sewing and needlework. The watered-down academic content made the girls’ schools unpopular with some parents in Elora. Although it was against  regulations, they insisted on enrolling their daughters in the boys’ school, which emphasized reading, writing and mathematical skills.

Far more girls than boys went to school in the 1850s. Schooling was not yet compulsory, and many boys were gainfully employed or in apprenticeships at an early age. As late as 1860 there were twice as many girls as boys on Elora’s school rolls.

Attendance jumped in 1861 when tuition fees were abolished, but then began to decline as more rural schools were built and fewer farm children came to the village for schooling.

By 1865, the boys’ school was facing size problems. A new, two-room, one-storey building was put up immediately to the north of the girls’ school in 1866. The buildings were connected. There were now two rooms for girls and one for boys, with a total enrollment of about 200, under the direction of a single principal and school board. Although this meant about 65 students per teacher, in practice the total was much less. On most days, fewer than 60 per cent of the students attended.

By 1870, rising attendance forced the division of the girls’ school building into two rooms, and a fourth teacher was hired. The school board trustees called for new construction in 1870, but changed their minds when the tenders were too high. The following year, a second story was added to the girls’ school building, and a number of renovations were made. By this time, girls’ and boys’ classes had been integrated.

In July of 1871, David Boyle was hired as principal. It was a controversial appointment, made against the wishes of the inspector and directions from the Ministry of Education, but it proved to be a propitious move by the Elora board.

School attendance between the ages of eight and 14 became compulsory in 1871. Acceptance of the law by the public was slow, but by 1873 there were 395 students in the school, which still had only four teachers. Average daily attendance was much lower, at 222. New construction was obviously an imperative.

The additions of 1874 included rebuilding the boys’ school of 1866, adding a second storey to it, and a wing on the north toward Knox church. The design was a joint effort by Boyle and Elora architect John Taylor.

Boyle insisted on plenty of wall space in his classrooms for maps, charts and displays. The windows, therefore, are very small, giving this part of the school a severe institutional look.

Taylor had a fetish for ventilation, and designed a complex system of vents and ducts. The system did not work effectively, but portions of it remain under the building to this day. The building was laid out so that all rooms had windows on three sides.

The building was controversial at the time; many people considered it a botch. The cost was $3,300 – considerably higher than the $2,500 estimate. The addition added four new rooms to the school. All the public school’s classes were moved into the new building, and the old girls’ school portion was turned over to the high-school (formerly known as the grammar school). That school was burned out of its building (located on the present lawn bowling grounds) early in 1874.

The public school now had six rooms, but only five were used as classrooms. The sixth, in the upstairs room of the north wing, was set up by Boyle as a museum containing archaeological specimens, minerals, curiosities, and other artifacts that Boyle used as teaching aids in the mid and late 1870s.  Boyle spent most of his spare time with the museum and exploring for Indian archaeological specimens.

There was no more major construction until 1927. Enrollment declined after 1880, as the population of Elora began to slide and as families became smaller. The effects were minimized by increasing regularity to attendance.

Central heating was added to part of the school in 1895, but the building still had four furnaces.

In 1914, larger windows were put in the two rooms closest to Chalmers Street. By this time, enrollment was down to fewer than 160. The staff was reduced to four, and one room was turned over to the high school.

In the early 1920s, there were plans to completely remodel the school, or to replace it. The cost, over $60,000, was too much for Elora council. By this time the school was considered to be the worst in the area.

Improvements were made in 1927: washrooms were placed in the alcove between the public and high-schools, additional windows were added to the high-school wing, and electric light was installed in all rooms. An improved heating system, using steam and radiators, was added to the building in 1935.

Discussions to build a new high school jointly with Fergus began in 1926, but got nowhere. The existing facilities were entirely inadequate, and the board desired to add domestic science and shop classes to the curriculum. A modern three-storey building, with large west-facing windows, was designed in 1937, but battles between the board and council over the $18,000 cost delayed construction until 1939.

This wing of the building, at the southwest side, along Chalmers street, was the last major construction in Elora done in stone.

The entire building was turned over to the public school when the new high school (now the Elora Public School on Mill Street) was built in 1959. When the high school became Elora senior public school in 1970, the old school became a junior public school.

The school closed in 1996. The 1856 portion of the building may have been the oldest schoolroom still in regular use in the province at that time.

The building became the Elora Centre for the Arts in 2002.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Oct. 23, 1990.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015