Athabasca public school designated a Provincial Historic Resource

Editor’s note: In 2021, a well-known landmark in the Town of Athabasca was designated a Provincial Historic resource and is now listed on the Alberta Register of Historic Places.

Written by: Ronald Kelland, MA, MLIS, Historic Places Research Officer

Front (west-facing) façade of the Athabasca Public School showing some of the building’s character-defining elements, notably the crenellated parapet roofline, variegated use of red brick and lighter-coloured stone highlights such as the foundation, front entry arch and cornice, lintels and sills, 2005. Source: Alberta Culture and Status of Women.

The Athabasca Public School is located in the Town of Athabasca, occupying a prominent, treed lot at the end of 48 Avenue. It has long been a significant landmark in the community. It has heritage value as a representation of pre-First World War construction and design trends for schools and as an excellent example of Edwardian-era, Collegiate Gothic architecture.   

Athabasca Landing, 1909. Taken from the north side of the Athabasca River. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-2788-3.

A significant transportation hub for many decades where riverboat traffic met the trail head for the Athabasca Trail to Edmonton, Athabasca Landing was a booming community in the opening decade of the 1900s. Town status was achieved in 1911, with the community expected to be a major stop on at least one of the planned railways from Edmonton to northern Alberta. That expectation seemed assured when the much delayed Edmonton & Slave Lake Railway arrived in 1912. Following a devastating fire in August 1913, the town built back with a purpose. New structures would be mostly made of brick or stone and, driven by speculation on a bright future, were grander than one might otherwise expect in a community of Athabasca’s size.

One of these new structures was the Athabasca Public School. It was built over the winter of 1913-14 to replace a number of smaller, crowded schools; its design and size reflected Athabasca’s optimism. It is a relatively large, two-storey, red brick school with a sandstone foundation. Comparable to those being constructed in Edmonton and other larger centres at the time, the school at the time was described as being, “beautiful and colossal.”

Laying of the cornerstone of the Athabasca Public School, September 1913. Source: Athabasca Archives, ath-751.

The school is designed in the Collegiate Gothic style, which is based on the architecture of historic European universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge. It is characterized by a robust massing and form and the inclusion of towers, parapets, battlements and massive, arched entryways with cornices, giving the buildings a fortress-like appearance. Lighter stone, or concrete simulating stone, is used to highlight details such as sills and lintels, quoins, capstones and foundations.

All of these characteristics of the style are evident in the Athabasca Public School. Its front, west-facing façade features a high degree of symmetry, being arranged around a central tower topped by a battlemented parapet. The main entry, in the base of the tower, features sandstone steps, an arched doorway, a cornice with brackets and an entablature bearing the name of the school. The school had four classrooms, two on each floor, with two recreation rooms in the basement. At the time of opening, the school’s modernity was lauded as it was noted that each of the four classrooms had nine windows, providing ample light. Air shafts provided ventilation and a steam-driven heating system was installed.   

Athabasca Public School, ca. 1945. The stucco clad addition to the school is visible to the right. Source: Athabasca Archives, Don McGinnis Stephenson collection, ath-352.

The Collegiate Gothic style was favoured in Alberta for many schools as it harkened to European educational traditions and emphasized the strength of these institutions and the importance of education to the future of Alberta’s communities. Additionally, by raising such an impressive edifice in Athabasca, the school district and citizens at large, were making a statement about the promising future of the town.

Unfortunately for Athabasca, the promise of being a transportation hub never materialized. The arrival of the Edmonton & Slave Lake Railway, which had arrived with such promise in 1912, proved to be the end of the line. The railway, which had been planned to continue on to Peace River via Slave Lake with branch lines extending in other directions from Athabasca, proceeded no further. Furthermore, the riverboat traffic on the Athabasca River, which had been the community’s life blood, ended in 1914.     

Athabasca Public School, staff and students, ca. 1945. Source: Athabasca Archives, Alice and Clifford Donahue fonds, ath-1098.

Athabasca’s population remained relatively stable over the ensuing decades, experiencing gradual growth. The basement recreation rooms were eventually converted to classroom space and during the Second World War, and a large, stucco-clad wing was built to the south, increasing the school’s size to 14 rooms and a gymnasium. A new high school was built in 1954 and a new elementary school in 1966, which resulted in the closing of the brick school. However, the building was reborn as a community centre with space used for: Community and Family Services; local arts and crafts groups; a performing arts centre and the Nancy Appleby Theatre; and the Alice B. Donahue Public Library and Archives. The Athabasca Public School was designated as a Registered Historic Resource on January 14, 1976. After a recent reevaluation of its heritage value and significance, the school was upgraded to Provincial Historic Resource in February 2021. Built as a symbol of the Athabasca community, the Athabasca Public School continues to fill that symbolic role for the community today. 

Provincial Historic Resources embody the diversity of our province’s history and include medicine wheels, tipi rings, fur trading and mounted police posts, coal mines, farmsteads, ranches, railway stations, grain elevators, churches, schools, government offices, commercial blocks and private residences. There are currently over 390 places in Alberta designated as Provincial Historic Resources, including two others in the Town of Athabasca: the Athabasca United Church and the Canadian Northern Railway Station. Along with helping to provide economic, social and cultural benefits, designation of provincial historic resources helps to ensure that local landmarks will continue to help connect Albertans with their rich heritage.

Learn more about the Provincial Historic Resource Designation program.

Sources

Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta Libraries [website], http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/index.html

University of Alberta Press. Atlas of Alberta Railways [website], accessed 27 January 2022, available from https://railways.library.ualberta.ca/

Athabasca Historical Society. Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History (Athabasca: Athabasca Historical Society, 1986)

Buck, George H. From Summit to Sea: An Illustrated History of Railroads in British Columbia and Alberta, (Calgary: Fifth House, 1997).

Johnson, Greg, et. Al. Athabasca Historical Walking Tour, 4th ed. (Athabasca: Athabasca Heritage Society, 2018), available from http://www.athabascaheritage.ca/uploads/2/3/5/2/23525082/ahwt_cover_book_2018.pdf

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