Unseen City: The Shaw Street School
Unseen City goes where the public can’t.
The Shaw Street School, constructed in 1914, was a Queen West community hub, before it was shut down and mothballed by the Toronto District School Board in 2000. Over the ensuing decade, the building has been inhabited mainly by a furtive skeleton crew of TDSB maintenance personnel, whose duties include doing battle with an equally furtive mouse infestation.
The TDSB’s decision to close the Shaw Street School came about as a result of declining enrollment (the building was at 43% of its maximum capacity, according to a 1999 Globe and Mail article). After the closure, the school’s remaining student population was consolidated with that of the adjacent Givins-Shaw Senior Public School, built next-door to the Shaw Street School (a junior school) in 1957. The Shaw Street School building was, itself, the fourth school to be constructed on its particular plot of land―it was a replacement for the replacement for the site’s original school, a one-room schoolhouse that opened its doors in 1848―so this story of eventual closure and migration to newer digs, while sad, is not a new one.
Today, the Shaw Street School is an imposing presence on an otherwise staid, residential stretch of Shaw Street, north of Queen. With its facade of brick and red sandstone, it radiates stolid permanence and a kind of grandeur, in spite of the wooden scaffolding that now mars its entranceway, like ill-fitting dentures on a nonagenarian.
A 1999 city staff report recommending the building’s designation as a heritage property―a designation it eventually received―cites its “monumental scale, axial planning and Classical features identified with the Beaux Arts styling.” Which is a technical way of saying that the school is huge, has a simple layout, and sports some very detailed, attractive workmanship, in places.
When we entered the Shaw Street School in February, it had been nearly a decade since a class had last been held there. Gaining access to the building meant getting permission from its soon-to-be new owners, Artscape.
Artscape, an artist-focused, not-for-profit real-estate development corporation, also responsible for the recently completed Wychwood Barns transformation, is in the final stages of purchasing the school from the TDSB, and is already laying plans for a total renovation (their largest to date), which will result in the 75,000 square foot building’s conversion into an art community centre, with below-market studio and office space for artists and art-related nonprofits. The Shaw Street School building will, in other words, regain its status as a community hub.
If all goes as planned, the renovation will be complete by 2012. Artscape is already soliciting expressions of interest from potential occupants.
On the day of our visit to the Shaw Street School, Liz Kohn, Artscape’s director of communications, meets us at the building’s front entrance, where a TDSB maintenance worker is waiting to let us inside.
“Don’t use the centre stairwells,” the TDSB maintenance worker cautions us as we make our way into the lobby, “or you’ll get locked in.”
The lobby is not quite a ruin, but peeling paint on walls and ceilings makes evident the building’s long lack of regular upkeep. It’s below freezing outside, but the air in the Shaw Street School is hot, like an attic in summer, and thick with the unmistakable odour of old books. The ceilings inside are high—at least fifteen feet—giving the building the feel of a place built for giants, rather than for children in kindergarten through grade eight.
As we stand in the lobby, there are only two corridors to choose from: one on the lobby’s right, leading north, and another on the lobby’s left, leading south. In front of us are rooms with plate glass walls. One of them is the principal’s office, and the other is the school library, with all its shelving shoved into a corner. Behind us, flanking the entranceway, are a pair of grand staircases with mahogany banisters, leading up to another office. We ignore the staircases for the time being, and start down the left corridor. Elegant frosted glass light fixtures hang from its ceilings―as well as the ceilings of the rest of the school’s corridors―and Liz, the Artscape director of communications, seems excited by the possibility that they might be salvaged during the renovation and reused.
The corridor is lined with classrooms, and we enter a few. They are all essentially identical: tall, double-hung windows with many small, square panes, stretching almost to the ceilings; wooden dividers at the rear of each room, behind which are neat rows of coathooks; blackboards at the head of each room, upon which years’ worth of writing is faintly visible in palimpsest. One room still has paper cut-outs of letters stapled to the wall above its blackboard. They read: “elcome to Rm 12.” The ‘W’ is nowhere to be found.
On the second floor, a door marked “Ms. Elizabeth Fungus, RN,” contains the remnants of what might have been a nurse’s office. Inside is a dishwasher, next to an eruption of cardboard boxes containing an assortment of dusty items, too many to rummage through.
All throughout the building there are items left behind from before the closure. In one classroom, we find two ruined upright pianos, both with ivory keys, and a desiccated, brown Christmas tree with a red bow on top, about one foot high. We press a key on one of the pianos, and are surprised when it sounds a perfectly clear note. Somehow this is emblematic of the entire building: run-down and dusty, but with hints of early twentieth century elegance still shining through.
It’s around this time that we realize, collectively, that the clocks in every room in the building have all stopped at precisely 8:31.
On the third and highest floor of the building, we enter what looks like an art room. It has a stove, and a double sink, and some wide tables. Tattered, yellowing children’s art still hangs from the walls and from clotheslines strung across the ceiling. In the corner of the room a few dusty sheets of construction paper are tacked to a wall, each bearing the name of a child (Stanley, Bobby, William, Candice). Beneath each name are rows of rubber-stamped images of farm animals. It’s a remnant of a classroom reward system.
We’re confused, at first, by a total lack of large washrooms on any of the building’s three upper floors, so finding a pair of huge ones in the basement provides a weird kind of relief. The urinals in the boy’s section still flush, but have all acquired dingy, yellow patinas during their years of disuse.
“It’s got great bones,” Liz says of the building. She thinks the renovation will go smoothly. TDSB has performed just enough maintenance to keep all the school’s critical systems intact.
We walk back to the lobby, and attempt to ascend the grand mahogany-bannistered staircase we’d noticed earlier, only to find that its second flight has been, mysteriously, walled off. It’s a stairway to nowhere.
Clarence Stiver knew what had happened to the stairways. “Those had been closed in because of fire regulations, I believe,” he said, during a phone call. “It was a grander looking place in the old days.” Stiver began teaching history at the Shaw Street School in 1955, when he was seventeen years old, and remained there until his retirement in 1996.
“It was like no other school in Toronto, really,” he said. “That building really was a major hub of the community.”
What Stiver recalls most vividly about the school is its history of citywide sports dominance. According to him, Givins Street School, as the school was called until 1966, was undefeated in Toronto’s city track-and-field championships from 1898 until 1948, and had an entire room devoted solely to its trophies, which he personally curated. “Sports was almost a religion,” he said.
A 1926 Toronto Star article bears this out, saying that Givins was at that time “noted for its prowess in all branches of sport.”
Sport was also a kind of social glue. Stiver remembers how it helped his first Portuguese student. “No one spoke Portuguese,” he said, “but he loved soccer, and I was able to get him on the soccer team as a sub.” To the best of Stiver’s recollection, this occurred in 1960. Now, Portuguese businesses help define the neighbourhood.
Another important aspect of the building’s history is spelled out on a plaque in the lobby, which proclaims, in raised metal capital letters, that the school was used as a barracks during World War I, and then finishes by declaring, in boldface, that GOD should SAVE THE KING.
Stiver, considerably more soft-spoken in his advocacy for the Shaw Street School’s history, said he was grateful that someone was stepping in to revive the building, and, in his words, “burnish its past.”
“It’s been a bit painful to see it shuttered up,” he said.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.