|Ross Sheppard Composite High School, 1959. Photo courtesy of Edmonton Schools Archives and Museum. PA94.42.3|
Faced with a soaring student population in the rapidly growing West End, the Edmonton Public School Board moved forward in 1955 with plans to construct a new high school. Trustees decided to name the school after Ross Sheppard, who was retiring after a 15-year stint as the school board’s superintendent and 43 years as a teacher, principal and education administrator in Edmonton.
Finding a large enough available location was challenging, and after several months of searching, the board settled on a wooded site west of the Westmount Shoppers’ Park, which had just opened at Groat Road and 111th Avenue. Initially, the school board’s architect was commissioned to design the facility, but staff shortages intervened. The Edmonton architectural firm of Rensaa and Minsos was then hired to prepare general plans and specifications along with structural and mechanical plans.
The company cut its teeth in the early 1950s designing small churches and utilitarian buildings, including its 1951 work on the Grinnell Company Building at 11340 120th Street. For the school board’s newest high school, they chose a daring mid-century style.
“Ross Sheppard High School is an excellent example of the International Style of architecture,” says Edmonton architect David Murray, who, along with historian Ken Tingley, completed an evaluation of the building for the City of Edmonton.
International Style, popular in the mid-20th century, is distinguished by the use of clean horizontal lines, Murray explains. In this building, the style is evident in its brick cladding, horizontal emphasis in the window design, precast window surrounds on the main floor, continuous horizontal louvred sun shades, and flat roof. Other distinguishing features of the style include the curved field stone feature wall on the front elevation with curtain wall connection to the main building, and extensive use of glass block.
The architects worked with direction from the board, which had encouraged its staff to provide their input into the design. A history of the early days of the school, written by Arnold E. Henderson, principal between 1957 and 1969, says 17 committees were established to coordinate and refine the suggestions.
“The proposals were carefully evaluated and modified, producing a very functional school building,” Henderson wrote. “Some of the distinct features included hallways much wider than are normally found in such schools and ceramic tiled walls.”
The size and location of classrooms received careful consideration, as did the placement of the offices, the layout of the library, and circular conference room. “The building itself was located as far as possible away from the noise of traffic,” he wrote.
“Another first was the provision of adequate parking space to accommodate students with automobiles. We convinced central office that such an arrangement would not be costly and that the control of these young drivers would provide a good learning situation.”
A building permit for $2 million was issued on July 5, 1956. The $1.568-million contract for construction was awarded to general contractors Bennett & White, and work on the site north of 111th Avenue at 135th Street began that summer.
Construction progressed quickly, and the east wing was completed in March 1957. Grade 12 students moved in and started classes, while grade 10 and 11 students continued to occupy the old Westglen High School for the remainder of the year.
Even as the school was under construction, the school board recognized it needed more room, and commissioned further expansion. The centre and south wings were occupied in September 1958, and the west wing was ready for September 1959. A north wing was added in 1962-63, and expanded again in 1967-68.
Tragedy came to the school on March 16,1959, when former student Stanley Williamson, 19, opened fire with a .22-calibre rifle inside a crowded corridor, killing 16-year-old Howard Gates and wounding five teenage girls. The shooting ended when three 18-year-old students subdued the gunman until he could be arrested by police.
After completing work on Ross Sheppard Composite High, Rensaa and Minsos flexed their new modernism muscles with their design for the Edmonton International Airport terminal, built in 1959. The firm went on to design the 1967 Centennial Library (now the Stanley Milner Library).
The Ross Sheppard project was a trailblazer in a number of ways. For the first time, the outdoor facilities for athletics and physical education were on property owned and maintained by the city's parks and recreation department.
The adjacent stadium with its track and football field was built by the city, as was an artificial ice arena and Coronation swimming pool, which opened to the west of the school in 1970. The idea of a 200-foot-long tunnel connecting the school to the new pool was rejected by the school board in 1967.
In 1965, the school was selected to receive the new Canadian flag, and Governor General Georges Vanier presented it before an assembly of students on June 4th. The Thunderbird totem, the school’s centennial project, was carved and painted by Charles Dudoward, the last hereditary chief of the Tsimshian Nation.
Chief Weeshakes, as he was known, used hand tools that were reportedly more than 140 years old. He completed the work in the school’s gymnasium over a six-week period in May and June 1967. The Thunderbird, with its 12-foot wing span, was made from a 42-foot long and 7,500-pound cedar log from the traditional lands of the Tsimshian at Port Simpson, B.C.
W.T.M. Fowler, the school's assistant principal from 1957 to 1969 and principal from 1970 to 1972, wrote about the history of the totem in a booklet published by the school. “The figure immediately below the mythical thunderbird is the clan's chief, the head man, with the interests of the tribe at heart. Below him is the white- faced owl, symbol of wisdom, representing Ross Sheppard's academic side of school life.
“Next is the Indian Sampson, the tribe's strong man who is tearing the flukes off a baby sea lion. He symbolizes the physical activities of our school life. The killer whale is symbolic of prosperity, because it chases the small fish to shore for the people to catch. At the bottom of the pole is a grizzly bear, the symbol of the tribe and thus its signature. Holding in his paws, against his mighty chest, is the copper plate telling of the tribe’s exploits.”
The project was financed with a $1,082.25 contribution from the school board and more than $1,500 raised by the students' union through various projects and donations from the teaching staff as well as other interested people. Several local firms contributed their expertise to move the huge log from the west coast community of Prince Rupert to Edmonton.
Atlas Construction brought in two cranes to raise the totem into place atop its concrete foundation, anchored eight feet deep into the ground. “Our totem pole was part of a complete school effort that will stand there for the next hundred years, emblematic of what a group of students can do when challenged by a meaningful project,” Fowler concluded.
Special thanks to Holly Platt at the Edmonton Public Schools Archives and Museum for research assistance with this feature.