When Betty McQuillan walked to school along Finch Avenue, it was a gravel road.
Her one-room schoolhouse, Elia Public School, stood on the northeast corner of Finch and Keele Street, about a mile from her family farm.
“You knew most of the people in the school, or they were cousins or relatives,” said McQuillan, 92, who went to the school from Grade 2 to 8 in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
“There were two brick outhouses at the back, which were very cold in the winter,” McQuillan recalled.
The school also featured a bell tower.
“The big room in the middle was the bell room,” said McQuillan, adding the school’s lone teacher would ring the bell at the start of school at 9 a.m. as well as at the end of recess and lunch to get students back inside. “That was the only way of getting in touch with the kids once they were let out of school.”
McQuillan noted the school didn’t have a telephone, so if her teacher needed help, she had to send someone to walk down Finch “to a farm where there was a phone.”
The school, which opened in 1873, was demolished in 1956 to make way for future development. The school, however, has not been forgotten.
A 41-feet-high public art sculpture installed last month on the centre median of Finch just east of Keele portrays a partial representation of the Elia schoolhouse.
The project, designed by artist Brandon Vickerd, was spearheaded by the DUKE Heights Business Improvement Area (BIA).
The sculpture, dubbed “The Heights” and fabricated in Corten steel, aims to tell the story of the transformation of the Keele and Finch neighbourhood from a rural farming community to an industrial hub and expanding urban centre.
Elia Public School, left, a one-room schoolhouse, stood on the northeast corner of Keele Street and Finch Avenue West from 1873 until 1956, when it was demolished to make way for future development. “The Heights” sculpture, which stands about 41 feet high and is fabricated in Corten steel, portrays a partial representation of the Elia schoolhouse. | DUKE Heights BIA image
Vickerd, a York University professor who chairs the department of visual arts and art history, said the sculpture reflects on the role of history in providing a guiding light that illuminates a path forward. “It references the idea of heights,” he said. “By putting this representation of a schoolhouse high up in the air, it talks about the aspirations of the community, how it recognizes its past but is also charting a way into the future.”
Vickerd said the sculpture acts as a “landmark that really connects the community.”
There were, however, constraints in designing the sculpture. Because it sits above the underground LRT, the structure had to weigh less than 8,000 pounds yet still serve as a large landmark visible from blocks away.
“It was a bit of a challenge. How do you make something that has a strong vertical presence and acts as a landmark but weighs less than 8,000 pounds?” Vickerd said. “So working with all those constraints, I set about developing a design that captured the spirit of the school but isn’t a fully formed building, so it’s almost like a rough sketch of the building up in space so that as you move through the site, whether you’re coming from the east or the west, the north or the south, the piece changes as you revolve around it.”
Vickerd said public art, especially when it comes from the community and involves community conversations, “enhances people’s experience” of the city. “And the more public art that we can have that does that, the greater civic participation we’re going to see and the stronger the social fabric of the city is going to be.”
The site that the sculpture sits on is not yet open to the public as a result of LRT construction.
“So although you can see it, you can’t really get to the base of it for at least another six months,” Vickerd said.
Dr. Lew Pliamm, chair of the DUKE Heights BIA, visits “The Heights” sculpture located on Finch Avenue near Keele street before it was fully installed. The public artwork was initiated and partially funded by the BIA.| Dan Pearce/Metroland
DUKE Heights BIA chair Dr. Lew Pliamm, a local family physician, said the project, which began in May 2020, has cost $500,000 to $600,000. The money has come from the city, the BIA and developers through the Section 37 Community Benefits Charge.
Pliamm said the sculpture is part of a plan to revitalize the Finch and Keele area, which has endured construction disruptions for the last decade with the building of the Finch West subway, which opened in December 2017, and the ongoing work to finish the Finch West LRT line.
“We thought it was fitting, given the revitalization of that intersection, to create a world-class art piece to commemorate the past.”
The DUKE Heights BIA, formed in 2014, represents 2,500 businesses that employ more than 32,000 people in an area bounded by Keele Street to the west, Dufferin Street to the east, Sheppard Avenue to the south and Steeles Avenue to the north.
Pliamm said the BIA’s mandate is to help revitalize the area, which had been “very much in disrepair” for years.
“Our plan is to try to make our area a place that people actually want to see and even come to and do something there, not just go to work and go home or drive through it.”
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Reporter Andrew Palamarchuk wanted to look into the new sculpture on Finch at Keele, talking with its designer, the BIA that commissioned it, and a former student of the long-closed school that inspired it.
Betty McQuillan is a (long time) NYHS member.