Historic Boilers Rest in Peace

 In cSPACE News

With an intent to equip the former King Edward School for another hundred years, the redevelopment of the heritage building requires a complete overhaul of the existing mechanical and electrical systems. As part of these measures, the century-old boilers were retired, dismantled from their present location and reimagined for life in an arts environment.

The coal-fired boilers at King Edward School are a remarkable sight and have a wonderful history associated with the pioneering spirit of Calgary. Piecing together their cross-Canada journey, Arthur Krahn, our last engineer working at the facility before construction started, described their origins:

The story starts in Amherst, Nova Scotia. Here the boiler drums were riveted together and tubing was installed by Robb Engineering Co. Ltd. The shipment to Calgary was presumably by rail. What a massive undertaking to move these vessels and the related steel framework to the 1912 construction site.

Marr’s Plumbing and Heating of Calgary installed the steel structure and hung the drums from the steel cross members. The construction of the school continued and enclosed the structure around these heating vessels. Masons bricked in the bottom to create a furnace area and combustion chamber under the drums. The front doors, trim, water columns, and combustion controls were added. The new boiler units were inspected and given Alberta designations as A-3533 and A-3534 pressure vessels.

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Detail of the boiler’s heating tubes as they are dismantled

For heritage and engineering buffs, these twin HRT type low pressure steam boilers were situated in the lower mechanical room and occupied a space of some 14’ high by 20’ wide by 25’ deep. Complete with an underground coal storage room, Arthur confirms that, “the original installation included grating for coal combustion” and that, Gary Hanson of CBE informed him that a “caretaker lived in the school and kept the fires stoked in the heating season. The exact date is unknown but these boilers were converted to natural gas fuel, probably in the 1940’s. The grating was removed, and burners were installed in the ash door openings. Triumph Series E  NO gas burners were used, manufactured by C Lehman” who Arthur believes is the same company written up in “Alberta Inventors and Inventions” under Heating and Gas Devices.

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The material culture of these boilers speaks to something more beyond their important function. Over the duration of this project, we have an increasing respect that heritage elements like this are a non-renewable resource, that these boilers embody the spirit of this historic place.

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Brick being removed around boiler drum

Given the character and finer details of these boilers cast in iron, the intent from the start of the design process was to consider reusing them as artifacts to embed their history in the new arts hub. Given their scale however, it has been a challenge to determine their future place. Early options included converting the boiler room itself into a coffee shop – with the heat transfer tubes at the back removed and the front elevation with boiler doors and wall left in situ. Later, the boiler doors were considered as exterior park features, followed by interpretive displays within adjacent buildings, to interior features within the stairwells.

As a fitting conclusion to their legacy and unknown future, we decided that cavities in the terrazzo of the lower floor of the school be crafted for the boiler doors to be laid and displayed under the protection of tempered glass. With a surround of local brick and LED fixtures to illuminate their years of service, these heritage boilers will live on as a defining feature of the foyer for the new studio theatre.

On April 27th at 12:21pm after 103 years of service, our great boilers at King Edward School were decommissioned ending their long commitment to heating classrooms for thousands of alumni since 1913. While no coal was burned on this final occasion as it would have back in the day, the gas was solemnly shutoff for the final time, the pilot light was extinguished, and the cast iron went cold.

In the brief moments of this historic event shared only by two, Arthur who helped with the historical details of this article fittingly captures our sentiment, how “with mixed feelings we “bid adieu” to boilers that served well for over a century and ponder over all the operators, pipefitters, control technicians, boiler makers, brick layers, construction personnel, and boiler inspectors that left their fingerprints on this equipment.” But rest assured dear friends, as these historic mementos will soon rest in peace yet continue to ignite inspiration for many more years to come!

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