The Conservatory Building and the Halifax Explosion

Our Conservatory building at 6199 Chebucto Road has a long and interesting history. Before it became the Conservatory in 1996, it was known as the Chebucto Road School. Its history includes a special chapter in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion.

On December 6th 1917, the day of the explosion, the Chebucto Road School was open as it had been all the time during World War I. Because of the war however, coal was in short supply, and fires had to be banked during the night. That meant that the school building wouldn’t be warm for classes until 10am. The younger pupils were ordered to stay home until then, and only grade 9, the older pupils, were in the building the moment the explosion happened.

Canadian writer Thomas Raddall was a student at the Chebucto School at the time, and in his memoirIn My Time’ he describes what happened next:

The only class in session at 9.05 am on the morning of December 6th was my own. Our room was on the south side. The great blast came from the north. We had just finished singing the morning hymn, “Awake, my soul, and with the sun /Thy daily stage of duty run” and were in the act of sitting down when we felt two distinct shocks. The first came from the deep slate bedrock on which the city stood, a sort of earthquake in which the floor seemed to rise and drop in several rapid oscillations. A few seconds later the air blast smote us. In the same order there were two tremendous noises, first a deep grumble from the ground and then an ear-splitting bang…


The effects in the classroom were swift and destructive. The windows vanished. The thick opaque glass in the upper half of each door, with wire netting embedded to prevent ordinary breakage, flew out whole. Behind my row of desks a door-glass tipped forward, shot horizontally over our heads and sliced deeply into the wall in front of us. Fortunately, we were sitting by that time. Had it been twelve inches lower it would have decapitated most if not all of us in that row… All the plaster sprang off the walls in large and small chunks, and filled the room with a fog of white dust. We jumped to our feet, staring at each other… For a few seconds we stood like a lot of powdered clowns with badly applied daubs of red paint here and there; then with the instinct born of routine fire practice the boys and girls dived through their separate cloakrooms, snatching coats and headgear off the hooks or off the floor and clattering away downstairs to run home. By that time the cold air, rushing in through empty window frames, had blown the white fog away and I could see the whole room clearly… I was the sole remaining pupil, and I stood by my desk gazing mutely at the headmaster…Then Old Gander said…, “We must search the building. I shall look downstairs. You go through the classrooms on this floor. If you find anybody injured, or see any sign of fire, come to me at once.” We parted on these errands at a run. I found the upper classrooms wrecked and littered but empty. Before I could peer into the auditorium, I had to tear away some wreckage in a doorway. It was a spectacle. The architects had placed it on the north-facing side of the school and lighted it with a procession of large windows. The great blast had driven all of these windows inward, sashes and all, and they had swept the chairs and desks into a tangle of splintered wood against the farther wall. An hour later those chairs and desks would have been filled with tots of the lower grades. I rejoined the headmaster in the first-floor hallway. He had just come up from the lower floor and basement, where he found no sign of life. Even the janitor had abandoned his furnace and fled. At the end of the hall was the ornate main entrance of the school, with tall and wide doors facing Saint Matthias’s church, and above them an arched fanlight of coloured glass in various hues. The doors had gone out into the yard and so had the fanlight. A thin snow lay on the ground, and the fragments of coloured glass were scattered over it like a tumbled jigsaw puzzle…

Compared to the rest of the city, the damage to the school was minor. In the days after the explosion, military engineers cleaned up the debris and covered the broken windows of the school. The school was then used as a triage and first aid centre, morgue and funeral home. The bodies of the dead were kept in the basement of the school. Some of the funeral services for the unidentified dead, were held in the open air in front of the main entrance. During this time students were sent to other schools in Halifax, but eventually the school returned to its original use.

To this day signs and traces of the past are present in our Conservatory building. Many of them sparking memories of fun, joy, and hope. But in the basement of our building one cannot help but think back to those terrible days in the aftermath of the destruction of December 6th, 1917. Sometimes I sit quietly alone in our beautiful concert hall—Thomas Raddall’s “auditorium”—to enjoy a few moments of contemplation. I may hear the strains of singing in a studio, or it could be strings or far away piano. But each time in those brief quiet moments I am reminded of the destruction in that very hall. I look at the windows remembering how they were shattered and I am mindful of how fortunate we are to enjoy simple moments of peace and that any problems that may trouble us should be treated proportionately. It is but one of history’s lessons.


– Simon Robinson, Maritime Conservatory Director