Eighty years ago this summer, with the Depression underway, the people of Hamilton toured a big new building that defied hard times.
Central High School of Commerce on Sanford Avenue North, between Barton and Cannon, cost a staggering $680,000.
Today that would get you a faux chateau in Ancaster.
Back then, that money paid for a building as wide as a football field and nearly as long, three storeys high, room for 1,600 students, with 41 classrooms, separate cafeterias and gymnasiums for boys and girls.
Several generations later, the building is empty. Now the school board and the city are proposing the Detroit solution — demolish the structure and grow some grass.
"Unless somebody has a better concept and money in their pocket, it’s coming down," says Bernie Morelli, councillor for the ward.
At Commercial High they taught penmanship, bookkeeping, shorthand and, of course, typing. Fifteen minutes of error-free typing at 60-words per minute put you in the elite Gold Seal club.
In 1950, the school became part of the larger and long-ago-demolished Central Secondary on Wentworth, linked to it by a tunnel.
In 1966, the school on Sanford became Hamilton Collegiate Institute, which housed all of Hamilton’s lower-city Grade 13 students.
And in 1985, the building became Sanford Avenue School for elementary kids. They left there two years ago.
The school board and city staff have a plan that would see Sanford torn down, with part of the land used for a soccer field and an expansion of the Pinky Lewis rec centre next door.
Hamilton photographer Reg Beaudry has been watching all this. He’s passionate about the architecture of old Hamilton.
And he believes that before the city goes ahead and OKs the teardown of the Sanford school, it should at least see if there’s a condo option here.
Beaudry’s not talking high-end digs, which would be a tough sell in this part of town. "But these could be Hamilton’s first raw lofts," he says. "The plumbing goes in, you’ve got a washroom, a kitchen, a huge bedroom. The creative class loves that stuff."
Mike Valvasori is a guy with a good reputation for turning old buildings into living space. Just off Locke Street, he turned the Allenby School into lofts. The current condo project is the 1928 Dundas District School, which he purchased from the school board for $600,000.
Valvasori says there’s now a "huge game changer" in Hamilton on the reno front. Early this year, council voted to waive 90 per cent of the development fees for "adaptive reuse" in the core.
And if it’s a building with an historical designation, those development fees are completely waived no matter where it is in the city. The Sanford building is on the city’s inventory of important buildings. It’s not designated yet, but certainly has the history to qualify.
Sanford school is still sound. When it opened, it was hailed as the first building in the country of structural steel construction made with materials all manufactured and fabricated in Canada.
Instead of imports from the U.S., the plates and angles and beams came right out of Hamilton’s own mills.
The terrazzo floors on all three levels at Sanford are unblemished. The brass railings are intact. There are long and luxurious stretches of marble along the wide and high-ceilinged corridors. The hardwood floors in each classroom are ready to gleam.
The argument’s been made that tearing down Sanford would give the area more green space.
But a two-minute walk due east from Sanford puts you in Powell Park. And two minutes due north, you’re in Woodlands Park, a vast piece of green with playground, soccer field, ball diamond and the city’s first collection of outdoor exercise equipment.
And more greenspace doesn’t add a dime to city revenues. Tax-paying condo dwellers do.
So the city should at least check out the retrofit possibilities of Sanford before it tells the school board to go ahead and knock it down.
Councillor Morelli knows there will be other buildings coming up across the city as the school board faces declining enrolments. Neighbouring councillor Sam Merulla is already pushing to have Delta Secondary on Main East converted to housing.
Morelli is not shutting the door at Sanford yet. He says the city is in no position to buy Sanford and convert it to housing itself.
But if someone else stepped forward with a condo plan and money to buy the building, "there would be no pushback from me. I’d be prepared to fight for that."
Fair enough. Let there be a call for proposals. See if there’s a developer prepared to take on big, beautiful Sanford. The wrecking ball should be the last option, not the first.
You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.