Believe it or not, Sir John A. Macdonald – the downtown high school where the builders forgot to put in windows – once won a design award.
Prack & Prack Architects got the honour in 1971, the year after the school opened. On King East, the same firm gave us Scott Park Secondary, another bunker of a building. It’s been closed for a dozen years and is to be knocked down soon for a new high school. There aren’t many in mourning.
But what’s to become of Sir John A.?
Classes start next Tuesday. The Grade Niners will not graduate from Sir John A. The school is to be shut down by the time they’re ready for Grade 12.
And that will leave Hamilton with a big empty building in the core.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board had too many high schools with too few students. It decided to combine three in the lower city into one.
They talked about folding Delta and Parkview into Sir John A. But their preferred option was to build a new school to the east. And the province came up with $32-million to make that happen.
Design starts soon
Design work on the new school starts early this fall. Board chair Tim Simmons pledges the place will have windows. There are to be shovels in the ground next summer, with an opening in the fall of 2016.
So Sir John A. is out of a job and Simmons hasn’t seen any proposal that would have his board repurpose that five-level building, the largest-capacity public school in the city.
The likelihood is that it will go up for sale. "We need the money to fix our schools," Simmons says. "That’s a good property. It should bring significant dollars."
The board has to sell the land at close to its appraised market value. Simmons has heard some numbers bandied about, but isn’t sharing them.
First step is a public meeting. Then the board can list the nine-acre Sir John A. property, bounded by York, Bay, Cannon and Caroline. The Catholic board would get first dibs. Then Mac and Mohawk. After that, the city. Private developers would be at the back of the line.
Hard to imagine the separate board doing anything on that land. And McMaster may be tapped out, what with its health building going up now at Main and Bay.
How about Mohawk?
Mohawk has spent plenty in recent years on infrastructure on the Mountain campus. But it sure would be nice if the college finally chose to make a proper investment in the core.
Doesn’t seem like there’s a lot the city could do with Sir John A. Besides, there’s no money in the bank.
So then it’s the private sector. Most persistent rumour – Sir John A. becomes a casino. That’s a use where no-windows is a plus. It’s best if gamblers don’t know if it’s day or night.
What about that option, Mr. Simmons? "The board of education is not going to weigh in on the casino debate at all." Full stop.
Condos? They’d have to punch a lot of holes in the place because, unlike gamblers, condo dwellers do like windows – floor to ceiling if possible.
Simmons thinks the best part of Sir John A. is its 750-seat theatre. "Apart from that, I’m not sure there’s much value in the rest of the facility."
The school could fall
So it could be a case of somebody buying the land, knocking down the school, starting fresh.
Sir John A. cost $5.6 million to build and equip. The theatre was another $800,000. Cost to assemble the land – nearly $3 million. There were 71 residential and commercial properties expropriated. The big one was McCoy Foundry.
The school board only had to pay 25 per cent of those land costs. Because the area was within urban renewal areas, the federal and provincial governments picked up the rest.
A couple of generations later, that land is still important to urban renewal. It will be a big loss when the core loses the energy of those 1,200 students from Sir John A. (Unlike other schools, its enrollment is stable.)
When those kids spill out onto the street, you see what a diverse city Hamilton has become.
Check the hallway photo of the student council members in 1971, and you see names like Bob, Jane, Joe and Mary. Forty years on, it’s Rukiya, Nadratan, Nawras and Khadijah. The school’s students today come from 80 counties, speak 50 languages.
It’s good that those kids are going someplace with windows, but downtown will be a duller place without them.