Paul Wilson: School board wants to knock down a big one in Hamilton

It's a big beauty, built in 1932 on Sanford Avenue as the Central High School of Commerce. Some think it could be reborn as condos or a seniors' residence, but now the school board's filed a demolition application at City Hall.
It's got nice lines on the outside, marble and brass on the inside – and loads of history. But the school board is in a hurry to flatten Sanford Avenue School. (Courtesy Reg Beaudry)

Last week, in Room 264 at City Hall, the Heritage Committee looked for ways to save Sanford Avenue school, a handsome 80-year-old structure nearly as long as a football field.

But now it turns out the school board has already filed a request to demolish the building. And unless something changes in a hurry, the board will get that permission fast.

At that Heritage meeting on Thursday of last week, several staffers from the city’s building department told the committee that demolition requests have to be processed within 10 days.

And as long as the application is complete, that request is almost always granted. The building officials said no application had been received for Sanford school.

Councillor Brian McHattie then got a motion passed to "register" the school under the Heritage act. If council endorsed that move, it would provide a 60-day protection from demolition.

Big surprise

But yesterday McHattie got word that – contrary to what building officials stated last week – the school board applied on Nov. 13 to demolish the school, two days before the heritage meeting.

"I couldn’t believe it," he says.

He’s asked the building department to find out what happened, and if the demolition application is complete in every way.

In 1932, Hamilton believed these were good words to live by. (Courtesy Reg Beaudry)

And he asked councillor Bernie Morelli, in whose ward Sanford sits, to talk to school board chair Tim Simmons.

The school board and city staff have a plan that would see Sanford torn down, with part of the land used for green space and part for an expansion of the Pinky Lewis rec centre next door.

But some feel there could be a way to do both, plus save the school. Mission Services, for instance, would like to explore building a residence for area seniors at the school – and has the resources to do so.

A couple of local developers who’ve already turned old buildings into condos have said they’d at least like the opportunity to explore possibilities at Sanford too.

A first for Canada

Sanford school is on the city’s list of historically important buildings. It is not designated, but certainly could be. It opened in 1932 as the Central High School of Commerce.

Depression-era Hamiltonians were in awe of the three-storey structure, with room for 1,600 students. It was the first building in the country of steel construction made with materials all manufactured in Canada.

In 1966, the school 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.

In the beginning, it was Central High School of Commerce; later Hamilton Collegiate Institute, home to Grade 13s across the lower city. (Courtesy Reg Beaudry)

They filed out two years ago, but the school remains a beauty. The terrazzo floors are unblemished. The brass railings are intact. Marble lines the high-ceilinged corridors. The hardwood floors are ready to shine again.

In short, it’s not hard to imagine a creative re-use for this building – as many hope will happen at Delta Secondary on Main East.

Hold off on demolition

Councillor Morelli says he just found out about the demolition application yesterday.

He’s said he’s open to at least hearing other options for the Sanford property. But there’s been no expressions-of-interest process to air those options.

And at the same time, Morelli says he wants to make very sure his ward gets a bigger rec centre and more green space.

He did call school board chair Simmons yesterday. "I asked if he would withdraw the demolition application until we have an opportunity to look at this thing... He said, ‘Gee, Bernie, there’s been a lot of work involved in what we’re planning to do.’"

Morelli says the board chair has promised to get back to him. CBC Hamilton called Simmons, but has not yet heard back.

Morelli says the project plans he’s seen "eat up half" of Sanford. The school is immense, so that would be a very large rec-centre project indeed.

But maybe a reconfiguration is possible. "I’m not changing courses," Morelli says, "but we need to at least look at it."

Exactly. Look at the options – before the bulldozers, not after.

Paul Wilson is a member of the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee.

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.