St. Marys Journal Argus
The building was originally supposed to be ready for student occupancy by September of 1914, but classes didn’t actually begin at the most recent version of St. Marys Central School (there was a pre-existing facility with the same name) until March of 1915.
So if residents of St. Marys and area — and, in particular, hundreds if not thousands of graduates of the school, which closed its doors in 2010 — have been wondering why it has taken so long to convert the stately structure into condominiums, they shouldn’t be concerned. Obviously, changes at St. Marys Central are meant to be slow and deliberate.
As historian Mary Smith told attendees at a seminar hosted by the St. Marys Museum last week, there was a public outcry when it was revealed that the original 1914 plans called for a structure built out of something other than the Stonetown’s iconic limestone. A months-long fundraising campaign was launched to secure the finances for what was — by that time in the global development of construction technology — a significantly more expensive option.
The new St. Marys Central School — now approaching its 100th anniversary — turned out to be the very last public facility in the Town of St. Marys constructed out of limestone.
In the conclusion to last week’s seminar — an encore for which was arranged for Thursday, May 8, after the initial date sold out almost immediately (and now, it too has sold out, with the Museum still accepting names for a waiting list) — Smith showed slides from the history of the school. One, which she said is one of her favourite photos of the Museum’s entire collection, depicted a community ceremony held mid-construction on the limestone edifice. Elderly women — Smith suggested they were former teachers at the previous St. Marys Central — had been guided up a gangplank for a photo opportunity atop the still-under-construction walls; children frolicked gleefully in the muck of the worksite; horses welcomed the opportunity for a rest from another busy day of hauling chunks of limestone from the quarry down the hill.
As enthralling as those photos were, however, there was absolutely no question about the reason why the seminar sold out so quickly. It began with two separate groups of about a dozen each — one group for each of the St. Marys-based duo who purchased the building from the Avon Maitland District School Board in late 2011 — being given a close-up tour of the interior as it now stands. And, with their forthcoming admissions, insightful descriptions and thoughtful responses, Michael Ebert and Ray Doerksen certainly didn’t disappoint.
One of those responses was to a question about the length of time it has taken to advance to a point at which one of the 15 suites is complete, several others are nearing completion, a handful are sold, and there are plans to open for occupancy in early 2015.
“Asbestos removal,” was Doerksen’s polite response. “That set us back at least a year.”
He added that the duo had been provided with several years’ worth of inspection reports by the school board indicating an absence of asbestos. But when tear-down began on some of the structure’s original poured-concrete floors (a brand new, still-being-perfected innovation at the time, Doerksen commented, and something they were surprised to discover at all, given the age of the building), they soon discovered those reports weren’t accurate.
Participants in the seminar, however, had no reservations about how long it took, nor what had to happen to get to this point. Ebert and Doerksen were repeatedly praised for their attention to detail, their readiness to retain the unique character of the building — sometimes at the expense of creating larger square-footage suites — and their creativity in putting together an appealing offer for prospective owners.
Burton Ready, a former teacher and avid history buff, rose from his seat after viewing the historic photos and addressed the duo: “Here’s your mark for this project: an ‘F’ . . . for FANTASTIC!”
During the tour, Doerksen highlighted just some of the unique features of Central School Manor: the three-foot-thick interior walls with two sides of double brick and a central flu that served as the building’s original ventilation system; a rare limestone interior wall that will be left in place in the “Drama Suite” (each condominium unit has been given a school-related name); two exterior walls of a suite in the so-called “basement” (its floor level is only three feet below ground level, and it has 10-foot ceilings) that consist almost entirely of windows; two lovely spaces — one indoor, the other an outdoor garden — that will serve as common areas for Manor residents; and the pièce de résistance: the main-floor Library Suite, situated partially in Central School’s beautiful turret, and commanding wonderful views from its numerous huge windows.
It will, without question, be a unique place to live — something to talk about with friends. The indoor common area, Doerksen noted, was created through the removal of the existing central boiler system (which also allowed for the raising of the basement ceiling, since the piping for the system could also be removed).
And what became the new home of the old central boiler? “A medicinal marijuana growing operation,” the obviously recycling-passionate Doerksen smiled.
As for the finished product inside the walls, those details have only been decided for the suites that have already been sold. Ebert and Doerksen are committed to working to create an interior feel unique to each buyer.
“We don’t want a cookie-cutter approach,” Doerksen told tour participants. “We really want to be able to meet with the buyer and say, ‘what do you want?’”
Doerksen told the Journal Argus that opening up the doors for these two Museum seminars was meant simply as a “sneak peek” at the project. A considerably more “open” open house is planned for Saturday, July 12 during the annual Stonetown Heritage Festival.