By Doug Hallett
Converting an old school into a new one might not seem like a big deal. But try telling that to those in charge of turning the former College Avenue Public School into the new home of the Guelph Community Christian School – at a cost of $2 million and 10,000 volunteer hours.
Constructed in 1959, the building itself is “solid, built like a bunker,” says Bob Moore, the principal of the new school which opens next Tuesday.
“But the internals all needed to be replaced,” he says. “And the school’s design didn’t suit our vision, so we redesigned it, and that made it a big project.”
The past 10 months saw parents and grandparents of many of the school’s 240 students, as well as some other local residents, devote much effort to the ambitious renovation project. One of the school’s parents, Daryl Holmes, put in long hours overseeing the work and making sure the renovations were done within the $2-million budget, Moore said in an interview.
“It’s endless, the hours and sacrifice people have put into this project,” he said, calling 10,000 hours a conservative estimate of the volunteer effort. “It’s amazing.”
For example, when 300 trees, shrubs and perennials were delivered in late July, “we had 25 volunteers come in and plant them in one day,” he said. The next day the mulch came, and so did more volunteers. The next day, sod and more volunteers arrived.
Volunteers were also involved in much tougher tasks, such as cutting a 500-sq.-ft. hole through a cinderblock wall to allow construction of a stage at one end of the school’s gym. “Lots of dads showed up that day, because it was a challenge,” Moore noted with a smile.
The Christian school outbid three property developers to buy the 10-acre school property from the Upper Grand District School Board in June 2011 for $3.1 million. It later sold its small school at 286 Water St., where it spent 47 years, to the Muslim Society of Guelph for $730,000.
It hopes to get some money by selling close to half an acre of its site, fronting onto Lynwood Avenue, for a single detached house to be built. A rezoning application for the site goes to a city council meeting on Sept. 4.
Surplus space on the east side of the school will be used for a community garden, and also for the planting of fruit and nut trees as part of the Guelph Community Orchard Project. Six pawpaw trees, bearing pawpaw fruit that’s native to Canada, are to be planted on Sept. 8, Moore said.
Modernizing all the plumbing and wiring in the 37,000-sq.-ft. school at 195 College Ave. W. was part of the renovation project, as was changing from hot-water heating to a modern forced-air heating system with air conditioning. A lot of schools don’t have air conditioning, but “we anticipate that schools across Ontario will become year-round schools in five to 10 years, so we are ready for that,” Moore said.
However, the project involved a lot more than basic renovation work – notably, the main entrance was moved. In the old Grade 7-8 public school, the main entrance opened onto a small lobby and a main office that was far away from the staff room.
The Christian school’s vision involved creating a new main entrance elsewhere in the building that leads into a large lobby. The main office, the staff room and the library are all accessed from the lobby, which will have a coffee machine to encourage parents to linger.
“We’ve created this hub to foster community,” Moore said.
Big wooden beams that had to be removed when walls were altered in the school have been turned into benches, including a large one located in the new lobby.
The junior kindergarten to Grade 8 school – which has a sliding tuition scale, ranging from $9,000 a year for the first child to being free for a family’s fourth child in the school – will open with two empty classrooms and some underused space.
The aim is to grow eventually to 300 students, said Moore, who is starting his ninth year as the school’s principal and his 35th year in education. “That is a nice size for being able to offer programs, but still know everyone.”
Having so much space has meant being able to include such amenities as a 1,000-sq.-ft. music room, as well as two piano studios that will allow some students to practise piano during the school day. Despite all the money and volunteer hours that went into the renovation, Moore thinks one of the school’s eco-friendly touches is what will have many of the school’s students buzzing on the first day of school.
It’s an elaborate fountain that includes a sensor-activated spout for filling up water containers. A small electronic panel gives a running total of how many bottles have been filled to, as it says, “help eliminate waste from disposable plastic bottles.”
“In a $2-million renovation, what the boys will talk about when they go home is this,” Moore said with a laugh. “They’ll say, you should see the water fountain!”
Heritage features uncovered and enhanced
Heritage buffs might be forgiven for thinking they’re seeing double when they look at the former College Avenue Public School, now a private Christian school.
The old main entrance featured a highly distinctive inverted roof designed by noted Guelph architect Richard Pagani, which has been called a “butterfly roof.” Guelph Community Christian School principal Bob Moore has also described it as looking “like the back end of a ’59 Chevy.”
The new main entrance, which is set farther back from College Avenue than the old one built in 1959, includes a design feature that echoes Pagani’s inverted roof.
Jack Tacoma, a retired engineer who chaired the Christian school’s building committee, designed it.
“He’s an engineer with a strong artistic flair,” Moore says. “He designed it to echo the Pagani butterfly and tie the entrances together.”
Glass walls have been added at the old main entrance to create what Moore calls a community room, where the school’s parents will meet. The light-filled room contains a big boardroom-style table.
“On a sunny winter day, maybe the children will come here with their books and read in the sun,” Moore remarked.
He said the school not only preserved, but also enhanced, another notable heritage element in the school – a tongue-and-groove cedar ceiling in the library that had been hidden above a false ceiling.
The original ceiling, which includes glued laminated beams, is “very 1960 and very Canadian” because of its use of cedar, Moore said.
“This was hidden. It was one of the treasures that we found,” he said.
As well as removing the false ceiling, the school enhanced the library’s original ceiling by adding more windows to bring in natural light that makes it more visible, Moore said.
In the adjoining gym, the cedar roof wasn’t hidden, but it had been coated with an “ugly and ineffective” sound treatment, he said. “So we sand-blasted that off, and we left it unfinished so you can smell the cedar.”
Moore said his school tried to preserve as many heritage elements as possible during the renovation, including “beautiful and durable” terrazzo floors. Interior brick walls were left unpainted.
However, the school hasn’t yet got around to dealing with a city hall request that it consider having parts of the building designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The school has a letter from the city expressing interest in designation, “but we’ve been too busy to deal with it,” Moore said.