Up In Smoke

TEXT TANYA SOUTHCOTT

When Alma College officially opened its doors in 1881 as an independent ladies’ college, the community of St. Thomas, Ontario recognized in this unique work of Victorian Gothic architecture an instant landmark. An enterprising and industrious town at the crossroads of several railway lines, St. Thomas was booming, and an institution dedicated to intellectual and academic pursuits would provide the prestige necessary to complement its rapid industrial growth. After three years of construction, architect James Balfour’s competition-winning design was ready to welcome prospective students from around the world. The college remained an active cultural and educational facility for over 100 years, its longevity a testament to its continued prominence and respectability in the community.

Then in 1988 after increasing financial difficulties, the school officially closed its doors to first its students, and finally the community in 1994. But significant years of deterioration, decline and abandonment left the fate of Alma College in jeopardy until the afternoon of Wednesday, May 28, 2008. Clouds of black smoke drew people in droves to watch as the fire spread quickly, engulfing the entire structure in flames. At 12:22 pm, the roof of the iconic entrance tower collapsed, and by the end of the second day Alma College was gone.

Although the fire accomplished what heritage activists, concerned citizens and city officials had been fighting against for over a decade, many cite Alma’s ultimate fate as willful demolition by neglect. Since its official closure, the building remained largely vacant and often inadequately secured. In an effort to protect both heritage fabric and structural integrity, the City designated Alma College as an Ontario Heritage site. Instead, its designation initiated a contentious and emotional debate over demolition rights to the property. Despite repeated protests, development restrictions, limited reuse alternatives and the financial burden of rehabilitation outweighed remaining heritage value and commitment to reuse. Shortly before the fire, the final demolition order was approved and the 1994 heritage designation bylaw was repealed.

Those who petitioned against Alma’s demolition are now requesting a provincial review of the protection and designation of heritage sites in Ontario as well as the establishment of the Alma College Heritage Foundation to assist smaller communities in safeguarding historic properties. Historic buildings of character like Alma College are assets for communities like St. Thomas and can enhance economic activity, tourism and public community pride if recognized as such. They are opportunities to promote and celebrate the preservation of heritage and culture, and to strengthen civic identity.

Alma College was conceived and constructed in a period of history when the relationship between architecture and identity was celebrated through grand buildings by great architects, when national and civic pride were articulated through the character and scale of the building and the quality of features and materials used. Buildings were monuments to what our cities and our nation might become.

As one of St. Thomas’s most significant architectural works, Alma College captured the collective imagination of the community who recognized in it the opportunity to celebrate its civic sense of self. While its loss is a tragedy, it is also an inspiration for the potential of our built environment to embody the collective emotion of its audience.CA

Tanya Southcott grew up in St. Thomas and is now an intern architect living in Vancouver.

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