Alma College (St. Thomas)

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Alma College

Romanesque style School designed by James Balfour (architect) 1877, destroyed by fire in 2008
LocationSt. Thomas, Ontario
DateFire on May 28th 2008
ResultDestroyed by arson
WebsiteAlumnae home page
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Coordinates: 42°46′24″N 81°11′27″W / 42.773315°N 81.190869°W / 42.773315; -81.190869

Alma College

Romanesque style School designed by James Balfour (architect) 1877, destroyed by fire in 2008
LocationSt. Thomas, Ontario
DateFire on May 28th 2008
ResultDestroyed by arson
WebsiteAlumnae home page

Alma College was a girls private school in St. Thomas, Ontario in Canada. Built in 1878, the school was in operation between 1881 and 1988. The college closed in 1988 in part due to a teacher's strike.[1] Primary school and music classes were still taught on campus until 1994.[2] Following its closure the school building was used as a set for several movie productions; Silent Hill (interior shots), its image is included in the 2009 film Orphan[3] and the made for TV movie, Mr. Headmistress (1997).[2] The building was destroyed by a fire on May 28, 2008.[1]


History (1877- 1996)

Governor General Roland Michener attending the Alma College graduation ceremonies in 1972

With the economic boom of St. Thomas in the late 19th century, Bishop Albert Carmen proposed that a ladies college be established. The school name derives from the late Mrs. J.D. (Alma) Munroe Duffield (wife of the then Sheriff Collin Munroe).[4]

Alma college was officially opened in 1881 as a liberal arts college for women, teaching literature, arts and music.[5] The school's traditional colors were chosen based on each of these subjects: blue (literature), gold (art), and crimson (music).

James Balfour (architect) designed the Alma Ladies College building (1878-81) and the additions (1888-89). [6] Construction was done by Henry Lindop of St. Thomas at an estimated total cost of about $50,000.[4] Alma College's grounds featured a main building, a chapel, a hall cum gymnasium, and a unique outdoor amphitheater.

In its later years the college was affiliated with the University of Western Ontario, and was the first college in Canada to organize a department of domestic science.[5]

Between 1918 and 1953 new athletic facilities, a chapel and the amphitheater were constructed. In 1959 a music building was constructed.[7] By 1973 the school began to experience a significant financial struggle to continue operation.[8] In 1975 a portion of the residence was opened as a satellite seniors home for a local long term care facility.[9] That same year a co-ed elementary school was established on campus.

In October 1976 the college was designated a provincial historic site to celebrate the school's centennial.[10] In 1987 Alma college teachers faced job security issues and were earning about half of what public high school teachers earned.[1]

After failed negotiations with Alma's board, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) approved the private school bargaining unit of Alma's teachers. In February 1988 the first strike by members of a private school in Ontario was called[1] and in March replacement workers were used to teach classes at the school.[1] The strike lasted just over 3 months with the OLRB ruling that the Alma Board was guilty of unfair labor practices. At the end of the academic year all teachers were told that their services were no longer needed as the school was closing. (The Alma bargaining movement would continue to be active until as late as 1998.)[1] Primary and music classes continued until 1994. In 1994 a last effort to reopen the school was unsuccessful due to low enrollment.[8]

Building demise (1996-2008)

Alma College amphitheatre as of Summer 2008 after restoration. The amphitheatre has since been vandalized and fallen to disrepair [11]

The school grounds and buildings were sold to private developers in 1996 for $1.5 million (CAD).[8] Alma College changed ownership several times after failed attempts to convert the grounds into a retirement home, a co-ed high school, or an otherwise general restoration of the buildings.

Initially after closure the buildings were sold to Royal Cambridge in 1996. The developer initially planned to restore the buildings and open a co-ed school.[8] Shortly after the production of Mr Headmistress, an ABC made for TV movie was made where various outdoor improvements were made to the building as well as restoration of ground work surrounding the structure. Nearly one month after production of the film, Royal Cambridge defaulted on the mortgage payments for the property. This caused the building to be for sale once again.[8] A London development company led by Brian Squires purchases the College and develops plans to build a retirement community on the campus in 1998. Over the next 4 years he spends time preparing the site and arranging financing. At this point the school begins to see a wave of vandalism due to general un-occupancy. By 2003 Squires applies for a demolition permit in order to make room for building projects on site.[8] This however was swiftly denied by the local municipality to provide a demolition permit. The bases for denial was that the building was deemed structurally sound and the heritage value. The denial caused Brian Squires to reevaluate the usage of the land, and shortly after revised plans to develop a retirement community appear in 2004. These plans would not see much support causing Brian Squires to hand over control of the project to the Zubick family. The building is gutted; asbestos, general fixtures and walls are all removed leaving little but a timber frame inside the building. The ghostly innards were used for the film Silent Hill in 2005. Once again a demolition permit is issued for Alma college after more attempts to sell the building are unsuccessful.[8] In 2006 the Municipal Heritage Committee recommends that the demolition permit be denied, that city council prescribe minimum standards for maintenance of the building under section 35.3 of the Ontario Heritage Act. They also recommend that the city seek further financial assistance from the provincial Ministry of Heritage. This report would subsequently be buried by the ministry of culture only to reappear under the freedom of information act two years later and after the buildings eventual demise.[12] the city denies the demolition permit and the building is placed on the National top ten endangered historic sits in Canada.[8]

By 2006 an offer was made by the Alma College foundation, a group of alumnae, university academics and community leaders in the hopes of reopening as a liberal arts college. Their offer was 750 000 dollars but was rejected by the Zubick family. With the building being allowed to fall into further disrepair the city council developed new property standards by laws in order to establish minimum standards. This new by law was protested and ruled to be too specific in wording and was over turned by the Ontario supreme court[citation needed]. The city eventually agrees to offer a demolition permit on the condition that the front drive way be preserved and the front facade.[8] A sentiment that is still considered valid even though today the building was destroyed. In early 2008 The Ontario Municipal Board approves the demolition of Alma College. This would set off a rush to protect the building by many local activists. On May 28, 2008 a petition was set to be passed around at the Ontario Legislature to prevent the demolition of the building. In addition a rally to save the college was also planned that morning at the Main building of the school.

Fire and grounds destruction (2008-present)

Fire at Alma College in May 2008. After the fire only a brick shell remained. It was subsequently demolished.

Alma College caught fire on May 28, 2008. The fire was suspicious in nature. The smoke could be seen as far away as downtown London, Ontario.[13] Shortly after the fire began the main building was completely engulfed. A significant amount of video coverage of the fire is available due to a student rally to save the building which took place shortly before the fire.[14] After the fire, Both a municipal and provincial investigation was commenced immediately. The fire took place shortly after the Ontario Municipal Board issued a final order that approved its demolition.[13] Just prior to the time of the fire local residents met with officials of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s office in hopes of postponing an eventual demolition. Local response was swift to place blame on Ontario minister of Culture, Aileen Carroll at the time for not working hard enough to protect the building from demolition.[13] Recent documentation has been released through the freedom of information act a month after the fire. This indicated a report from the Ontario Heritage Trust board addressed to the ministry of culture. The report outlined that the ministry should ensure that should Alma fall under the threat of demolition or alteration that would compromise the heritage character, integrity and attributes of the property, that it would be appropriate for the minister to designate Alma College using the powers prescribed under the Ontario heritage Act to protect the building.[15] At the time of the fire the building was completely open and exposed to numerous fire hazards. Timber members within the structure had no fire protection and numerous broken windows allowed a proper flow of ventilation only to encourage the fire.[16] The main school building was destroyed by fire.[17] An investigation by the St Thomas city fire department found the blaze, which began in the building's rear stairwell, was the result of arson.[18] The music building and chapel were not destroyed immediately by the fire. The response to the fire was fast enough that the local fire department was able to save the music building. However weathering, vandalism, and neglect continue to further damaging the surviving structures since the fire.[11] After the fire the remaining shell of the main building was torn down due to safety considerations by the municipal government of the city of St Thomas[19] Shortly after the fire two boys were arrested and charged with arson.[20] The identity of both boys (aged 14 and 15 at the time of the fire) could not be revealed under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The trial occurred on August 10–13 [18] and September 2–3, 2009. In a ruling on September 24, 2009, the two boys were found guilty of arson and sentenced to 240 hours of community service and 2 years parole.[21]

After the fire a short speech was given at the Ontario legislature by speaker Steve Peters after the fire in memory of the building and loss to the culture of his home riding. The main building topped Heritages Canada's list for worst losses in 2008.[22]

Student life

Student run publications were always popular at Alma. In 1903 a quarterly magazine was developed entitled ALMA consisting of articles written by staff and students.[23] The Almafilian was the colleges first student newspaper published monthly from 1886 to 1917, and then serving as the year book published annually until the schools closure.[23] Various dramatic plays, banquets, recitals and dances were held annually on campus. In 1878 a metallic box time capsule was placed in a cornerstone of the building which would remain undisturbed until 2002. In the time capsule a copy of the local newspapers (St. Thomas and London) of the time were stored, church literature, photographs, postcards, and a list of people who contributed to the college's cornerstone. The time capsule today is housed in the Elgin county archives.

The amphitheater was a popular site for ceremonies including graduations and marriages. The school kept a marriage register from 1928 to 1994.[24] Each May Day from 1931 until 1988 the amphitheater was used for musical and dramatic performances.

International Alumnae Association

Alma college's alumni association can be traced back to February 1901 as Alma's Daughters.[25] The first organization of the alumnae consisted of former staff and students and was formed by Emma Sisk, a former governess of the College.[25] In 1908 the charter of the school was amended to include Alma's Daughters as the official alumni of the school by allowing them to elect members to the Alma college Board of Management.[26] Due to increasing membership the Alumnae officially changed its name in 1931 to the Alma College Alumnae. various local chapters began to appear throughout Ontario shortly after and eventually international chapters developed such as the Bermuda chapter in 1988 [27] In its form today the Alma College International Alumnae association still gathers annually.[28] The alumni has been very active in preserving the cultural heritage of artifacts related to the history of the building.[29] These primarily are numerous artifacts and relics that were collected from previous alumni and from the school itself. In 1997 a group of Alumni investors purchased the remaining chattels and memorabilia. This was complemented by storage space being granted at the local community city hall by then mayor and past archivist, Steve Peters. The archives were stored safely in the City hall until Steve Peters took provincial office, upon which the archives were moved to a temporary home. In 2002 The alumnae decided to move the archives to a more permanent home at The Elgin County Museum, located just outside of St Thomas.[29] Many historical records and photographs were published online by the museum. To date a description of the records can be found on the web, as well as a collection of photographs of the school in its early years at the Museum's website.[30]

Alleged hauntings

In the book, More Canadian Ghosts, by Mrs. Eileen Sonin, published by Pocket Books, the story of Alma College's haunting is told.[4] The purported haunting dates back as far as the 1930s (though its origin is lost in antiquity) of a ghost allegedly called "Angela" who haunted a particular tower of Alma's main building.[31] Though no actual record of a teacher exists named "Angela" (no check on housemaids was conducted), the myth states that an unpopular music teacher was locked in a cupboard in the tower by a group of girls and left to perish and haunted the tower until the building's eventual destruction in 2008.[4]

Role in film

Alma College was featured in three films after its closure in 1995. The first film was Mr HeadMistress, a made for TV movie by Disney which starred Katey Sagal in 1997.[32] The film used the main building as a backdrop and surroundings grounds. Some building maintenance was performed at this time in order to bring the building up to par for filming. After significant portions of building were gutted the interior became an ideal set for the horror film Silent Hill. Even after its destruction, photographs and its likeness were included in the 2009 film Orphan.[3] The film featured a painting of the building in flames.

Notable alumnae

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Heikkila, Rod (Fall 2008). "Alma College: A chapter in OSSTF/FEESO History Goes up in Flames". OSSTF/FEESO. Archived from the original on 13 March 2009. Retrieved February 23, 2009. [dead link]
  2. ^ a b Daniszewski, Hank (January 2003). "History of Alma College". Alma College International Alumnae Association. Retrieved February 23, 2009. 
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b c d Lechniak-Cumerlato, Stephanie. "The History and Hauntings of Alma Ladies College". Retrieved March 19, 2009. 
  5. ^ a b Students, Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. "Alma College: The First 50 Years: 1881 - 1931". Elgin County Archives. Retrieved March 19, 2009. [dead link]
  6. ^
  7. ^ Alma college fonds, Elgin county archives 1997
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i
  9. ^ Alma college fonds, published 1997, Elgin county archives
  10. ^ Alma college fonds, published 1997, Elgin county archives
  11. ^ a b St Thomas Times Journal: Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008: p 1 & 3. By Kyle Rea
  12. ^ citation in next section
  13. ^ a b c
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ St Thomas Times Journal, August 13th 2009
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ a b Alma college fonds, Elgin county archives, 1997
  24. ^ Marriage register, Part of alma college fonds, Elgin county archives, 1997
  25. ^ a b Alma College Alumnae constitution
  26. ^ Elgin County archives, Alma College International Alumnae Assoc. Fonds. pdf article
  27. ^ Elgin County archives, Alma College International Alumnae Assoc. Fonds. pdf article
  28. ^
  29. ^ a b
  30. ^
  31. ^ "St. Thomas - Alma College". Ontario Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society. Retrieved March 19, 2009. 
  32. ^ London free press, November 13th 1997
  33. ^

External links