The last days of Sanford Avenue School – a raw video walk around

It was a cold and windy evening…

This heritage worthy building we fought for is now in mid-demolition and I am not sure how much longer there will be any structure left. It really was suddenly cold and windy, but I felt the urgency to document this last stand of one of the last of the great Barton Village classic buildings.

This is pretty raw footage of me walking around the building. I do make a brief statement at the beginning, but this is for reference for … future use. Hopefully, we’ve made a difference overall in Hamilton for other communities going forward.

Sanford Avenue School was a very special heritage building, built in 1932 during the great depression. One of the gems of a notoriously poor neighbourhood, this is the sort of structure that is attractive for a very wide range of opportunities including a college, a community centre or health facility. Despite well documented flaws in the public consultation process and the demolition / heritage process, the HWDSB, the City of Hamilton and then the Government of Ontario failed the future interests of  the Barton Village community and allowed the first 100% steel framed building in Canada to be sold as scrap. No public interest from developers was allowed to be entertained.

For the record, below is a list of  trustees who voted to allow Sanford Avenue School to be demolished, and not to allow any alternatives to be presented by private or non-governmental organizational interest. Also included on this list of “Heritage & Community Shame” are the City and Provincial elected officials without whose express support and approval this tragedy could not have happened.

At the time of this posting, there is no secured funding or concrete plans for any development of the site into a park, soccer field or Recreation Complex expansion.  The most frustrating part for most of us? There would of been enough room for all of this if they had agreed to re-arrange parking instead of demolishing this beautiful structure that would have served nicely economic tool for revitalization. There is a need for new leadership in Hamilton, and the following elected officials should not trusted with public office again:

Ward 3 Councilor 

Bernie Morelli

Hamilton Wentworth District School Board Chair

Tim Simmons

HWDSB Trustees:

Bob Barlow

Todd White

Lillian Orban

Wes Hicks

Jessica Brennan

Karen Turkstra

Ray Mulholland

(Former) Liberal Education Minister

Laurel Broten

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friend, fellow heritage activist and Photographer Joanna St. Jacques

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See also http://hamiltonsusualsuspects.blogspot.ca/?m=1 for more photos and discussion

*UPDATED* Surrogate for Sanford interior photos + arguments for demolishing (the A word)


I’ve been on the phone and computer waaay too much this week so decided to take a long walk – which turned out to be a very short walk as I found myself back at the Sanford Avenue School site. I ended up spending hours in the area talking with some very interesting people who had very interesting things to say about this heritage building.

When I approached the Sanford building I noticed, lo and behold – the side door was open!!! This would be my big chance to take a peek inside, so we can see what’s what in there.

Side door of Sanford School

But alas, I noticed a HWDSB van in front of it with someone inside of it, who was obviously fitting the door with a new lock. I asked if I could take a peek but he said “no” – and then kept a steely eye on me as I took the above picture. I’m sure people suddenly rushing through an open door into an empty building in front of the landlord’s employee has happened before. No seriously, after being in Hamilton for two years I am not surprised by much anymore.

So, on a whim, I decided to pop into Mission Services, kiddy parking lot corner to Sanford Avenue School. There is an 85 year old building there (1927) they renovated back into shape as a community services centre for their clients. Barry, the Director of Community Relations, was kind enough to receive my unannounced visit and discuss Sanford Avenue School. I learned they were originally interested in Sanford because there is actually an underground tunnel from their building to the historic school, as the basement of Sanford is also connect to the Norman “Pinky” Lewis Recreation Centre. They thought it would be great to have a senior’s residence there as the residents would be able to go back and forth without having to go outside during the winter months, but when they inquired about the building’s availability they were told by the HWDSB it was unavailable.

Yep, that’s a central issue here. The school has been unavailable for other options – but that’s not to say Mission Services could take it over as they’ve spent a lot on renovations on the former Mohawk College chair storage facility. But he was happy to give me a tour of their building, both the renovated and yet-to-be-renovated parts of the building as an example of what can be done with these kind of buildings when loved by a community. These pictures are the closest thing we have right now to assess what the inside of Sanford Avenue School looks like – and what it could look it.

(if anyone can get me into Sanford Avenue School so I can take some interior photos, please contact me at muskoxen at g mail d ot com)

The A word: Asbestos. Valid reason to demolish?

I did not think about it, but after chatting with a couple of Rec centre employees it was pointed out to me that the school is “full of asbestos”. They also thought the building was so run down that they were not in favour of saving it. They were very focused on “more green space for the kids”. Also, it was pointed out to me that there used to be a big beautiful track and park until the Cathy Wever School expanded.

These are, on the surface, very good reasons for proceeding with plans to demolish Sanford Avenue School and create parkland, a soccer pitch and expanding the recreation centre without kids having to endure a leaky, broken asbestos filled gymnasium that are essentially underground bunkers. Or is it really that simple? I list my counter-arguments below:

Hey ho, asbestos has got to go: can’t argue for asbestos but two things come to mind: 1) *every building* in our city before a certain date has or had removed asbestos. That is part of our reality here, and is unfair to Sanford to single it out for execution for having the same condition of buildings that we decide to keep – regardless of asbestos needing to be removed. If a developer was going to take it over then cleaning that up would have to be part of the deal. 2) They were using the building as recently as two years ago – with asbestos in it as common knowledge!?!? If this is serious enough of a case for tearing it down, then what the heck where they thinking using it at all? This asbestos bugaboo is a distraction from the real issue here, IMHO.

It’s for the kids – don’t you want to help the kids? I actually hate children. Of course, I am kidding. But political rhetoric and lobbying efforts, which dominates what passes as public discourse these days, is very divisive and “think of the children” has been a trojan horse for a variety of questionable motions and now is a rallying cry for tearing down Sanford Avenue School. The problem is none of the funding for these great new developments for the Wever Hub is a done deal. We are in very real danger of spending money on tearing down a development-friendly heritage building and replacing it with nothing. This is another Hamilton story my partner and I have heard about many times. I suppose it could be worse – Jackson Square II could be erected there.

The other counter to this black & white argument of “kids or heritage” is that incorporating the building into the new park and pitch plans has never, ever been explored. In fact, I think the money would be better used on making a better Pinky Lewis Recreation centre. There is lots of room to expand / move it so you could fit a soccer game or two in there. You know, for the childrens. Don’t you care about the childrens?

A school under siege by a premeditated illusion of not having a choice. The Sanford Avenue School is run down and in disrepair. The boilers are broken inside and the basement leaks. You can easily see broken and open windows and rusting grates on the exterior – and no one is raising a finger to prevent further damage to the structure. If there was a way for a property manager to build consensus that a building was undesirable, this sort of “demolition by neglect” would be the best way to go about it. I say property manager in this case because it is actually a public building – you and I already own it through our taxes – but the HWDSB are the caretakers we’ve entrusted with this responsibility.

It’s perfectly natural to want to get a run down building out of your community landscape. What is not natural is allowing a building to fall into this state of disgrace through what appears to be a deliberate campaign of non-action combined with making the building unavailable for any other party to get involved. This has created an environment where, by looking at the surface of the present and not the past or future, a local politician or school official as well as many local residents can claim “Look, that building is falling apart and no one is interested in taking it over. For the sake of the children, we need to demolish it.”

Unfortunately for them, it’s one hell of a building and is not falling apart because it is very well made and once was loved by the community and the school board. It is in great shape for development, and would be for a very long time I suspect. Do you think a new building would be so well made?

A community association of straw men. I kept hearing about how community groups were consulted and this is what they want. In particular, it was pointed out to me this was the Wever Community Hub – which is responsible for many of the great developments in my area over the last dozen years. The reality is they did not get involved in any direct decision to tear down this heritage building, and partly because they are NOT a community association – they are are service provider. They want more and better facilities and I support this, but they were not “the neighbourhood residents who want this building gone” that I keep being told they are.

Strange. Things are not quite what they seem here and I hope, dear reader, you are coming to the same conclusion at this point. But I’m not done yet – I was very curious as to who exactly is this “local community group” that was consulted (BTW, I must point out that even if there was such a group then the fact the building has not been for sale for over 10 years and therefore no options were presented or opinions solicited during that unreasonably long period renders this fundamentally problematic).

The short answer is there is no real community association group in my area. The only semblance of this is, as I’ve been told, is a informal group that meets infrequently called the “Gibson-Landsdowne Association”. I cannot find any information about them, nor has my public call for contact with these people resulted in any leads. Imagine being a resident here who was not working in such a sustained and public manner as I am trying to find this information.

So, in conclusion and in so far as my perspective and personal opinion on this situation goes: The reasons and consensus for demolishing Sanford School are shadows, paper ghosts, good intentioned efforts that have been co-opted by agendas and forces operating outside of meaningful community concerns. As a resident in Barton Village in ward 3 I have no community association to represent my concerns, as I don’t have a Councillor or trustee who live in the ward and I don’t have a BIA led by someone who lives in my ward either. This is why my area is vulnerable to slum lords and bad decisions – those who make the bed here don’t have to sleep in it.