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Council approves proposal to preserve exterior of Rolph Street School

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Rolph Street Public School, a 102-year-old building, is a visible reminder of Tillsonburg's history.

No longer needed by Thames Valley District School Board after the 2014-15 school year, the anticipated sale of the property at 83 Rolph Street generated interest from the Tillsonburg Heritage, Beautification and Cemetery Committee in 2013. The committee reviewed heritage designation requirements, researched the school's history and after considering the facts, brought to town council on July 14 a proposal to preserve the exterior of the building in its current state, deeming it a culturally and historically significant building.

"TACAC (Tillsonburg Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee) is a group of dedicated people who have been designating heritage projects in Tillsonburg for many years," said Sue Saelens, a member of the Heritage, Beautification and Cemetery Committee speaking to Council, praising Rolph Street for its "beauty and grace."

"We'd like to see this beautiful building continue to serve our community for the next 100 years," said Saelens, who began teaching at the school in 1981. "I was at the school when we celebrated Rolph Street's 75th birthday in 1988. I was at the school when the addition was added and I know how very important it was for the architect and builder to incorporate as much of the original architecture (as possible)."

The original Rolph Street was built on the same site as the present school, said Saelens, and it looked more like a church than a school with spires and lancet windows.

"It was a solid structure built of white bricks ... a two-storey building able to accommodate 450 pupils ... for $7,000. In 1886 an addition to the wing housed the high school component with two added rooms. There was also a Kindergarten class - Tillsonburg set a big trend in our area with the addition of Kindergarten.

"By 1888 there were over 117 Kindergarten children. The high school eventually moved to a location on Lisgar/Concession ... and in 1893 the original Rolph Street became just a public school."

The original building was eventually deemed unsafe, mainly because of the additions, and it was torn down to be replaced by a new Rolph Street school built in 1911-13 at a cost of $32,500.

"The only reference made to the new structure is that it was built in the 'pioneer mode,' which I take to believe to be sound and solid -- and it's still sound and solid.

"It would boast bright red bricks, large windows letting in plenty of light to make the rooms cheery. It would consist of two storeys for classrooms, and a third storey... and never, ever in the school's history has this attic been used.

"There were 12 classrooms, wooden floors, 12-foot ceilings, asbestos shingles, electric lights and indoor plumbing. It would be the only modern school in Tillsonburg until 1951."

Saelens said several interior features were considered for "designation" including the original hardwood floors, wood trim, 12-inch baseboards, original oak doors, original staircases, and the tin ceilings.

"I wanted desperately to maintain some of the interior features, but after discussion and guidance ... we're asking to designate only the exterior features of Rolph Street. We wish to see Rolph Street re-purposed rather than have it sit empty. By designating interior features we may discourage and restrict a developer from giving Rolph Street its second lease on life."

Having said that, Saelens said the committee fervently wishes anyone who purchases the school will appreciate and want to re-purpose as much of the interior features as possible.

"Rolph Street deserves to be recognized for its beauty, its uniqueness, its sturdy construction," Saelens summed up, "and its 100-plus year history it's given to our town of Tillsonburg."

"I think this is the right thing to do," said Councillor Marty Klein. "I think you're wise to limit it to the facade because the future has to be viable for the school to be retained. Like you, I hope whoever buys it in the future sees the benefit of trying to maintain some of the (interior) history."

Council voted to approve the proposal, agreeing to notify the owner (TVDSB) and the Ontario Heritage Trust, and publish a Notice of Intention to Designate. If no objections are received within 30 days, a by-law will come before council to make the school an official heritage site. If an objection is filed, it will be reviewed by the Conservation Review Board, who make a non-binding recommendation to Council.

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