Rolph Street school transforms into Oxford Estates

The conversion of former Rolph Street Public School into Oxford Estates in Tillsonburg is nearing completion. (Chris Abbott/Norfolk Tillsonburg News) jpg, SR

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Six years ago a request to protect the outer façade of Rolph Street Public School was presented to Tillsonburg Council by the local architectural conservation advisory committee, deeming it a “culturally and historically significant building.”

It was approved and notice was sent to Ontario Heritage Trust.

“We wish to see Rolph Street re-purposed rather than have it sit empty,” said Sue Saelens, a member of the Heritage, Beautification and Cemetery Committee, at the 2014 council meeting.

“Rolph Street deserves to be recognized for its beauty, its uniqueness, its sturdy construction and its 100-plus year history it’s given to our town of Tillsonburg,” said Saelens.

“Like you, I hope whoever buys it in the future sees the benefit of trying to maintain some of the (interior) history,” responded Councillor Marty Klein.

When Oxford Lofts Inc. acquired the former Rolph Street school in 2018, they began with Athon Construction converting 83 Rolph Street into Oxford Estates.

Its sturdy construction was lauded last week by Andrew Teeple, co-owner of Athon Construction, as they prepare for their first rentals in October 2020.

“The actual structure, every single day we were impressed with how square and level it was, the solid strength,” said Teeple. “By the time you get to the top of the building 60-70 feet up, the corridors are exactly the same. Same width, same coursing, perfect. All the windows are identical. Really, really skilled craftsmen.”

Oxford Estates’ transformation into 46 luxury rental suites with a modern loft style is now nearing completion. The school’s character, however, remains.

“The building itself is very special. When you walk through it you’ll see it, you’ll feel it. We tried to keep all of that.

“What I find interesting is that we have people who went to school here, their kids went here and they have a lot of sentimental attachment, but for people who never stepped foot in the building, the first time they go in their jaws drop. They just love it – the ceiling heights and all the details,” Teeple said.

“The size of the windows and how they’ve been positioned – they’re so big and so high, you’re in your unit looking at clouds which is kind of a neat feeling. Once you get up into the penthouse units, it’s really special, all the angles and character.”


Many interior elements of the old Rolph Street school have been preserved in Oxford Estates, including the floors, tin ceilings, chalkboards and windows. (Chris Abbott/Norfolk Tillsonburg News) Chris Abbott / Norfolk & Tillsonburg News


The original maple floors have been preserved, stripping, scraping, patching and refinishing them, and in some areas duplicated using local maple, ‘the way it was done back in the day.’

“Again, we could have just gone over it, it would have been a lot cheaper and a lot easier. But it ends up with this character. People really seem to like the fact that this was the floor for… forever.”

Tin ceiling tiles have also been refurbished and are used in kitchen areas.

“In the end, it’s cheaper to buy new tiles. But those are the tiles from this classroom. So it’s just a little special in the end, it has that history to it.”

More history can be seen in a bedroom with a chalkboard on a wall – chalkboard from that classroom.

“We’re using all the same finishes, all the same trim details, so whether you are in the basement or in the penthouse or in the gym, it’s all going to feel very cohesive. It’s all going to feel like the same project.”

The high ceilings, preserved in hallways and units, add to a perception of depth and size.

“In some cases the ceilings are actually a lot higher because it had a hundred years of layers of ceilings. They did a renovation and dropped it… so we had to get through all those layers.”

Teeple showed a former coat room in another unit converted into a walk-in closet, a unit that has been expanded to borrow space from two different classrooms.

“All the contractors are losing their minds with all the different layouts,” Teeple smiled.

The main floor hallway, however, is instantly recognizable.

“This is an expensive thing from a development perspective, having 11-foot wide corridors.”

They were able to get creative in the gymnasium area creating two floor levels.

“Right now we’re mid-air, halfway above the stage. These ceilings are 16 feet and the main level still over nine feet, because it was huge.

“This used to be a gymnasium ceiling,” said Teeple, looking up. “We wanted some of the character of the beams but we didn’t want all the steel decking because it looks like a factory. So we used some drywalling, kept the beams.”

Stepping into what would have been a classroom next to the principal’s office, Teeple smiles, “it’s not quite a classroom any more. By the time we’re done, people will have trouble realizing how it used to be.”

Others will remember and appreciate the features that have been preserved.

“I’m really grateful that people have appreciated it because it was a lot of work,” said Teeple. “I make decisions every day… and I almost never make the decisions that would be easier, quicker, cheaper. I know it’s going to be here 100 (more) years.”