By: Hank Daniszewski
London Free Press - February 22, 2003

Alma College Poised To Fade Into The Past

ST. THOMAS --- The Gothic building towering over the foot of Moore Street is a startling sight. Since 1881, Alma College, a private girls school, has been both a treasure and an anomaly in a city that has thrived on the grittier business of railroads and the auth industry.

Alma is straight out of a Victorian novel or a Disney movie with Hayley Mills. Behind its high walls, young ladies from all over the world came to be educated, wearing prim uniforms and exhibiting proper manners.

Inside there were grand pianos, drawing rooms, grandfather clocks and a big bell that woke the girls to another day of Latin, Chaucer and algebra. They learned to sew, swim and play piano and entertain in polite society. Every May they danced in flowing gowns and crowned a queen.

There was even a resident ghost, Angela, who haunted a corner of the fourth floor called the Ivory Tower.

But like many Victorian novels, Alma's story seems headed for a tragic conclusion. Lost grandeur. Fond memories. Broken dreams. An uncertain future. St. Thomas's magnificent landmark is at a crossroads.

Alma College in St. Thomas was in its heyday in 1891. For most of the century, it would have world-class status. Today, it faces a wrecker's ball.

Fifteen years after the high school closed, the old dowager of a building is empty and frail.

Developer Brian Squires has take out a demolition permit after city council spurned his offer to partner in redeveloping the Alma site as a new seniors home. No matter how much St. Thomas residents love Alma; hopes for its rebirth are clearly starting to fade.

Alma's roots go back to 1877 when a Methodist bishop decided the bustling railway town needed a school to train young ladies. Although affiliated with the Methodist and later the United Church, Alma was independent and non-sectarian. The building opened in 1881 and was named in memory of the late wife of the Elgin County sheriff.

The school filled up quickly and expanded within five years, attracting students from across Canada and the world. They lived in the upper floors and took a liberal arts education supplemented by music and "domestic arts."

But by the 1890's the college faced its first financial crisis and was forced to cut teacher salaries and raise funds in the community to stay afloat.

Alma entered its Golden Age in 1919 with the appointment of principal Perry Dobson and his wife Harriet. Beloved by students and well known in the city, Dobson but Alma on its feet and constructed a gymnasium pool and chapel.

A ravine at the back of the property was turned into a natural amphitheatre. Every May hundreds would turn out to watch the annual spring pageants where students would dress as sprites and elves and dance around a Maypole.

Alma made an indelible impression on its students because of its traditions and close-knit atmosphere, said Barb McCallum, chairperson of the Alma International Alumnae Association.

McCallum attended Grade 13 at Alma College in 1967. She came from Toronto to improve her grades for university and because her mother was ill.

She said some Alma girls were orphans and others had lost their mother.

"Back in those days it was not presumed a man could raise his daughter alone," she said.

Excursions downtown were permitted and local boys were sometimes recruited for dances and dates. But even in the '60s Alma kept a close watch on its girls.

"You signed out and signed back in but the dean stayed up until you came back."

McCallum said Alma was not a snobbish elitist school.

"The uniforms made everything equal. It never occurred to me that those girls from other counties were wealthy."

She was one of many Alma students who worked at the switchboard or in the dining room to get a break on tuition.

Money always seemed to be an issue for Alma as well. Although there were periods of expansion and booming enrolment, the school had to go cap in hand to the city council for financial help in the '50s and again in the '70s.

The looming debt crisis finally culminated in a long, bitter strike in 1988 staged by Alma's teachers, who earned about half as much as their counterparts in the public system. The board closed the high school at the end of the year although a small primary and music school carried on.

Alma closed for good in 1994 when an attempt to revive the high school failed. The alumni association had ambitious plans to buy and rebuild Alma as a school and seniors' complex but lost out to a Toronto developer who later defaulted on the mortgage.

By the time Squires bought the property in 1998, damage from a leaking roof and vandalism had taken its toll.

Squires had ambitious plans to create a seniors' complex, including a new home for Valleyview seniors' home behind Alma's main building.

But Squires said bankers and city hall forced him to jump through bureaucratic hoops producing studies and plans. Although the site has great potential, he said the decrepit state of Alma has made it a tough sell to potential investors and buyers.

"They walk up to the building and they get scared."

Squires said council balked at co-signing loans for the Alma project and left him in the lurch choosing a site on Burwell Road for Valleyview. When Squires asked for a demolition permit, council shelved the issue pending a report from its Municipal Heritage Committee.

Recently, the old dowager of a building has faced even more indignities. The cornerstone of the college was badly vandalized and a box containing items dating back to 1877 was left with Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Steve Peters.

This week, three handmade signs were briefly posted on the building apparently spoofing the legend of Angela the ghost. A neighbor says it was Squires himself who posted the signs but he has denied responsibility.

Meanwhile, St. Thomas residents are bracing for the possibility that Alma may come tumbling down unless someone comes up with millions of dollars needed to restore the property.

Peters, a former St. Thomas mayor and local history buff, said he is still hopeful a solution can be found. He said there is a tremendous amount of civic pride invested in the property. Peters once spent a summer working on Alma archives for the alumni association.

"I told them once if they ever tried to demolish it I would Velcro myself to the building."