Alma College Gone

By Eric Bunnell
St. Thomas Times Journal
May 29, 2008

She's gone.

Alma College, which towered through three centuries over St. Thomas, is ashes. The former girls school burned midday Wednesday in a fire so ferocious that a plume of jet black smoke was seen as far away as downtown London, Ont.

The roof of the 1877 heritage building's iconic tower fell in at 12:22 p.m. as thousands of onlookers watched. Many took photos with their cellphones. Few, if any, believed the fire was accidental. And, indeed, a fire department spokesman said cause was being listed as suspicious pending investigation.

"It's definitely suspicious in nature," Bill Todd, chief fire prevention officer, said. The Ontario Fire Marshal was called to investigate. St. Thomas police also had a criminal investigation branch officer on scene.

Long vacant, Alma burned just days after the Ontario Municipal Board issued a final order approving its demolition following years of emotional debate over the school's future. But a heritage campaign to save the college was well under way. And the fire broke out as a second round of petitions urging the provincial government to act, was being presented yesterday in the Legislature.

The four-storey building was still burning as fingers began to be pointed.

"The minister of culture has not done her job - Aileen Carroll should be very ashamed over herself today," said Dawn Doty, the school's neighbour who has become the conscience of Alma. "And don't forget the City of St. Thomas. Where were the municipal property standards? Why was the building wide open?"

The fire started some time after noon and quickly spread to engulf the whole of the school, leaving only brick walls - and precarious ones, at that. Long after flames were doused, part of the building's tower collapsed about 5:30 p.m.

Former St. Thomas resident Brian Burke was driving south on Wellington Street in London at Grand Avenue when he spotted a black cloud of smoke rising above the horizon."My god, it was huge - I thought it was White Oaks Mall." The loss was particularly personal - Burke studied at Alma's well-regarded school of music. "I spent a lot of time in there."

The quickness of the conflagration, and the smoke that it generated, convinced John MacFarlane that the fire was set. "I thought a jet had crashed," he said, comparing the fire to the jet-fueled flames of the World Trade Center towers. "Only that much accelerant could have caused it to go up like that," he said.


Closed in the late 1980s following a teacher strike, Alma has remained largely vacant since then. Several schemes to reopen it as a school or to redevelop the building and grounds, have come and gone ... and heritage preservationists have become increasingly concerned about the school's future.

The Heritage Canada Foundation in 2005 listed Alma as one of the Top 10 most endangered heritage buildings in the country. But frustrated that city council failed to force current owner Alma Heritage Estates to caretake the building, city municipal heritage committee chairman Diana Player tendered her resignation.

"I said this would happen," Player said Wednesday as she watched the building burn.

The fire forced a full callback of all off-duty firefighters in the city. Elgin OPP joined St. Thomas police to provide crowd and traffic control as onlookers jammed streets and sidewalks.

"It's a shame, it really is," Edna Fehr said. "There's another piece of our heritage gone, again."

The fire broke out just hours after Elgin-Middlesex-London Liberal MPP Steve Peters and former aide Suzanne van Bommel met yesterday morning for an hour with officials in Premier Dalton McGuinty's office in hopes of convincing the province to put at least a temporary hold on any demolition. A group of students also protested yesterday in support of the building's preservation. Van Bommel, who worked with Doty to collect signatures on petitions to the Legislature, choked back tears as she said the meeting had left her hopeful.

"This wasn't just a building that was important to St. Thomas," she said. "It had provincial significance. It had national significance."

But while Ontario makes municipalities the guardians of built heritage, van Bommel said many can't afford the responsibility.

"The real struggle is they do not have the financial tools. Can we not dig our heads out of the sand and realize that protection of heritage is significant, federally, provincially and municipally? Municipalities across Ontario of the size of St. Thomas, for goodness sake ... they don't have the financial capacity to deal with this."

For several hours, Ald. Heather Jackson-Chapman, an Alma supporter, was the only member of city council visible at the fire.

"I'm very upset by this. But I don't know if I'm really surprised. It was always in the back of your mind - whenever you see smoke, you wondered if it was Alma College." She said the question of city culpability in the loss of the landmark is a complex question she couldn't immediately answer. "I don't know how to answer that question. I really don't."

Surveying the damage yesterday afternoon, members of London's Zubick family, owners of Alma Heritage Estates, declined immediate comment. They said they would issue a statement later through family lawyer Brian Worrad.

Ontario Culture Minister Aileen Carroll was not immediately available. A spokesman said she would issue a statement.