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Ode to ODCVI: School was much more than an old building

'Facelifts became the preferred tactic to maintain appearances even as the foundations of the building crumbled'

EDITOR'S NOTE: This week, demolition of an institution near and dear to generations of people in Orillia began. The County of Simcoe purchased the former ODCVI high school, which has dominated the corner of West and Borland streets for over a century, last year and will develop a community services hub on the site. To mark the end of this chapter of history, local historian and author Dave Town provided this perspective on the demise of a local landmark.

Does a building define a school?

If so, Orillia’s first high school ended up the equivalent of an over-the-hill Hollywood actress with too many failed plastic surgeries.

Our school seemed to be constantly jury-rigged to keep up with the never-ending hordes of new students. In the end, the original edifice was gone and only the layers of additions remained, much like a siliconed Hollywood actress.

Then abruptly, and almost thankfully, she was replaced by a shiny, modern new building, and we will miss the decrepit old box as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

OHS, the Orillia High School, was built in 1876. Our little village was a wild town of about 2000 people, but growing.

The two Public Schools catered to over 500 students, and it was the county council who determined Orillia needed a high school for those student to continue their education in.

Perched high on the hill at the corner of West and Borland streets, OHS began her life with four classrooms and three teachers; an impressive two-storey block of brick with seven foot windows and 13-foot ceilings. It was not ornate but “conveys an impression of solidity without being heavy.”

The tin roof had a belfry on top that afforded a splendid view across both lakes (though few people knew how to get up there). But the modern hot air furnace had to be abandoned after just a few months, replaced by big four-legged woodstoves in each room. The jury-rigging started right off the bat.

Almost immediately there was scandal.

Just a month before the grand opening on Jan. 8, 1877, the new headmaster hired in October sent his young wife to Montreal to visit friends and then eloped with an 18-year-old girl from his home town, sending his resignation to the school board by telegram from Detroit!

The new High School Board had to scramble to get a new Headmaster hired in time for the start of the term in January. Has there ever been a school board that wasn’t in crisis mode?

By 1896 the student body had grown from the original 57 to 130 and the culture of adding to the school began: a gymnasium, assembly hall and a science room were tacked onto the east side.

Fire insurance was deemed too expensive, and fire unlikely. Then, sure enough, our wonderful high school burned to the ground just two years later!

But from the ashes it was re-built, bigger and better. For two years, classes were held in the upstairs hall of a building on the Main Street, Shaftsbury Hall. When the students returned in January of 1900 the new school waiting for them had six classrooms and a new name.

It was now a “Collegiate”, a more prestigious institution demanding better qualified teachers and a higher standard of education. “OCI”, the Orillia Collegiate Institute was born.

Within the decade it was found to be too small, Orillia’s population was booming, almost 6,000 by 1909. That year the first of countless additions was added, the facelifts that kept the school functional. In 1909 it was a typing room, cloakroom, assembly hall and a drafty wooden barn that sufficed as a gymnasium (until winter arrived).

The school looked like three boxes jammed together, each one smaller than the next, along Borland Street.

The assembly hall hosted a curious cultural event every year, the “Promenade”.

“Sinful” dances were forbidden during those years, so the school organized an alternative. An orchestra played a set list of music, “waltz”, “two-step”, “buffalo-glide” etc., and each student was given a card with the playlist on it.

Both boys and girls raced to fill out partners on their cards for each piece. Then, when the music started, the couples walked arm-in-arm in a big circle around the hall, closely scrutinized by chaperones, changing partners with each piece. I wonder how that would go over today.

More classrooms were added in 1922 and 1928 along the north side of the school. A real indoor gymnasium was built, though it was just 40 feet by 40 feet, and an auditorium was built on top. Eventually the auditorium became the music room later generations enjoyed up to the school’s demise in 2016.

With almost 500 students now and a growing staff, OCI was now in her “halcyon years”, her years of unbridled energy and school spirit.

Energetic new staff were hired and new programs begun.

A favourite of the students was J.C. Smith who was the first teacher to organize sports teams and to set up a league with nearby schools. Football, basketball and hockey, for both boys and girls generated much of the school spirit.

D.H. McGill also came on board in the 1920’s as a teacher and ended up as a legendary principal here until 1950. His nickname, “Dinghy”, according to Ken Hammond, came from his habit of “cuffing students on the side of the head”, often for very little reason.

The student population exploded after World War II, starting the next round of facelifts for the already disjointed school. With the student body at 700 in 1949, a whole new wing was added along Borland Street, almost doubling the size of the school.

With a big modern gymnasium complete with a stage, a science lab, rooms for agriculture, typing, home economics, art, industrial arts, and business machines, a new library and three more general classrooms, the school drastically widened its scope. That scope required a new name, ODCI, the Orillia and District Collegiate Institute.

Over the next 10 years, the school population doubled, thanks to the baby boom. More additions came, making a mess of the heating system and complicating the dreadful hallway map, adding more stairs and bottlenecks (eventually there would be over 30 levels in the school, though technically only two stories, there being many one or two steps up or down when changing wings).

In the fall, senior students could be counted on to give naïve grade niners completely wrong directions to their classes when asked, it was so easy to discombobulate them.

In 1956 a vocational wing was added, and in 1962 enlarged. This wing contained an auto shop, machine shop, wood shop and two drafting rooms. ODCI became ODCVI in 1956 with the word “Vocational” added.

But with 1,500 students, it was packed to the gills. The school board relieved the pressure by opening Park Street High School in 1961 and then Twin Lakes High School in 1972. OD kept a constant population of about 1,000-1,100 thereafter, until steady decline started in the 1990s due to the smaller families people were having.

But the additions kept on coming.

In 1964 it was the north wing with a huge double gym, electronics rooms, a drafting room and more general classrooms.

In 1967 it was a much needed library and resource centre, replacing some of the oldest additions on Borland Street between the original school and the big east wing. Now there were ramps up and down between some wings, and long bending “one way halls”.

Then the final ignominy came in the early 1980s, like the actress getting the bloated botox lips or the permanent “Joker” smile facelift.

Along West Street stood the original OCI building, built in 1899, with its gigantic drafty windows, 13-foot ceilings and creakiest hallways imaginable. In the spring afternoons the sun heated those rooms unbearably, and in the winter the windows (single pane) frosted right over.

In 1980 the old school wing was demolished and replaced with the final change to the building, or should I say collection of additions. An administration wing replaced it: low, white and modern.

In that form, ODCVI continued until 2016, when the school board put her out of her misery. Knowing its time was coming the board stopped doing long-term maintenance years earlier and the school gradually became pretty run down.

Like the proverbial Hollywood actress, touch-ups, paint jobs, facelifts became the preferred tactic to maintain appearances, even as the foundations of the building crumbled. All she needed was some leopard skin, a feather boa and layers of makeup to distract from the sagging and wrinkles.

Does a building define a school? Of course not! The teachers, the students, the energy, the learning, the growing up does.

Good old OD may have crumbled under her own weight, but ask any student who went there, one of the many hundreds who showed up for the final reunion four months before she closed her doors, the ones who gave principal Ken Hammond a four-minute standing ovation, they’ll tell you those high school years were among the best of their lives.

OD worked. It surely had character. And, if nothing else, at least you learned to go up and down stairs.  

And just to complete the circle, the new school built to replace our beloved old box, is named the “Orillia Secondary School”, just like the first school Orillia ever had. Seems fitting, like stripping away all the layers of makeup and getting back to basics.

No more leopard skin and feather boas, there’s a new movie star in town.

Dave Town is a 1979 graduate of ODCVI. Now a chiropractor in Orillia, he was a member of the last class to have the luxury of taking classes in the original high school building for the full five years. Some of the details are from the centennial history booklet, written by John Palmer and Bruce Skeaff in 1977.