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Harmony Public School: The past, present and future

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

It’s been more than seven years since the last bell rang out at Harmony Public School in Oshawa.

The school was officially closed by the Durham District School Board (DDSB) in 2012, ending a history of education in the city lasting almost 100 years.

Since then, several new uses for both the building and property have been proposed but never moved forward.

At some points, there have even been discussions about demolishing the building.

The village of Harmony existed at the corner of Harmony Road and Highway 2 (Kingston Road) in what was the township of East Whitby. The well-known Farewell family founded the settlement.

Through the years, the village had several small community schools, the first built in 1812 with noted Oshawa resident John Ritson as its first teacher and Abraham Farewell (son of Ackeus Moody Farewell) as its second teacher.

The first Harmony Public School was built in 1871 as a brick schoolhouse which replaced an older wooden structure. Records show that Mr. William Scott served as the first teacher for the school in 1872 at a salary of $400 per year.

Replacement buildings followed in 1890 and again in 1915 due to increasing student enrolment.

According to a research report performed by Heritage Oshawa, the city’s heritage advisory committee, when enrolment reached 100 in 1923, the original one-storey building made way to a two-storey building at 149 Harmony Road South containing four classrooms. It was built for $25,000.

It was one of eight schools in place when the City of Oshawa was formally incorporated in 1924.

Another addition came in 1956 with four classrooms and a kindergarten room.

Over more than nine decades, the school was home to hundreds of students and teachers.

But in June 2011, the Durham District School Board set its sights on Harmony Public School, Ritson Public School and Duke of Edinburgh Public School for possible closure.

At the time, Harmony had about 53 per cent capacity, with 110 students. Along with the other two schools, it had an undersized gymnasium, library and a lack of specialized classrooms.

It was also estimated enrolment at the school would continue to decline, and it would cost millions of dollars to fix building issues either immediately or over the years.

Over the first few months of 2012, an accommodation review committee evaluated the proposal to close the school.

While some concerns were raised, it seemed the school community had mostly accepted the impending closure, with Oshawa trustee Michael Barrett noting they had been “quite quiet.”

A farewell (no pun intended) ceremony was held on June 18, 2012, with both current and former students, teachers, staff and parents in attendance.

Judy Atkinson, the former principal from 2000 to 2002, was on hand, calling it a “great school.”

After the last students had cleaned out their lockers, questions then moved to what would happen to the building.

The earlier mentioned heritage research report was completed in September 2012. In the report, it was noted Harmony Public School met several criteria for heritage designation, including:
– Being an example of a school built in the 1920s representing the Classic Revival architecture style
– It has a direct association with the Farewell family, who donated the land for the school and was one of the first families to settle in the area, and remains one of the last traces of the Village of Harmony, which incorporated into the City of Oshawa in the 1960s.

Upon receiving the research report, Heritage Oshawa did not immediately recommend the school for designation under the Ontario Heritage Act.

As the building proceeded to sit empty for more than a year, the DDSB put it on the open market, and as per provincial regulations, offered it to the City of Oshawa.

In March 2014, Heritage Oshawa recommended the city buy the old school and repurpose it as an arts, culture, and heritage education centre.

However, Thomas Hodgins, then city commissioner of development services, advised against buying the building.

In an April 2014 report to council, Hodgins said Harmony Public School was not required for any core municipal needs, and the more than $4 million in upgrades needed to bring the building up to regulations were not affordable.

Lastly, he said the city would be better served to designate the building under the Ontario Heritage Act.

More than a year later, a development proposal brought to the city by Brookfield Homes called for the school’s demolition.

Representatives from Brookfield noted it was highly unlikely the old building could be used for adaptive reuse. This proposal never moved forward, and the school was sold by DDSB to Colony Real Estate Development Ltd. in April 2016.

Since then, the committee and the owner have gone back and forth on the idea of heritage designation.

Heritage Oshawa formally recommended the property and building for designation in September 2018.

Legal representatives of the owners indicated the company opposes designation under the belief it would restrict future development of the site.

In May 2019, the city received a cultural heritage evaluation from Golder Associates Ltd., which suggested demolishing some parts of the building wouldn’t reduce its cultural significance.

However, in a letter sent to the city last August, the owner once again restated their opposition to the designation of the building.

In September, city council opted to place Harmony Public School on Oshawa’s non-registered list of culturally significant properties.

Marg Wilkinson, a former member of Heritage Oshawa, has been a vocal proponent of designating the building.

“It would be great for it to be designated, but it has to have an owner who is willing to do some restoration,” she said.

Wilkinson noted she was in the building a few years ago, and it was in relatively good shape.

During her visit, there were items such as school trophies and other memorabilia left there.

Wilkinson said she was hopeful the school board would have reclaimed these items but she was unsure of their status.

She said Harmony Public School was one of the smallest but most historical schools in Oshawa, and its importance needs protection while there are still opportunities and time to do so.

Wilkinson, who has been critical of how the city handles heritage issues in the past, thinks the current council, led by Mayor Dan Carter, has “made a significant change in understanding and thinking through heritage needs.”

“I think they’ve put good positions in place, and they do take our advice into consideration much better than some former councils,” she said. Whatever waits in the future for the former long-time school, its spot in Oshawa’s storied history is undeniable.