Celebrating 100 years of school days

The Old School House arts centre gearing up for its anniversary year

Not many, if any, of Oceanside’s school buildings have aged gracefully into their 100th year … except for the proud and classically designed Qualicum Beach school — now known as The Old School House (TOSH) Arts Centre on Fern Road.

Granted, it has been undergoing some major, painful facelifts these last months and all the bandages have yet to be removed, but it has never lost its innate verve and aplomb and continues to welcome visitors throughout its convalescence.

Like any rather vain grande dame, TOSH is hoping to look her best before the party starts, and what a party it will be!

This year, 2012, TOSH will start its centennial celebrations as a building, and its 25th anniversary as The Old School House.

The 25th celebration runs from Wednesday, February 22 through Sunday, February 26, with the public opening anniversary Reception at 7 p.m. on the Wednesday night.

An especially exciting exhibition (Feb. 20 – Mar. 16) will feature the work of both photographers and painters. Several photographers have submitted their photos to inspire the paintings based on them.

Another feature of those nights, (but sorry, it’s already sold out) is A Night at the Silent Movies, accompanied by classical pianist Bruce Vogt. (And pssst … another night of the same is planned for April 15 with tickets already on sale.) And about that I’m very happy, because my father once played the piano for the silent movies — when I was too young to see how it was done.

To wind up the Arts Centre celebrations, on Sunday, February 26 at 2:30 p.m., TOSH’s much-loved Music on Sunday series, started several years ago to give people the chance to enjoy a double helping of art through eyes and ears, will feature Musica Intima. This is a Vancouver-based, eight voice vocal chamber choir, “ [with] … an astounding variety of affect and approach … demonstrates outstanding pitch, blend, and diction …” says Howard Goldstein in BBC Music Magazine.

Back in the mid 1980s, this now-lively building seemed on the verge of tottering rather disreputably into oblivion; peeling paint, broken windows, shifty foundations — just generally out of shape and couldn’t care less.

After 40 years as a school, both elementary and secondary, and another 30 years as the District 69 School Board Office, the building was abandoned for larger, more pleasant quarters.

The Town of Qualicum Beach eventually bought the building and its grounds for what today would be considered a pittance; the building faced demolition in order to make way for a parking lot.

The formation of the Qualicum Beach and District Cultural Society led to pleas to save the building to serve as an arts centre, the chamber of commerce heard eloquent speeches of support, and the Town gave them 90 days to deliver a workable proposal and proof of funds for renovations and maintenance.

That’s when, in 1987, the south-east wall now draped in the blue tarpaulin, then sported a huge white banner begging “SAVE ME!”

And save it they did, with generous private donations, a grant from the BC Lottery Foundation, and the rich proceeds from that very first and desperate but gracious art auction which topped up the necessary cache of dollars. With high profile B.C. artists and their donated works, that first auction was held on the grounds of the Milner Estate, now a cultural centre in its own right.

Dozens of local volunteers, along with 26 strong boys from the Brannen Lake Correctional Institute, under the careful eye of retired contractor Tom McIvor, put their talents and their backs into the renovations and by February 1988, The Old School House Arts Centre became a reality.

On the sunny, spring-warm afternoon of February 27, 1988, a cheering crowd surrounded a platform of dignitaries doing the honours and TOSH was on display.

And though it’s usually spoken of as a ‘gallery’, the solid old building is still a school.

My fat old dictionary defines that as, “an institution in which instruction is given … whether to children or adults.”

With its ongoing classes in various mediums, its studios where one can watch and talk to artists at work, and its ever-changing exhibits of works completed, TOSH remains a school at heart, and dear to the heart of its community.

Come celebrate with TOSH  — a century is nothing to sneeze at!



— Nancy Whelan is a regular News columnist.


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