ST. CATHARINES – There was excitement in the air Friday in front of the former Canada Hair Cloth building as hundreds gathered under and around a large tent to celebrate a new purpose for the 19th century textile factory.
The culmination of a work begun more than eight years ago, Brock University and the City of St. Catharines officially opened the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts. The building, which, skillfully designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, incorporates much of the former factory, including its brick, wooden and steel beams and large windows, while adding state-of-the-art elements.
It houses the dramatic arts, music, and visual arts departments, as well as the Centre for Studies in Arts and Culture. In all, 50 full-time faculty members, part-time instructors and staff will join about 500 students in the $45.5-million facility.
Brock president Jack Lightstone traced the path leading to last week’s opening, saying it began with a vision by former chancellor Ray Moriyama and former dean of humanities Rosemary Hale, who say the potential for the old industrial site located right in the heart of the downtown.
The school complements the soon opening FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, with students going back and forth between the two adjacent facilities.
Lightstone said the decision to move downtown was made at Brock under the condition the university would not be making a standalone building but rather one that works within a new vision for the downtown as a hub of arts, culture, entertainment and digital media.
“Right from the very beginning it was conceived we would use each other’s buildings in a symbiotic and dynamic way,” he said.
The beginnings of the project were also accompanied by an inevitable skepticism, Lightstone said, noting he was reminded all too often of the many failed plans for revitalizing the downtown.
Those voices were largely silenced, though, he said, by the generous and “transformative” gift by Norris and Marilyn I. Walker of $15 million to establish the school.
“When they made that commitment, everyone knew we had no choice but to make it happen,” he said, calling it a “catalytic moment.”
MPP Jim Bradley, who Lightstone referred to as the minister of Niagara and Brock, said the school has added to a new feeling of optimism for downtown St. Catharines.
“Today it stands as a testament to our manufacturing past and as an example of our economic renewal and creative spirit in our community,” he said.
Mayor Walter Sendzik noted there were many who made the vision for the school a reality, and he singled out the previous council under former Mayor Brian McMullan for ensuring the building, which had to be expropriated, was available for Brock.
However, he said three people, Lightstone, Hale and Walker, were crucial to its success.
“Take one of those involved out of the equation, and I don’t think we’re standing here today,” he said.