The great hall facing the kitchen. Note the lighthouse painting on the right hides a television above the fireplace. Photo by Dave Montizambert

A living legacy: Restored Royston schoolhouse mixes history and home

Sylvianne St. Onge and Dave Montizambert were travelling in Europe when they got the call.

The couple was living in a condo in downtown Vancouver when a neighbour informed them their building had been bought out, and they knew they had to move.

“We were looking all over – we were looking for a modern, eclectic space,” explained Montizambert, who is a professional photographer.

St. Onge began searching Craigslist for potential properties, primarily in the Vancouver area, when she stumbled across an unusual listing.

“It looked really cool; it was quite serendipitous that a listing for a schoolhouse (in Royston) was on the Vancouver Craigslist. The pictures were very compelling.”

They were convinced they were not going to buy the century-old building but thought a visit to the Island would at the very least, give them an opportunity to see the building.

Upon seeing the Royston one-room schoolhouse, located at 3985 Island Highway, St. Onge and Montizambert were “just knocked on the side of the head.”

The bedroom on the ground floor on the schoolhouse features a clawfoot tub. Photo by Dave Montizambert

They were both blown away by the building, but following a home inspection, they were worried its condition left it nothing short of a complete teardown.

After a further conversation with their home inspector, they found out most of the building was fairly sound, but three corners had significant rot.

“He said it would be a teardown if you’re trying to make it a modern place,” explained St. Onge.

The couple wanted to restore as much as the original characteristics as possible, but St. Onge knew the ‘big ticket items’ such as the electrical, heating and plumbing system, the kitchen and the stairs had to be overhauled.

“We knew the budget would be massive, so then we just doubled it.”

Part of the purchase agreement with the school’s previous owner was to ensure the school would be kept as-is, meaning no major structural changes could take place.

The couple embraced the challenge, as many of the building’s original features, such as the hardwood floor, wainscotting and windows, front stairs and layout have been preserved.

Sylavianne St. Onge and Dave Montizambert. Photo submitted

The bold red, yellow and blue walls inside the ‘great room’ were chosen deliberately, as the building served as a primary schoolhouse, the couple felt primary colours would best reflect the tone of the space.

• • •

Built between 1914 to 1916, the Royston schoolhouse educated the community’s children for decades, and eventually was decommissioned in 1969. The building was not deemed to be a heritage building, which, for the pair was an advantage, as it would have created difficulties with zoning.

The building does have significance to the community, as many people – including St. Onge and Montizambert’s neighbours – attended the school.

Soon after the purchase in September 2016, St. Onge and Montizambert began the renovation. They lived in a small side house on the property to the north of the school which housed a bed, a wood stove and a table (“it was glamping!” said St. Onge), but they agreed the process of transforming and updating their home went as smoothly as possible.

Their favourite room – the ‘great room’ on the main floor – is the original 30×30 single-room schoolhouse, which remained fully open with a 12 ft coffered ceiling.

The space fills a variety of needs: a photography studio, living room area (with a hidden TV behind a painting) and a kitchen. The ground floor houses the original girls’ bathroom (now a private guest bathroom) and a separate entrance leads to the couple’s master bedroom.

Inside the master suite sits one of the original blackboards, along with a custom-designed tiled bathroom. The couple’s collection of currency (both paper and coins) from their travels fills a translucent floor tile leading to the bathroom.

• • •

Although the renovations are fully complete, St. Onge and Montizambert noted there are still a few surprises in the school – thanks to the previous owner.

The entry to the customized bathroom in the ground floor master bedroom suite of the school house. Photo by Dave Montizambert

“He told us he left three surprises (in the building). The first one was a replica skeleton in the attic, the second was a bottle of wine and chocolate in a wall, and the third one, well, we haven’t found that one yet,” Montizambert added with a smile.

St. Onge and Montizambert consider themselves as safeguards – custodians – to the building. They hope to preserve the building for as long as they can, and perhaps one day pass it along to nieces, nephews or others who love the schoolhouse as much as they do.

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The great hall facing the rear wall of the main schoolhouse room. Photo by Dave Montizambert

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