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Zion School, S.S. #12, Finch Ave. east of Leslie St., built 1869, photo circa 1890, North York Historical Society photo
Zion School, S.S. #12, Finch Ave. east of Leslie St., built 1869, photo circa 1890, North York Historical Society photo

Historic Zion Schoolhouse

The Schoolhouse is located at 1091 Finch Avenue East, (Ward 33, Don Valley East). It is a designated heritage site under by-law 27974 passed the North York City Council on
December 15, 1980.

Zion Schoolhouse has been owned by the City of Toronto since amalgamation of the City’s heritage museums in 2000, and is now managed and operated by the Toronto’s
Cultural Services.

The schoolhouse was built in 1869 by the citizens of the farming community of L’Amaroux. It is the last unaltered one-room schoolhouse in the North York community and represents an important stage in Upper Canada’s educational history. The school was closed as an active education facility in 1955, and after a period of abandonment the building was restored and reopened as a heritage site in 1986. The building also acted as a social centre and meeting place for the community.

The school was situated on farmland many miles away from the town of York, and is now surrounded by modern urban development. Together with the nearby Zion Church (on Finch Avenue East, east of Don Mills Road on the north side), the Schoolhouse is one of the last remaining features of the historic rural landscape.

Zion Schoolhouse is significant for its historic role in the history of rural education in Canada. The one-room schoolhouse represents an important phase in the development of educational policy in the country; such schoolhouses were common throughout rural and outlying areas from the 1850s to the mid-20th century.

The Schoolhouse follows a standard architectural plan and retains many of its original external features. The school was restored in the late 20th century based on comparisons with similar buildings from the period and information derived from historical sources and oral accounts. The interior contains a number of modern and cosmetic renovations, including features that were added to fulfill current fire code requirements.

The Schoolhouse property has produced various artefacts, including archaeological finds that may be associated with the late 19th century and 20th century occupants.

One-room schoolhouses were once scattered throughout Upper Canada, serving the outlying and rural communities around the larger towns and cities from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. The schoolhouses represent an important stage in the development of public education, since prior to 1850s education was not free, and often was unavailable to children of poor families or those in remote locations. In 1844, Egerton Ryerson was appointed as the Superintendent of Schools for Upper Canada. He promoted the establishment of an education system that would be free, universal and accessible; the resultant 1871 School Act Amendment prompted the development of a province-wide system of common schools that were non-sectarian and open to all children.

The one-room schoolhouses were built with the aid of government grants, and offered basic education to children from 6 years of age up to high school entrance. The schools were located in every 3rd concession, and so provided greater accessibility to children living in rural areas. Attendance became mandatory, and the schoolhouses remained an integral element of universal public education well into the 20th century, when the growth of towns and the development of modern transportation allowed for the centralization of schools in the mid-1950s.

The rural schoolhouses became obsolete after the institution of the modern school system, and were closed and often demolished during later urban development projects.

The settlers of L’Amaroux in North York erected a log school between 1829 and 1834, near the present intersection of Don Mills Rd and Finch Ave E, on land owned by Mr. Henry Scrace. York Township was organized into school sections in 1839, and the school in L’Amaroux became known as School Section #12 (S.S.#12). In 1869, the log school was replaced by a new red brick school on the south side of Finch Ave near Leslie St. It was known as Zion School S.S. #12, and served many generations of L’Amaroux children until its closure in 1955.

Zion Schoolhouse sat vacant for many years until the property was purchased by the North York Council from the North York Board of Education in 1963. In the mid-1970s the Borough Parks & Recreation Depart. gave permission to the United Jewish Welfare Fund to occupy and renovate the building. In 1986 the Schoolhouse was restored to the 1910 time period under the direction of the North York Historical Board, with participation from local volunteers and former students. The School was reopened as an educational site on September 22, 1986, with programming supported by the North York Board of Education.

The Zion Schoolhouse collections include copies of a variety of primary documents, photographic material, and oral histories. An extensive photographic collection is available on site, along with transcripts of interviews conducted with students who were educated at the school before its closure. The North York Central Library and the North York Historical Society also possess photographs etc.

The Schoolhouse was stripped of its furnishing after its closure in 1955, and so the majority of the artefacts are not original to the building. The artefact collection was acquired through purchases and donations, and consists of materials appropriate to the 1910 focus date, including the stove, teacher’s desk, piano, bookshelves and the school desks.

The term “Zion” was chosen by the Primitive Methodists who settled in the region, and refers to the Old Testament term for a holy place, or holy mountain.

Zion Schoolhouse has survived a radical transformation of the local landscape, in the mid-20th century the school was situated on a dirt road and surrounded by farmland. This heritage site is one of the original settlement’s few remaining features, and serves an important educational resource on the history and development of Upper Canadian rural communities.

Originally published in the November 2011 – January 2012 North York Historical Society Newsletter. Information edited from Statement of Significance, City of Toronto Museum Services.