Johannesburg - The Holy Family College hall was nearly 80 years old, and “went up like a tinderbox” when it caught fire last night.
This is according to principal Mark Potterton, who said he received a call just before 9pm yesterday informing him of the blaze at the hall.
The school is one of Joburg’s oldest.
“The flames were higher than roof level and the heat was excessive,” Potterton said.
“The window glass was shattering and the… old timbers splintered loudly.”
The timber beams crashed down, blocking access to the fire hydrant next to the hall, which was built in 1934.
Firefighters fought the blaze, working to restrict the fire to the hall and ensure that it did not spread to older sections of the building, dating from 1905.
A crowd had gathered to witness the fire last night and Potterton said past pupils who were among them cried as they watched their old school burn.
The fire was eventually brought under control and the damage assessed.
“The art deco light fittings, the grand piano, awards and other valuable memorabilia were destroyed,” Potterton said.
This morning, a teary-eyed teacher said she had also lost her entire supply of textbooks in the fire.
At the time of publication, the cause of the blaze was still unknown.
The building was recently renovated and damage is expected to be in region of R12 million.
“There was no heating system in the hall, we really don’t know what happened,” said Potterton.
Although no classrooms were burnt, the school did not want to use the surrounding classes today as a safety precaution.
The school also many desks and chairs.
“We were storing them in the hall for exams,” said Potterton.
He said he was going to approach the Beit Emanuel Synagogue across the road with the possibility of housing some classes there.
The building was still smouldering this morning, about 12 hours after the fire broke out, and smoke could still be seen billowing from the smashed windows.
Firefighters and police were on the scene, but declined to comment.
The school was founded in 1905 by Reverend Mother Ambrose Farren as the Parktown Convent for Girls.
In 1985 the Holy Family sisters handed over the school to “interested lay professionals and the parent community”.
In 1991 the school became Holy Family College, a co-educational school from Grade R to matric.
It describes itself as continuing “to transform itself in order to reflect a progressive vision of Catholic education in South Africa”.
One of the school’s most famous pupils is the late Helen Suzman, who matriculated there in 1933.
In May 2003 the Holy Family College honoured her with a rose garden where a granite plaque reads: “This garden honours her lifelong struggle for justice and human rights for all South Africans.”
The Helen Suzman Rose, also known as Foxy Lady, grows in her garden.
A disaster fund will be set up to buy desks and chairs for the school, said Potterton.