There is something intrinsically charming about an old schoolhouse. No wonder they are being salvaged and turned into just about everything from retirement homes to fresh markets to breweries. And let’s not forget the trend of renovating old school buses and turning them into modern (mobile!) homes. Everyone wants to preserve the nostalgia of those first formative years … and developers are hopping on board.
Locally, the old Newport High School has been repurposed into the Newport Community Center. It is bustling with activity, most notably the annual Newport Fair, which is the oldest agricultural fair in Virginia. The center also hosts holiday theme events all year – Trunk or Treat, Easter Egg Hunts, the 4th of July Picnic, and the heartwarming Newport Village Christmas Market. Art shows, old time music and bluegrass jam bands fill the former cafeteria, and the Mobile Marketplace brings fresh, affordable food to the local community as part of the Feeding Southwest Virginia initiative.
Possibilities cover everything from A to Z, and thankfully, there is no shortage of old schoolhouses waiting for their chance to breathe new life into a community.
Blacksburg’s own Prices Fork Elementary (PFE) School has seen a tremendous rebirth. Its successful renovation was part of a $7 million project that garnered support from both public and private entities. “Live Work Eat Grow” is the nonprofit organization that was formed to ensure the project achieved its multi-pronged goals: The Prices Fork apartments (Phase I and II), Moon Hollow Brewery, El Ranchero and Millstone Kitchen.
Taylor Hollow Construction, based in Radford, has been the owner/developer for the apartments and has renovated the school as a Historic Tax Credit project, preserving many elements of the former classrooms in each unit such as chalkboards and built-in bookshelves. Some of the apartments are built to Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] guidelines, and others are easily convertible to ADA standards. The old school hallway is now an interior “street” with benches, plants, skylights and artwork.
Of the 32 total units, 16 apartments were developed solely for the age 55 and up community and are occupied by senior citizens. The project was designed to address the town’s need for affordable housing to support aging in place, which proves you’re never too old to go back to school!
The other 16 apartments are available for rent to all ages. There are eight 3-bedroom units and eight 2-bedroom units, with a mix of affordable and market rates.
Though Joe and Sam Fortier, owner and project design coordinator, respectively, for Taylor Hollow Construction, have worked on more than 15 historical projects all over the New River Valley, they’ve never before experienced the level of support and excitement that the Price’s Fork Elementary School renovation project brought forth.
The brewery is in the old kindergarten area of the building, with drink specials and beers written up on the original chalkboards. The restaurant is in the former gym space. An outdoor patio adjoins the two. How cool would it be to see an old yellow school bus out there serving up “cafeteria style” food on lunch trays? Maybe someday. Don’t forget the hair nets, of course!
Millstone Kitchen, also housed in the former PFE building, is a commercially-licensed kitchen space that’s available for rent by the hour, and also serves as a commissary space for local food trucks. The kitchen has created 14 jobs, served 58,000 meals to neighbors in need, and developed 118 community garden plots. It even serves as a support system for people who decide to start a new food business. The “From Scratch Foodpreneur Series” teaches up-and-coming restaurateurs everything they need to have their business up and running in six weeks, from developing a business plan, establishing effective marketing tools, meeting food safety regulations and sourcing ingredients.
With the flourishing success of PFE, it will be interesting to see what the next chapter of the long-debated Blacksburg High School (BHS) rezoning and revitalization holds. Apparently not all brick buildings of the past were created equal, as the BHS gymnasium roof collapsed suddenly under the weight of snow back in February of 2010, thus the building was demolished.
But for the most part, barring unforeseen climate challenges, there are more sustainable and responsible ways to deal with old school buildings besides demolition. Securing the funds for repurposing historic buildings and schoolhouses is no easy feat, but the public has a fervent passion for these projects and wants to preserve these endearing pieces of the past.
Text by Emily K. Alberts
Freelance writer Emily K. Alberts did the opposite and turned her modern playroom into a charming little schoolhouse back in the ‘80’s when she used to teach her stuffed animals. She and her mother would go around at the end of the school year dumpster-diving for old books (teacher’s editions were highly desirable) and even found an old school desk once!