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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Repurposed Homes

Center Elementary School, after remodeling.
Notice the smaller windows on the far end of the building.
Many years ago when I still taught art in the public schools, I used to travel two or three days a week to a small, country school located in the little town of Hackney, Ohio. (The early settlers of this area were from New England, and before that, old England so they borrowed their village names from "back home." So far as I know, they've never returned any of them.) Before you get the wrong image, this was not a one-room, "little red school house." The building, was in fact of Bauhaus derivation and in any case, had three classrooms and a gym. It was built of brick in the mid-1950s (above). Now, flash forward about fifty years, add in a few budget cuts, demographic realities, and you have a perfectly good building of sturdy, relatively modern design, which had long since served its purpose. The local board of education closed the school and put it up for sale. (This is not a rare occurrence, by the way.) A local couple bought the building for a "song" and remodeled it into a spacious home complete with an institutional kitchen, gym, office space, a long central hall, and three very spacious "living" areas. I wish I had photos of the interior but I had to search long and hard just to come up with the outside view.

Best of all, the property taxes are only $240 per year.
The heating bill is considerably more than that.
If this scenario appeals to you--many, many square feet for very few dollars-- check out the bargain to be had in Neponset, Illinois, (just a few miles south of I-80 and a few more miles southeast of Davenport, Iowa). There you may purchase an old high school (above), about five times larger than Center Elementary (top), for roughly the same price (I think)--13,000 square feet for $155,000. If you're a "fixer upper, have a large family, and are into home schooling, this place would be a dream come true. That pretty much sums up the situation for many who take up the challenge of repurposing buildings, though some dreams verge on hopeless fantasies. There are no statistics on this, of course, but my guess is that for every ambitious individual who takes on such a noble domestic architectural project, there are at least one or two others who end up bankrupt for their effort.

Repurposing means adjusting old structures to new economic
realities and architectural trends, then adjusting one's life to both.
Some time ago I wrote on Recycled Architecture. Repurposing old buildings which have been the victims of changing times, economics, and social needs is, in a broad context a form of recycling. However, unlike recycled architecture, these community structures were not fashioned from recycled materials. They are, in fact, structurally sound, sometimes architectural landmarks which are being recycled (or repurposed) in their entirety. The school I attended in Stockport, Ohio, was built in 1924. During this century, it stood vacant for a few years, eventually becoming offices for the mayor and city council. It was a valiant effort, but even at that was considered a major white elephant (bad roof and lingering asbestos). It was recently torn down. No one in town could afford to buy it, fix it up, and live there. For every such building saved by a wealthy architectural angel, more than a few others succumb to the wrecking ball.

With former churches, there's a size and complexity for every
pocketbook, level of design expertise, and craftsmanship.
If repurposing an old high school is too rich for your blood, you should be aware that very often the real real estate bargains are to be found not in former places of learning but in former places of worship. For those with more ambition and ingenuity than liquid assets, buying, remodeling, and living in an old church offers the very practical advantage of being able to live in one part of your now unholy do-it-yourself project while you DIY another part. Moreover, as the photos above illustrate, just because it was once a church, doesn't mean it always has to look like a church when fully repurposed.

If you can get rid of the smell and afford some much-needed
insulation, barns often make wonderfully rustic homes.
In leaving an outside door wide open in the middle of the winter, did your mother ever accuse you of having been "born in a barn"? In the town where I grew up, virtually every home, at one time, had at least a small barn where was kept the horse and carriage, not to mention sometimes cattle, hogs, and chickens for home consumption. Most are long since gone now, but in many rural communities, barns (above) have become nearly as popular as churches for repurposing into homes. Old barns dot the landscape in New England, and other rural areas. Most are abandoned and of poor structural integrity from years of neglect. The rare barn that has kept its solid structure can find new life as a home. The exposed beams often become interesting architectural features while the old lofts are reinforced to create a second floor. The possibilities are endless with an interior blank canvas and high ceilings. Very often, to preserve the open feel, architects design Great Rooms with lofted bedrooms and baths. But if you don't find the option of living in a barn attractive, there's always lofty fire towers or grounded jet airliners (below). By turning these buildings into homes, architects and creative homeowners have saved historic old buildings from decay, given new life to beautiful churches, and found unique uses for retired airplanes and grain silos.

Privacy with a view
...and lots of stairs.
Enjoy the fantasy of soaring
out of the wilderness
And lest you think that repurposing antiquated structures into homes is purely an American peculiarity, it would seem the French and British have indulged in such architectural flights of fantasy as well. Goodness knows they've got enough old buildings, even ancient ruins, to keep them busy for centuries, upgrading them into living quarters. The French, for instance, have taken a picturesque old watermill built on a bridge (below) and turned it into a somewhat frail-looking home with a no doubt stunning river view.

Okay, I guess, if you like to fish and don't
mind the avian river guests just above the attic.
The British, on the other hand, being island dwellers, have long had something of a fortress mentality. The fortress outpost below was build in 1808 to defend against a feared naval invasion from the obnoxious little emperor just across the channel. Napoleon chose to invade Russia instead, leaving the British with several defensive "elephants" even whiter than the school in my hometown. Many, if not most, are abandoned, or at best, serve as storehouses for hay and other agricultural commodities. The one below, however, Martello Tower, near Suffolk, England, mostly needed a new roof. The architectural firm of Billings Jackson Design simply fashioned a new house within the old walls, some of which were as much as nine feet (three meters) thick.

Although build within a defensive brick shell, there's nothing
antiquated (or defensive) about the strikingly postmodern
interior, or its swirling roofline.
A man's castle is his home.

Obviously repurposed, I'm just not
sure as to what purpose.


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