Urban Loft on the Prairie

Presented by: Kay Miller Boehr, IIDA, IDEC, registered architect 

Converting a former one room school to a weekend retreat 

This building is part of the story of the rural one-room schools in America and their eventual demise. It represents the architecture of the Great Depression and the work of the WPA, as well as the early work of a locally significant architect.  The building itself is nearly indestructible.  Built in 1939 with 18-inch thick limestone walls and concrete interior structure, it has survived the indignity of insensitive remodeling, first as a single family dwelling and finally as an upstairs/downstairs duplex. It sits on its allotted acre, next to a scenic rural road in a creek valley of pasture land and crops, surrounded by flat topped prairie hills. After years as rental property, the schoolhouse was in a dismal state when its owner declared bankruptcy, and the building was listed for sale by auction.

My husband and I had discussed either purchasing a weekend retreat in the country or converting an urban industrial building into living space. When we discovered this building, we were attracted by the potential of opening up the space, similar to an urban loft, yet having a place in the country.  I had recently begun teaching after 20 years as a designer in an architecture firm. While focusing on life as an academic, I had less time for clients. Instead, I found creative joy in planning and designing the renovation of this building.

The process has been guided by my philosophy of historic building renovation:  Identify the elements that give a space its character. Keep or restore those elements and use them to guide your design choices. In the case of the schoolhouse, these elements include plaster applied directly to the stone walls, twelve foot high ceilings, and a few remaining pieces of heart pine trim. The most inspiring feature was one that was missing: the nine-foot tall double hung windows that had originally filled twenty-eight feet of the east wall, but had been replaced by a wood stud wall, small windows and an eight-foot ceiling. Our first task after demolition of the two bedrooms, bath and living room that had been constructed in the former 700 square foot classroom was to reconstruct the window wall, transforming the space with sunlight and views. 

Since there were no remaining vestiges of the classroom, our only design reference to “schoolhouse,” was a return to the original floor plan. The former classroom became an open living space, with the raw aesthetic of loft spaces, including exposed wood rafters, sealed concrete floors, and exposed ductwork. The space itself echoes the schoolroom.
The design aesthetic was also influenced by the IKEA Värde cabinets that we selected for the kitchen wall. The cabinets inspired the use of warm colors: pine and birch wood, yellow glazed plaster walls, and creamy white paint; offset by blue-gray on gypsum board walls, gray toned concrete floors, and painted gray or pewter-toned metal. Furnishings are a mix of older pieces with inexpensive new pieces from IKEA and CB2.

Although we hire professionals for difficult or specialized work, we “relax” by working on the schoolhouse.  I design and document our decisions so they can be built.  I also work stripping, and finishing or painting furniture and woodwork; and painting or glazing walls. Our 2013/2014 project, shelving and steps to the deck, completed the “one room” living space. The work continues, and the next phase includes the stairwell renovation and the construction of a bathroom in the original cloakroom. We are planning to use the basement (also a former apartment) for a studio and space for guests.


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