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Saltese one-room schoolhouse project turns heads

UPDATED: Mon., April 2, 2018, 1:58 p.m.

Across decades, neighbors kept silent watch over a vacant one-room schoolhouse harkening back to Spokane Valley settlers.

So when construction trucks arrived in April at the 117-year-old Saltese School, south of Veradale, more than a few residential eyebrows were raised. Select removal of layers to reveal the original building stopped traffic, and onlookers pulled over to watch.

Neighbors’ concerns have eased now as people regularly stop by, say new owners John and Alyson McLean, husband-and-wife team of Spokane’s Blue Room Architecture & Design. They’ve shared plans to restore historic aspects of the pioneer school they’re converting into a living-work space.

“We’re doing what we can to preserve the building, this slice of history,” said John McLean. “Neighbors still feel ownership in the building. In a lot of ways, we’re glorified caretakers.”

McLean said the adaptive-reuse project will retain historic appearances of the schoolhouse’s exterior, prominently facing south near the corner of 32nd Avenue and Linke Road, in Saltese Flats.

To the west and north sides, a small L-shaped addition with two bedrooms and kitchen is underway. The old school’s interior will become the residence’s great room. The McLeans haven’t decided yet if they’re going to live at the site, or turn it into in-law quarters for their relatives.

A 20th century remnant

The Saltese School first opened there in the early 1890s as a log building, and it was rebuilt in 1900 as the white framed structure seen today. The land was donated for a school by pioneer Daniel Courchaine, who came to the area around 1870.

“It was one of three one-room schoolhouses built around the same time in the Saltese area in the 1890s,” said Jayne Singleton, director of Spokane Valley Heritage Museum. She said the other two pioneer schools were called Lone Fir and Quinnemosa.

C. Meyer was hired to construct the 1900 schoolhouse, according to Valley museum records, to be paid $300 when half done and another $400 when complete.

“We have a lot of old records from the Saltese School, and there’s memories people shared from going there,” Singleton said. “Typically, one-room schoolhouses were built within walking distance of where most people lived or could ride their horses.”

Settlers’ children in grades one through eight attended there, and the building served as a school until 1942, when students were moved to Vera School. Also in the 1890s, the Saltese Literary Association used the building for meetings and debates.

One nearby neighbor can recall early classroom memories. Thelma Courchaine Fitzgerald, 102, started at the Saltese School at age 6. She’s Daniel Courchaine’s granddaughter.

“I went to grade school and graduated the eighth grade from there,” she said. “We used to take a state test for graduation from eighth grade. It was one teacher for all eight grades.”

“We each had little desks, and there was a little area underneath them to put your books.”

A Saltese School attendance ledger from 1894, stored at the Valley museum, lists Fitzgerald’s father, George Courchaine, then age 7. He attended that year with three other Courchaine kids and a total of 14 students, ranging in age from 5 to 14.

One year when Fitzgerald attended, there were only six students – all of them Courchaine siblings. In other years, she recalled how strict the teacher was.

“One time, this mean teacher sent my brother to go out to cut off a whip from a tree, and he brought the whole tree into the classroom,” said Fitzgerald, while laughing.

In 1955, George Courchaine sold the schoolhouse for $500 to Greenacres Grange, and some Valley museum transcripts indicate the group remained active there until 1996 when it consolidated with the Opportunity Grange, Singleton said.

Newspaper articles also recorded a Saltese School reunion in September 1986, held at Greenacres Grange, and drawing about 22 former classmates then in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Since the 1990s, the structure has sat mostly vacant, neighbors say.

Fitzgerald’s son Lonnie Limbocker, 66, said residents sometimes used it for social events and dances.

“My grandpa and grandma George and Annie Courchaine celebrated their 50th anniversary there,” he said.

History shines through

Since restoration began, John McLean said he’s found parts to several school desks buried under the front porch, including a rusty metal leg, along with hymnals from the early 1920s, and the school’s original wood stove.

Both Washington State University graduates, the McLeans knew the building had fallen into disrepair and didn’t have much life left. Its roof had rotted and was sagging. Planning for the renovation began a year ago, and construction is expected to wrap up by next spring.

The couple, who also designed the restorations for Arbor Crest’s historic Cliff House after it was damaged by fire, bought the Saltese property last summer from another architect who planned a similar project before moving.

“The building has touched a lot of lives in the Saltese area over the past 100 years,” McLean said. “We’ve been fielding lots of calls. My wife’s family has a lot of history in this area.”

At the Saltese Cemetery, there are grave markers for great aunts and uncles of Alyson McLean on her mother’s side, the Livingstone family. The McLeans were drawn to the school, “because it needed to be restored,” she said.

Steve Livingstone, 68, has lived about half a mile from the old school for about 25 years. He used to operate Livingstone’s Rock Ranch for students field trips about area geology and rock formations.

He said the old schoolhouse and Grange building wasn’t used much by the time his family moved nearby.

“I think everybody is glad it’s going to be saved,” added Livingstone, who said Alyson McLean is his cousin’s daughter.

“There was fear at first when people saw the activity; fear it would be torn down,” he said. “Now that everybody’s heard the story, it’s a whole different thing. I’m glad that John and Alyson are going to reuse it.”

The craftsmanship of the 1900-built school has impressed both John McLean and the project’s construction manager Dan Wilson, with Rock n’ D.W. Construction.

“The original dimensions were tight,” Wilson said.

Although the structure is more than a century old, he said it was only 1/2-inch out of square when work started. Considering any settling over the years, that’s a testament to the original builders’ skills, Wilson said.

“We’re out here with our lasers and modern equipment, and they were more accurate,” he said.

“It’s on an old stone foundation, not a modern concrete foundation,” McLean said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well-built it is.”

Hefty nails and large solid wood beams are throughout. Peering into what was the school’s interior, visitors will find original 3/4-inch beadboard tongue-and-groove panels along the walls.

A teacher’s desk likely sat to the north facing the front door, with student desks lined up so that children’s backs were to the entrance, and the old wood stove kept heat in a back corner.

Someone during the years had moved the front door to one side, McLean said, so they moved the entrance back to where it originally faced south.

The project also requires bringing the building up to code, McLean said, including requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He declined to disclose construction costs. With the addition, the structure will have about 2,000 square feet.

New materials mimic the original tall-roof design. Replacement windows came in August, including four on the east side in the same pattern and sizes, but with insulated glass instead of single-pane.

A remnant of a bygone pioneer era, the structure will continue to hold a special place in the community, said Livingstone, past president of the Saltese Land Owners Association.

“Everybody’s been quite proud of the fact that it’s still there in the community,” he said. “We try to instill a little faith in the future. Having a foothold in the past is a way of doing that, along with keeping a little community pride.”

Although it will be a private residence, McLean said neighbors will continue to be welcomed. Many people who stop by in evenings linger an hour or so to visit.

“There are not many old schoolhouses left, and even fewer that are in their original spot,” he said. “It’s such a social environment, a developing crossroads; I don’t think that’s going to change.”