1890s brick schoolhouse, now a home, up for auction

Monday, September 21, 2009 | 5:16 p.m. CDT; updated 9:23 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 24, 2009
The Keene School, a registered historical landmark, was built in 1898 and has since been remodeled into a residence. It will be sold at a private auction on Sept. 28.

CORRECTION: Daniel Lee is one of the current owners of the two-story Keene School. His first name was originally reported incorrectly in this article.

COLUMBIA — If you outbid your competitors at an auction on Sept. 28, you could live in a piece of Missouri history.

The two-story Keene School at 4713 Brown Station Road, built in 1898, will be on the block beginning at noon.  It has been listed with the Boone County Register of Historic Places.

Current owners *Daniel and Mary Lee are looking to sell after undertaking a series of expensive renovations to update the school as a home.

The Keene School was originally built on two acres donated by Alfred Keene, an area farmer. Keene’s brother owned a brick plant in Columbia, and the building was built entirely of brick without a wood frame — unusual for the time.

The atypical, more expensive structural style helped make it historically significant. The all-brick structure is the last of its kind in the state.

“There have been brick schools in Missouri, but they no longer exist,” Mary Lee said. “And this one is all handmade brick.”

Chuck Price, the auctioneer who will be selling the house through Jacobs & Kemper Auction & Realty Co., anticipates that the house could go for $150,000 to $200,000. He stressed that there’s no precedent for an auction of this type, so his figure is an estimate.

Still, Price said it’s the most unusual auction he’s presided over during his 20-year career.

“I’ve never sold anything like it,” he said. “There’s just not many around. Bricks can’t handle much settling, so most haven’t survived. This one structurally is pretty solid; it’s got good bones as the saying goes.”

Inside, the schoolhouse is fairly typical of one-room country schools from the time. Originally, the first floor consisted of one large schoolroom lit by three massive windows where pupils from first through eighth grade were instructed.

A small, open school kitchen stood in the corner, and a short corridor by the front door led to a coatroom. A narrow, steep staircase accesses the second story where the teacher lived.

It looks different now, though it maintains the charm and aesthetic of an old school. The kitchen is intact, albeit with modern equipment and counters. The single large room has been split into a living room and a bedroom by a cedar wall and a fireplace.

The room that once held the winter coats of rural students now holds a washer and dryer. New roads have also reduced the lot's size to 1.6 acres.

A few luxuries, such as indoor restrooms and air conditioning, have also found their way into the house.

The front door has been replaced with a more elaborate one of French design, though the threshold is still warped, flattened and smoothed out from generations of footsteps. The old school bell is still set in the wall of what is now the downstairs bedroom.

The building had lots of use during its time as a one-room school in northeastern Columbia. A wide variety of activities, such as town hall and PTA meetings and religious services, took place within its walls.

“It was kind of a hub of community in the surrounding area,” Daniel Lee said.

His wife agreed that it “served the community well.”

Keene School managed to keep up with contemporary trends — a school bulletin from 1948 listed atomic energy as a topic of discussion, and the school had electric wiring installed toward the end of its run as an educational institution. The school even had its own bus, driven by the building's custodian.

It continued to function as a rural school up until 1953, when it closed shortly after being grandfathered into the Columbia School District to accommodate an influx of new students and housing.

The schoolhouse then stood vacant for 14 years before its purchase by John and Rose Marie Long in 1967.

The Longs didn’t own it long; few people did.

Robert and Georgia Follis owned the property for a year, from 1972 to 1973. Wilson and Ella Turner bought it from them, and they sold it to Paul Nettleton in 1978.

“This reads like a novel,” Mary Lee said as she flipped through decades of financial and ownership documents. She said the house changed hands so often because of the back taxes the city collected on the property.

The school's next owners, John and Sally Blass, began the process of remodeling the building into the home it is today. After purchasing it in 1995, the Blasses installed the large French front door, built the wall dividing the schoolroom and installed the fireplace.

After the Blasses, the property traded hands once more — Roberta Mullen bought it in 1999  before the Lees purchased it on July 9, 2002, Daniel Lee’s 49th birthday.

The Lees were immediately drawn to the building because of its past.

“We wanted to make sure it was registered and remained part of Columbia’s history,”  Mary Lee said.

Her husband, a sterile processing technician at Columbia Regional Hospital who studied briefly to become a teacher, was also drawn to the building because it had been a schoolhouse.

“I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, but it gave me an appreciation for the profession,” he said.

The Lees installed air conditioning, built a detached garage and rewired the house to replace its approximately 60-year-old electrical wiring.

They traveled to Clark to buy Amish-produced wood beams to reinforce the foundation, and the interior glass door on the side of the house cost $1,000.

Both Lees grew up around Columbia, and both had parents who attended one-room schoolhouses similar to the one they helped refurbish.

“My father had an eight- grade education, but his handwriting was neater than mine,” Daniel Lee said.

The auctioneer also said he attended a one-room school between Rolla and St. James for two nonconsecutive years.

“You learned a lot, it was personalized instruction,” Price said. “You got your lesson and did your work, but you could also hear what the third and fourth grade were doing.”

During their research, the Lees learned that the Keene School touched the lives of many.

“We’re amazed by the amount of people we run into that have connections to the place,” said Daniel Lee, who works with a woman who can recall walking up and down the steps of the house as a child.

The man who inspected the Lees' new wiring had his wedding reception in the field behind the school.

Price said he has given many tours of the house since the auction was announced and expects a busy bid day.

“I know we’ll have a crowd,” he said. “Many may be curiosity seekers if nothing else, but we’ve shown the property a number of times.”

The Lees are happy to know that the school will remain a historical site.

“People are really buying a piece of history," Mary Lee said.

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Waluigi Frankenstein September 21, 2009 | 5:36 p.m.

I think you should put more minority interests in the article, like sombreros, for the sombreroese so they are more interested in houses

(Report Comment)
Chris Cady September 22, 2009 | 10:27 a.m.

I have no idea what you're talking about Waluigi. Just thought I'd point that out.

This is a great building that I drive by often and I appreciated to opportunity to learn more of its history. I hope its next owners are as faithful as the past ones.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 22, 2009 | 10:41 a.m.
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