'She needs to be kept'

Group working on restoring Spirit Lake's old grade school

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Dick Prine walks past the Woolen Brown Center while he waits to gain access to the century-old building in Spirit Lake. Prine, an architect, is helping a group who is working to restore the building.

SPIRIT LAKE - Phyllis Brown wasn't about to let the 101-year-old Woolen Brown Center go down.

The brick building between the Spirit Lake Library and the community center, which used to be the town's grade school, has been vacant for about 15 years.

But Brown and others want to give it new life and restore it as much as possible.

"She's a big old girl, and she needs to be kept and cared for," said Brown during a tour of the 10,000-square-foot building, also referred to as the Civic Center.

"She's going to be beautiful when she's done. I have a soft spot in my heart for her. You just get a feeling that she's friendly and talking to you."

Brown said her grade school was torn down in Tumwater, Wash., so she knows how residents can become attached to buildings where memories were made.

"It was like they took away part of your childhood after they tore it down," she said.

The city, which acquired the Woolen Brown Center from the Lakeland Joint School District, provided Brown and her volunteer group $20,000 to find matching grant funds to help restore the building.

Brown said another $9,000 came from the estate of former Spirit Lake resident Jim Brown Sr. - not related to Phyllis - for the project.

Jim Brown and Mildred Woolen - who the building is named after - were residents interested in seeing the building restored.

And now Phyllis Brown and her helpers are taking the baton. She has formed the Woolen Brown Committee to focus on the project.

The Idaho Historical Society earlier estimated the total cost to restore the building to its original condition would be $1 million.

Dick Prine, an architect who has assessed the building, believes the estimate is high.

"I think $500,000 would make it habitable and reasonably close to its original condition," he said.

He said he believes the structure is worth saving.

"I wouldn't be here (working on it) if it wasn't," said Prine, who remembers meeting in the building for the Lions Club years ago.

The building still holds a lot of character from yesteryear, including the wooden staircase, blackboards, lunch counter and hallway closets. Some old school desks and benches are still inside.

The structure was also formerly occupied by a Head Start program, but has only been used for storage in recent years. The two-story building with a basement has seven classrooms.

Brown said she's hoping that $200,000 to $300,000 will be enough to get a portion of it restored so community groups can meet there or special events can be hosted.

"It's going to be a place for people to congregate," she said.

Fees from such functions could then, in turn, help pay for restoring the building.

Brown said some people have wanted to see the building torn down and the bricks sold. And she admits it's going to take time and dedication.

"I have had some people tell me I'm crazy," she said. "I give them the right to their opinion, but that doesn't change my mind.

"It's going to be a five to six-year project."

Urban renewal funds can't be spent on the project because the building is not in the urban renewal district.

Brown said Jim Brown Sr. - father of current City Council member Jimmy Brown - spent $1,000 to see if the building could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was denied because it has additions.

Phyllis Brown said the plan is to demolish the additions and see if the building can be listed in the future.

Some repairs, including to the roof, have been done. The basement has been gutted. Brown said she expects the power to be turned on soon. Some of the rooms have graffiti from vandalism over the years.

Brown said the building's committee will name classrooms after people in the community, including those who have been a part of the building's past.

"I think that will be very heartwarming to a lot of people," Brown said.

How to help

For more information about restoring the Woolen Brown Center in Spirit Lake or those wishing to help can contact Phyllis Brown at 818-1236.

Phyllis Brown walks up the main staircase toward the top floor of the Woolen Brown Center which served as a grade school in Spirit Lake when it was built in the early 1900s.


Dick Prine, left, and contractor John Fraser surveys one of the classrooms on the top floor of the Woolen Brown Center in Spirit Lake.

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