Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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By Rhonda Stansberry
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
The view from 192nd and Harrison Streets was cornfields and dusty roads when Sunny Slope School welcomed students in 1938.
The view hadn’t changed much when Kelly Wirges bought the former one-room schoolhouse in 2001.
But now that intersection is surrounded by paved roads, tract homes and new subdivisions with harmonious names — Arbor Gate, Falling Waters and Bellbrook on the west and on the east, Coyote Run, Harrison Park and Sugar Creek.
The plain-Jane, one-room brick schoolhouse in this far-southwest suburb came alive under the ownership of Kelly Wirges Shoults and her husband, Randy, who gave the building and its corner a facelift.
Maria Swoboda has watched the transformation every day from 192nd Street as she drives south to work at Reeder Elementary in the Millard school district.
“I personally never found it to be an eyesore,” the school secretary said. “It’s still so classically unique.”
And, yes, she said, she’s always wondered what was going on. Would someone live there? Would it be an office?
Purchased for $130,000 in 2001, the former schoolhouse is on the tax rolls now as Chateau de la Mirabelle, a name change that reflects its new interior and exterior designer touches.
Shoults said she spent “considerably more” on renovations than she paid for the building, though she declined to say how much.
But, she said, “You can quote me on this: It’s priceless.”
Outside, the squarish building has French chateau features, a pyramidal roof and stucco facing around the front door. A railing of white spindles creates a balcony effect along the roof’s edge. An arch and columns frame a doorway with ornate grillwork.
An iron fence borders the 1½-acre property and a gate opens to a circular drive. On the short approach to the building sits a round flower bed, which, during a recent fall day, held pots of gold chrysanthemums. A large bird bath brimming with a harvest bounty of pumpkins and squash also greeted visitors.
The sense of a country estate is mirrored inside.
Shoults, an interior designer who heads the media training company ProMax, was renting office space in a high-rent area when she started looking for a property she could buy and refurbish. Her father found the schoolhouse.
As head of VIE Designs, Shoults wasn’t short on ideas for renovating it. She salvaged what she could of the old building.
A stone Sunny Slope School sign, once mounted above the school’s entry, was remounted on a rock ledge behind the home. Well-worn wood floors were restained and sealed, giving a look of character, but not high polish. A black iron wood stove that would have heated the entire open classroom was given a fresh purpose as a backdrop for vintage accessories. She kept the open layout of the interior, adding waist-high dividers with cubbies to hold books and decorative items and define living spaces.
The decor includes items that have an old-world look and a modern splash of color. The overall impression is of a Manhattan apartment, with black walls trimmed in an off-white color Shoults called “Peanut Shell.” Canvases of bright red poppies add pops of color to the dark decor.
Shoults used a deep-pile leopard-print rug on the steps from the front door to the opening of the former school room. Vestibule walls are dark-chocolate brown. Above the vestibule hangs a large chandelier, dripping with sparkling crystals. The effect is opulence.
The entryway opens into a room that is approximately 900 square feet, split in half by a 5-foot-high wall with shelves on both sides. The wall separates an office from a seating area.
One half of the room is for dining or conferencing and the other half has a kitchen and bar. Downstairs, in a now-finished basement, is a stackable laundry unit, master bedroom, bath area and storage. The home, including both floors, offers more than 1,800 square feet of living space.
Appointed in dark colors and heavy, luxurious fabrics, the lower-level bedroom can be used for guests or as the master suite as it is now. The Shoultses plan to build a French-style home on the property adjacent to the schoolhouse. When completed, the schoolhouse can be used as an office and guest house.
Marian Ruff Witt, a former student, knocked on the door one day to see the old schoolhouse she had known as a youngster. She attended Sunny Slope from 1938 until eighth-grade graduation in 1947.
“I lived at the top of the hill (to the north) where all the houses are being built, about a half mile from the school,” she said. She has fond memories.
Of teeter-totters and swings. Of separate outdoor restrooms. Of first-grade teacher Miss Doris Cook, who babysat Witt and her siblings. And of teacher Miss Norma Haney who got married the summer Witt was in eighth grade.
A teacher might have a schoolroom full of boys or children from first grade to eighth, all from the same family. But the older children helped the younger ones and everyone got an education.
“A one-room school was absolutely a great training ground.”
Sunny Slope, built in the early 1900s, was one of several one-room schools closed during consolidations that took place in the 1950s and ’60s. Shoults said she has had several visitors like Witt and others who remember Sunny Slope School.
The building is solid, with 12-inch-thick walls that block the sounds of traffic on busy 192nd Street. Shoults’ only alteration to the shell of the building was to knock out enough of the brick wall on the east side of the building for double French doors that open onto a courtyard.
Windows had to be replaced but their tall, narrow sizes remain, covered by rich-looking damask drapes, tied back to let light into the room.
With few exceptions, the schoolhouse had to be overhauled and made to work as a modern home. But it does work as home, for now and until the Shoultses complete their new home next to the old playground.
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