Sep 14, 2011 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
Heather Bruno-Sears found the bones of an oxen in her front yard, a 1902 Indian-head penny by her front doorstep, a handmade glass marble in the interior dirt under the window, and a 19th century cast-iron toy pull horse in her garden.
She’s not a treasure hunter, an intense antiquer or a “pawn star,” but rather a lover of historic buildings who is restoring a circa 1814 one-room schoolhouse in Spafford one warm weekend at a time.
“This has been such a labor of love to me, and probably the accomplishment I’m most proud of — my little piece of historic legacy,” said Bruno-Sears, a decorative artist raised in Spafford and currently living in Skaneateles who has been working on this project for the past three years.
“My mission is to save this little historic gem in the community,” she said.
The building she owns and is working to restore is the old District No. 1 Nunnery School on Nunnery Road, one of only five original one-room schoolhouses left in Spafford, and the only one constructed of stone. It was built in 1814 and utilized as a school in the Skaneateles district until the late 1940s or early 1950s, although its exact closing date is unknown, according to the Spafford Historical Society.
When Bruno-Sears first saw the building while taking a Sunday drive in 2008, it had a huge hole in the roof, crumbling walls, broken and missing windows, a dirt floor, an overgrown and out-of-control yard, and a “For sale by owner” sign out front. And she loved it.
“I grew up in an 1850s farmhouse in Spafford, and have always appreciated antiques and historic buildings,” she said. But in the dilapidated Nunnery School she also saw — with the eyes of the professional artist that she is — the potential of the building to become a cozy, English cottage-style studio or artisan retreat. So she bought it.
“It was just meant to be,” she said of her purchase. “I feel I was just in the right place at the right time.”
During her first two summers of ownership, in 2009 and 2010, Bruno-Sears, working mainly her father Reggie Sears, slowly began the renovation.
The first task was to mend and stabilize the weakened stone walls before the building collapsed altogether, she said. She took the task of scouring the surrounding area for replacement stones, mostly at a local quarry not far from the property, digging them out of the ground and transporting them to the schoolhouse.
She tried to stay with the original type of local stones, utilizing a combination of field stones and limestone. She also made it a point to use the many “interesting rocks” she found embedded with 300 to 400 million-year-old fossilized seashells, coral, trilobytes and cephalopods. Bruno-Sears also hand-mixed the building mortar; her father packed the mortar and placed all the stones. She estimates they replaced about 25 percent of the stones in the walls.
Once the foundation was secure, this year — the third year — Bruno-Sears has worked to replace the roof and install new windows and window sills. She also added one “new twist” to the structure she is keeping as original as possible: a small 30-by-30 loft space under the roof to be used probably as a bedroom space.
Also during the past three years, Bruno-Sears has accomplished a total renovation of the landscape, removing all the overgrowth, creating a driveway, planting flower gardens, bushes and trees, with ideas for a possible vineyard, orchard and vegetable garden in the future.
When she begins interior work, probably next summer, she plans to use historic, hand-hewn (but re-milled) wood boards, some of which was stacked inside the building when she bought it, some she found as discarded scraps at other historic buildings. Her ultimate vision is as a cozy, English cottage interior layered with hand wrought finishes and an “eclectic collection of visually interesting items,” such as antiques, pottery, artwork, books and a shadow box displaying the various treasures she has unearthed during her renovation work.
There has been a lot of interest in her renovation work by the local community during the past three years, Bruno-Sears said. Every day someone stops to comment on the work, on the building history, even some people who once attended school there.
Because of the historic nature of the project, she also has become an active member of the Spafford Historical Society.
Bruno-Sears estimates the renovation work is now about half completed. Her goal is to “definitely” be done by 2014 — the 200th anniversary of the building — at which time she plans to hold an open house for the public, and probably bury a time capsule on the property as well.
“I want this to last another 200 years when I’m done with this renovation,” she said.
Bruno-Sears still is uncertain what the ultimate use of the renovated Nunnery School will be, whether as a home, guest home, summer artist retreat or even an art school. “I could definitely see myself living here, though,” she said. “It would make an adorable, quaint home and an old-fashioned lifestyle.”
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.