The 'little old schoolhouse on the hill': Glen Cove school restoration takes step back into history


Rodika Tollefson, KP News

Chuck and Sharon West were looking for an investment property. An old, rundown house in Glen Cove that they knew had historic significance looked like the perfect opportunity. Little did they know that the little old school house on the hill would grow its way into their hearts, becoming as much of an emotional investment as it was financial.

Chuck, a skilled contractor and an electrician, was certainly prepared for some elbow grease. Three or four months were spent just cleaning the badly distressed former Glen Cove Grade School. Then, just about everything was gutted, and Chuck tried to save as much of the original woodwork and fixtures as he could. A local firefighter by day, by night he spent about 30 hours a week in an undisputable labor of love. Sharon, more of a decorator type, focused on the final touches.

Somewhere along the way, they became, as Sharon described it, romantically involved — with the house. “We didn’t plan on loving it so much,” she said. “I didn’t expect to become so protective.”

Those who came to the open house in December marveled at the incredible job the couple has done. Photos of the damaged interior when they bought the property certainly spoke louder than anything.

But perhaps the most remarkable of all was the authenticity the couple has attained for the old classroom. The floor is original, and the moldings were handmade to match the antique style. Thankfully, Fred Ramsdell, known in the community for his many civic contributions, knows his way with the saw as well. He volunteered his shop and skill to match parts of the woodwork. Other original pieces were matched by shopping at flea markets and creative research.

Bob Fearnehough, resident of Home, provided lumber. He also told Chuck he was nuts — or something along those lines. “I told him (the renovation) would take years,” he said. “The miracle was his perseverance and various people on the peninsula chipping in where they could.”

One thing definitely has changed since the old classmates, who came to the open house in December as if for a reunion, gathered around for school. “We had no electricity,” said Joyce Niemann. For some reason, while other district schools used power, this one never got it. “We had a potbelly stove, and we went to school rain or shine; snow didn’t stop us,” she said. Most of the children came from around the neighborhood. On the darker days or when the weather was bad, the teacher didn’t even bother with teaching, they just read, another classmate recalled.

Built sometime around 1912, the school housed children until 1941. A few decades later, it was used as an antique store for a while.

Sharon West feels the couple has always had a connection to the place, even without knowing it. It was just meant to be. In fact, they had lived down the street and when the house was placed for sale, they knew they wouldn’t buy it. But eight months later, it was still on the market—just as some inheritance money came in.

“Seeing it all destroyed didn’t diminish it in our eyes,” she said. In November of 2002, they called it their own. And only a year later, stunned visitors couldn’t stop marveling at the end result.

“You know those kits you can buy (and assemble yourself)?” Sharon asked. “This was definitely an expert-level kit.”

Chuck said the work for him was therapeutic, even if he felt rushed at times because of deadlines. Selling the house no longer sounds appealing, they said, because that would mean losing control of its future. Although they plan to rent the home, they hope someday it will once again be filled with the laughter of children: Perhaps a couple would want to live in one wing of the house while using the old classroom for a private school. Or perhaps it would host a studio or a banquet hall.

For now, the couple is looking forward to taking some time off. “Right now we need to be at home watching the kids grow, but someday something may come of it,” Sharon said. “We’re pretty married to the Key Peninsula and we’re very open to whatever takes place.” They are not concerned with what “whatever” is. Things are meant to happen, Sharon said, “and even disrepair was part of the building’s presence.”

But now that she has discovered a sort of a spiritual connection with it, the future does look full of promise.