- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

COWDEN, Ill. (AP) - School was out forever 10 years ago in a grand century-old building where cutting class is now the way students learn.

All of which makes permanent sense if you head to the wee town of Cowden and brush up on your learning at what is now the Handlins School of Cosmetology. You can’t miss it: the beauty school is housed in the massive two story, 35,000-square-foot edifice that used to be home to K-12 and then just grade school students before the school district finally moved out about 2005.

Handlins wasn’t the first to come along and buy the old building with the idea of giving it an updo and repurposing it. Other previous users ranged from an indoor archery range to a tanning and fitness studio, but they all soon parted company with the place. Handlins, in the shape of husband and wife cosmetology teaching team Michael and Barbara Handlin, arrived on the scene in 2009, and the distaff side was less than thrilled at first.

Barbara Handlin said it was cursed with a flat roof that inevitably leaked, and the whole place was in need of a major face lift amid vast interior space that felt like trying to set up shop in a cathedral.

“I tried to talk Mike out of buying this,” she says, while showing visitors around as her voice echoes back in waves.

“I said, ‘We do not need that big of a project,’ but, well, he is very persuasive.”

Her husband, a disabled Navy veteran with a can-do attitude, had set sail in pursuit of the dream of setting up their own business and dropped anchor when he sighted the old school.

“I saw what it could be here, yes I did,” he says. “It was centrally located to all the small towns in the area, and I thought it would work, and that it would be beautiful.”

The two cosmetology teachers, determined to build their business from the roots up, pretty much got busy on their own to refurbish chunks of a building the size of a brick and plaster ocean liner.

There were some hiccups along the way, of course. The vast heating system has since been reworked but, when they first fired up the old boiler, the bill was distinctly hair-raising: “It was $3,500 after the first two weeks of turning it on,” Barbara Handlin says. “I was in tears.”

But you live and perm, and it’s amazing to see what they’ve done with the place.

Several remodeled and partitioned classrooms now house comfortably the work stations and sinks for 10 students (the teachers can handle up to 50) who have moved beyond the three R’s to master the intricacies of HS&N;: hair, skin and nails. Fall sunshine floods in from tall windows, and the general feeling is of light, airy space under 12-foot ceilings and gleaming hardwood floors.

Acres of original heart pine interior trim, suitably darkened by the embrace of time, add a sense of character to the old school’s refreshed face.

“I think it’s awesome; I love it here,” said 25-year-old student Emily Brumm, who lives in Effingham. “And they’re very good teachers. They make learning easy and fun; they are really good at explaining, and they explain it in a way you can get it, you know?”

Brumm is busy practicing her permanent skills on the head of a mannequin, and her mischievous instructors have been known to leave the disembodied heads in the long classroom windows to snag the attention of passers-by.

“Just for a giggle,” Barbara Handlin says. “Our UPS driver gets freaked out sometimes …”

Then she’s off in tour guide mode again, showing the upstairs the former fifth-grade classroom converted in a spacious apartment where the instructors live; their son Brandon, 25, lives in a similarly converted classroom. Yet another classroom has been remodeled into a guest bedroom, which could double as student accommodation in a building that never runs out of room, or rooms.

Outside, other campus buildings are being rented out for storage, while part of a former cafeteria houses a food pantry rented by local churches. And Barbara Handlin’s sister and brother-in-law live in the other end of that same outbuilding, now converted to an apartment.

A raft of future projects include turning the former gym, which is complete with a stage, into a rentable function room, and the handy Handlins even find time to fashion old bleachers and other salvaged wood into furniture they plan to sell.

It’s a busy, busy life, and no one is pretending it’s been easy doing all this and turning a school back into a school again.

But there is also the profound sense of satisfaction that comes from saving a grand address with a sense of style: “It is kind of unique to live in an old beautiful place like this,” says Barbara Handlin. “Too often, in the United States of America, we tear things down instead.”

All the place needs now to round out its real estate resumé is a decent ghost story, but, happily for the current students, no spectral pupils with ragged nails or terrifying dead teachers with bad hair have been spotted prowling the halls. But that doesn’t mean the world of the unseen isn’t tuning itself in from time to time.

“Sometimes, I will hear one of those old transistor radios playing a baseball game broadcast,” Barbara Handlin says. “I can’t tell what the game is, but it’s always a baseball game, and it sounds like one of those radios where you would listen in on the AM band. I only hear it when I’m by myself, and, no, I have never been able to find that radio.”


Source: (Decatur) Herald and Review, https://bit.ly/1yMIoqW


Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com

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