- Associated Press - Sunday, October 30, 2016

ATTALLA, Ala. (AP) - Lisa Little has big vision.

While many people likely have looked at the old Attalla Elementary School building for years and thought, at worst, “eyesore,” and at best, “nostalgic eyesore,” Little saw a lot more.

Upon moving to Etowah County last summer when her husband, Jeff, became the county’s personnel director, Little started looking for an old building or house she could renovate.

Although it wasn’t for sale, she discovered the old Attalla Elementary School, a structure that’s been vacant for years, with the exception of kids partying there and testing their spray painting skills.

It wasn’t for sale because the city of Attalla owned it and had reached the point of doing away with it.

“We got a bid for about $120,000 to tear it down,” Attalla Mayor Larry Means said. But they hadn’t acted on the bid, he said, in part because he just hated to.

“I remember playing football under the oak tree,” Means said. The school was built about 1930, he estimated. He was a student there in fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

He said he was dragging his heels on bulldozing a school that helped to build him and generations of Attalla people, and that turned out to be a good thing.

While the bid was in limbo, Lisa entered the picture, walking into City Hall to ask about buying the building with plans to renovate it and live there.

City leaders agreed - giving her a 30-day purchase agreement for $101.

“I know there are going to be people say ‘I would have given you this for it,’ but we advertised it and we didn’t hear from anybody,” Means said.

Lisa got to work quickly, developing plans to develop a portion of the old school as a residence for herself and her husband.

It’s the kind of thing she’s done time after time as they moved for her husband’s job. She renovated a historic judge’s home in Texas, a Tudor in Toledo, an old Victorian in another location. Most recently, she completely restored a home in Newnan, Georgia, with a Tudor exterior and a Neoclassical look inside.

She’s worked on the renovation of an apartment complex in the Atlanta area, and a number of other home projects. While spending years working on one of her own homes, she said, “I did several other houses besides mine at the same time.”

Looking at the old school, Lisa sees beyond the debris and the holes knocked in walls, the damaged roof - now largely replaced - and the spot where a part of the roof fell in and went through the floor of the classroom below it since her purchase of the place.

She sees three-deep brick construction, with more than 1 million solid firebricks, a lot of still-solid woodwork - and enormous potential.

From the front door of the school, Lisa plans to work on the wing to the right of the entrance to make a home. She’s mapped out a spot for an office, bedrooms and a dining room: “Think Biltmore. That’s my style.”

One classroom has a large hole in the floor.

“I think that would be a great library, with a spiral staircase coming up through it,” Lisa said, “or maybe a bedroom for the grandkids with a trap door. Wouldn’t they think that’s so cool?”

She plans to have a two-story great room, taking advantage of the roof collapse that took out flooring underneath it.

The school is sort of an E-shaped structure, with two longer hallways and the auditorium forming the middle arm of the E. The auditorium still has most of its seating intact, still bolted to the floors.

There is graffiti throughout the building, and some damage that’s been done even since the Littles bought it. She understands why.

“We’re taking away their party house,” Lisa said, “and they’re mad.”

But the property’s not vacant now. The Littles have posted even more “no trespassing signs” and taken steps to secure the property. Jeff said they added to existing fencing and have put security cameras throughout the property.

“The police have been great about patrolling the area,” Lisa said.

The left wing of the building is the most heavily damaged area. The roof has caved in through much of the hallway, and it’s started to push the outside wall outward.

“We want to get that roof off so it won’t push more of the wall down,” Jeff said.

The plan for that part of the building is to clear away the parts that have collapsed - with a careful eye for woodwork there, and doors and other elements that can be used to replaced damaged counterparts on the opposite side.

Then, with the remaining walls, the Littles want to create a sort of “ruins” courtyard.

The work is underway now. Metal roofing has been installed over a portion of the structure, and work has been done to add support in parts of the interior.

The old hood remains in what was the kitchen area. Lisa said she plans to use it in her kitchen. “I may have to build the kitchen around it,” she said.

To the couple’s delight, the old boiler remains in the basement area. They want to clean it up - getting down to its original finish - and maintain it as a unique sculpture. Many sections of the wall have aged and discolored. Lisa wants to save that patina of age in spots.

In others, walls would need to be scraped and painted, she said. In some areas, holes have been knocked in the plaster and lathe walls, just as chalkboards have been taken down in old classrooms.

There was what looked like termite damage in one area, but it turned out to be water damage, Lisa said. It meant work had to start in the basement area and move upward to provide the proper structural support. A wall showing mold was taken out completely, she said.

“I want it to be done right,” Lisa said. She learned to do that, she said, unintentionally, from spending time with her dad, an engineer and electrician who built hospitals, nursing homes, banks and other structures.

“I didn’t know I was actually learning things,” she said. She continues to count on her dad’s input with projects, including the one in Attalla.

Lisa knows work on the building may take a long time. She hopes to have living quarters ready in maybe eight months, and they will continue to work on the courtyard and the rest of the structure after that. For now the Littles are renting a home. She is anxious to make a place of their own out of the distressed Attalla landmark.

She likes what she’s seen in Attalla since moving here, and she likes the people she has met and their enthusiasm for her what she wants to do with the school.

“This feels like home,” Lisa said.


Information from: The Gadsden Times, https://www.gadsdentimes.com

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