2017 – The Cedar Rapids Gazette – “Schoolhouse rock”

Fairfax’s St. Patrick School being transformed into urban chic apartments


FAIRFAX — Now that Daniel and Sandra Hurt have built several schools in India, they’re converting the former St. Patrick School in Fairfax into apartments to generate an income so they can continue their volunteer work and build more schools.

The mission-minded couple — he’s 59, she’s 58 — are living their dream in the 1915 red brick school on Church Street, solidly built on a concrete foundation a minimum of two-feet thick.

“You can walk around the whole thing and you’ll find that there’s not a single brick cracked,” Daniel said. “This building is just amazing.”

All the supporting I-beams are steel. “To do that a hundred years ago in this building is amazing,” he added. “They really, really did an amazing job on the structure. Underneath the cement downstairs, they put in field tile to leech any moisture away. They did a lot of added things.”

And now he’s using his years in the construction business to do some pretty amazing things inside, carving out two apartments on each of three levels to create School House Lofts.

Three are two-bed, two-bath units with about 1,150 square feet on the back side of the building, including their own. The others are two-bed, one-bath units with about 950 square feet on the street side.

They’ve paved a large parking lot on the west side; are creating a common-use outdoor entertainment area on the other side; and will eventually add garages for the tenants.

On the far edge of the parking lot sits the couple’s travel trailer. That became their stationary home for a while, since their house in Marion sold in just eight days, right before they left to cross Asia — Daniel on a motorcycle, Sandra in a support vehicle. Never thinking their house would sell that quickly, suddenly, they had to put their belongings in storage before embarking on their adventure.

“We had no home to come home to, other than the dilapidated building,” Sandra said.

Luckily, they also bought that travel trailer right before they left, so when they returned, they drove to Chicago to pick it up. That was in May 2015, and it became their home for five months, until their apartment was finished. Sandra laughed as she said moving from a 2,500-square-foot house to a camper actually helped them transition from their family home to apartment living.

They held an open house on St. Patrick’s Day 2016 to let the community see their new place and what they were doing with the rest of the building.

“It was an awesome turnout,” Daniel said. “Over a hundred came out, and people just stayed and talked and talked because they’re so connected with this school.”


Three apartments are finished, and three are in the final stages, hopefully being ready to go by May. Rent most likely range between $1,200 and $1,500 per month, Sandra said.

Each apartment has its own heating, cooling and electrical system, soaring ceilings, exposed beams, tall windows, a gas or electric fireplace, laundry hookups, some rain showerheads and some heated tile bathroom floors.

All have urban chic kitchens with stainless steel appliances, dishwasher, subway tile backsplashes and funky lighting fixtures. At Architectural Artifacts in Chicago, the couple found five pieces of live-edge wood from a sycamore tree trunk, which they’ve turned into highly-polished kitchen island tops. A sixth apartment upstairs features a marble countertop.

“What we’re trying to do is marry styles,” Sandra said. “We’re trying to marry old industrial and not really a modern, but an updated (look) — with a little bit of bling,” she added, pointing to the ornately carved capitals they added at the top of the columns flanking their eight-foot-tall living room windows.

They paid $90,000 for the building in 2014, and Sandra said she’s “afraid” to add up their renovation investment, but noted that between her husband’s skills and lots of volunteer help, they’ve been able to hold down labor costs.

A lot of their fun and quirky design-finds were donated by the owner of Architectural Artifacts. They didn’t realize they were talking to the owner when they were wandering the store and struck up a conversation that included their mission work. He turned out to be the owner, and noting that he needed to downsize some inventory, he asked if they have nonprofit status. They do, so he said he wanted to help, pulled a $100 bill out of his pocket, gave it to them, and told them to return with “two of the biggest U-Hauls” they could get.

Their return trip yielded so many donated treasures, including interlocking shelving systems designed for Andrew Carnegie libraries. Built from sturdy green metal, they have an industrial look tailor-made for the schoolhouse conversion. They soar to the ceiling in Daniel’s office and are used in pantries and closets throughout the units.


From the beginning, the Hurts intended to retain as much of the building’s original character and features as possible, but still filled 22 Dumpster loads from demolition work.

Some updates had already been done, most likely since the building had been used for a day care, Sandra said. They didn’t have to do asbestos abatement, and electricals were up-to-date, so they just had to add some electricals, especially in the lower level units, as well as plumbing and a sprinkler system.

They wanted to keep as many walls as possible, but did have to tear down a few to create the popular open-concept floor plans. They also tore off some layers of drywall, and refinished the wooden floors throughout. They added an office at the back of the building, just off their kitchen. And even though they installed new windows throughout, they retained two of the originals that are now conversation pieces on the former exterior brick wall that’s now an interior brick wall in their office.

That office is just begging for lively conversations and uses. Daniel salvaged pieces and pipes from the building’s old boiler to fashion a very steampunk-looking electric fireplace that fascinates their eight grandchildren. The floor-to-ceiling shelves hold objects they’ve gathered on their travels through India and Asia.

One of the more prominent “finds” is an old stage spotlight Daniel discovered on eBay for $50. The owner said it was taking up too much space in his garage, so Daniel drove to a small town north of Waterloo to fetch the item his wife calls “the Batman light.” A label says it’s from Iowa State Teachers College, which was a former name for the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Lobby doors have been repurposed as closet doors in one of the units, and while the original front doors were replicated exactly by Amana craftsmen, the original hardware could be reattached.

Some other original features have been modified to meet today’s code, as well, like the addition of metal rods and newel post toppers on the stair rails to make them taller and safer. But even those modifications look old.

Sliding barn-style doors with elaborate hardware and tracks not only add style, but are practical for tight spaces where swinging hinged doors would be awkward, like the opening to the Hurts’ laundry and utility room.

And Sandra put Daniel’s artistry to work creating a light over their kitchen island from antique parts she found, including a pulley and a wooden yoke once used with farm animals. She drew it on paper, and he made it.

That’s in keeping with the kind of artistry they’re doing throughout the building — trying to put their own stamp on the loft housing transformations going on in nearby Cedar Rapids.

“I did construction for a living but we never ever took it to the edge and did our own projects,” Daniel said. “I’d always go do projects for other people, and all of the creative stuff that I always wanted to do, we’re doing now.”