New York State boasts nearly one thousand towns and villages; a significant number to be sure, but there used to be a lot more. Many of the tiny rural hamlets found across our region were at one time not so tiny, and while it may seem hard to believe today, some of these quiet backwaters once challenged even our largest local communities for economic and cultural relevance. So what happened? The maturation of the industrial revolution and the shift away from water power played a significant role, but the primary culprit was the automobile. Virtually overnight, distances that once took long hours of preparation and travel could be covered in mere minutes. Motorized transportation made the world a much smaller place, and with that, the clock began ticking on the many closely spaced autonomous townships that dotted America’s maps. Over time, the winners in this game of municipal Darwinism overtook their smaller neighbors, while other more removed places—with their pretty churches, quaint schools, charming general stores, and five room hotels—simply dried up. Houses and buildings were abandoned, and the ravages of time and less-than-artful repurposing claimed many a wonderful example of Federal and Victorian architecture.
But not all of them. A small number never fell out of use, and some found new life in pursuits that preserved their aesthetic integrity. Today many of these survivors are prominent local landmarks, conveying a sense of permanence and serving as a reminder of a simpler time in our history.
Welcome to the Orleans Schoolhouse, which for 75 years served the children of the once-thriving community of Orleans, Ontario County. Completed in 1883, the building replaced a multi-purpose wooden structure that served as the Town’s school, court, and town hall. If you’ve never heard of Orleans…well, you could be forgiven. Located four miles south of the Village of Clifton Springs, the town dissolved as a municipality before World War II, but in its nineteenth-century heyday it boasted three churches, a large train station, a post office, twelve mills, a boot factory, a blacksmith, a carriage works, a hotel, four general stores, and of course, a school, all serving over 1000 residents. Generations of students attended school there until it closed following the formation of the Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District (aka Midlakes) in the early 1950’s, making the Orleans School among the very last of the “country schools” still operating at that time. After serving as the headquarters of the Ontario County Civil Air Defense for several years, the property was purchased by the Clifton Springs Fire Department as an auxiliary fire station, and a large two bay garage was added to the structure to house two engines. The building served in this capacity for decades, eventually becoming a community center before being offered for private sale in 2005. It was during that summer that the current owners, Dave and Jenny Marion, found the building listed for sale and fell in love with the property.
“We were looking for something different, something special where we could carry off a tasteful conversion,” said Dave. “We looked at an old train station, a hotel, even a couple of churches, but nothing seemed promising until we found the schoolhouse. It had incredible curb appeal, which made it easy to picture it as a home. Plus, the location was perfect; very rural, but just ten minutes to Canandaigua and forty minutes to Downtown Rochester.”
When they took possession, amazing amounts of original detail remained intact but the property had lapsed into a state of disrepair. “The first year we were here we were practically camping. There were roof issues that needed to be addressed, little practical plumbing, and some very serious water damage that had compromised the foundation of the bell tower,” Dave explained. “We had that resolved within the first twelve months, and from there, it was a game of ‘pick-a-project’ for nearly a decade. Ten years on, the building’s become a very nice home.”
In 2009, they converted the school’s impressive attic space it into bedrooms, a project which took three months. During that time, in order to make room for the contracting team, they moved their entire household into the garage. “It wasn’t convenient, but it was actually sort of fun,” Dave recalled. “It was a fire station at one time, so the garage was large enough to bring everything we needed in with us. By the time we were finished, we had it set up like an enormous studio apartment. It was actually pretty comfortable.”
In addition to the building, the 1.1-acre property came complete with some early 20th-century playground equipment and the original bell, which hung in the school’s tower for over a century before being taken down in the 1990s. Over the years, the current owners have also had the opportunity to meet people who’ve shared many memories of the schoolhouse, including two who had actually attended the school as children in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
“If we hadn’t purchased the building and turned it into our home, it’s hard to say what might have happened to it,” said Dave. “By doing the needed repairs and converting it over time, we not only created a really unique living space, we assured the building’s future and preserved a piece of local history. That’s important to both of us.”
So while the Village of Orleans may be lost to history, the school it built will stand watch over the once bustling little hamlet for another century, not as a place to shape young minds, but as one of the area’s most unique and historic homes.
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