By Casey Crowley

For the first time in more than 16 years, Baker City’s historic Churchill School is being used by people other than the owners.

What has changed?

New owners and months worth of repairs.

About seven months have passed since Brian and Corrine Vegter bought Churchill, and the school on Broadway Street between 16th and 17th streets has been used to host a number of community events dating back to early August.

The Baker School District closed Churchill in 2002 and sold the building in 2006 to Jim and Pamela Van Duyn.

The Van Duyns sold the property in May 2018 to the Vegters for $205,000.

Brian Vegter said it will likely take hundreds of thousands of dollars, and at least five years of renovations, to make all areas of the 93-year-old building usable.

Right now the school serves as home for the Vegters, who sold their previous house and art studio.

But eventually it will be much more, the couple hope.

“Our goal with the space is to make it as available to the public for as many different things as possible and to focus on the arts,” Brian Vegter said.

The couple have been preparing one former classroom as a sculpture gallery.

It will be rented by Sarah LeCompte, an artist and the manager of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.

The room is one of several spaces that the Vegters hope to rent to artists.

Their other plans include woodworking and welding studios, as well as a hostel for touring bicyclists.

Both Vegters are themselves artists, and they also oversee the annual Baker City Cycling Classic bicycle stage race.

On Christmas Eve they received an early gift, a $5,000 grant from Cycle Oregon to help create the bike hostel at Churchill. Construction on it will begin as soon as possible.

Funding for the renovation has been a major hurdle for the Vegters.

In addition to using the majority of their savings on the restoration they have been exploring other fundraising tactics, including an Indiegogo campaign that raised more than $6,000.

Although this fell short of their $100,000 goal, the money raised was used to make the building’s heating system partially functional.

“The reason that we went that route is because we don’t have the personal cash on hand to just do it out of pocket,” Brian Vegter said.

When the couple bought the school nearly every window on its south side was broken. They replaced all the broken panes by October.

Churchill has a boiler that can heat the entire structure, but repairing it would cost an estimated $56,000.

So far the Vegters have installed heat pumps, and two furnaces to warm the central hallway and adjacent classrooms, as well as the cafetorium, a wing of the building added after 1960.

Before Dec. 4, the hallway and classrooms weren’t directly heated; before then the temperature in those areas was around 40 degrees the Vegters said.

Though much of the work needed on the building requires the use of contractors, the Vegters have done as much as they can themselves and with the help of volunteers, who have contributed more than 500 hours of labor.

“There are years worth of work that needs to be done and so any place that we can work with volunteers or do the work ourselves, that’s our daily practice,” Brian Vegter said.

For all the electrical, heating, structural, mechanical and plumbing work they were required to hire contractors because the building will be a commercial and residential structure.

Although Brian Vegter said it has been frustrating at times to put aside their own work to concentrate on Churchill, he said he couldn’t be happier to own the building.

Before the couple repaired the roof in August, during storms it rained as hard inside one wing of Churchill as it did outside, Brian Vegter said.

The Vegters spend about 90 percent of most days working on the school.

See more in the Jan. 4, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.