With its front porch and bell tower, the quaint, red-brick Garfield School looks just as ready to welcome rural Rapho Township children today as it did when it first opened its doors in 1884.
But like many old one-room schoolhouses in Lancaster County, the Garfield School closed its doors to children decades ago and now enjoys a second life as a private residence.
What makes this particular school-turned-home unusual, however, is not its well-preserved exterior or its accompanying outhouse, but its surprisingly well-preserved interior, right down to the full-length blackboard and teacher’s platform.
While some in Lancaster County have converted one-room schools into more modern multiroom homes, owners Kelly Williams and Stephanie Stauffer happily live in a one-room home that is still very much a schoolhouse, both inside and out.
A student of history
Perhaps it started in third grade when young Kelly Williams fell in love with the dark wood and squeaky floors at West High Street Elementary School in Elizabethtown.
“I’ve been very interested in old buildings, architecture and historical structures in the area,” says Williams, who’s retired from a job in research and development at Armstrong World Industries.
That interest was so great that some three decades ago Williams, then single, decided to find a building in the county that he could call home — not a traditional home, but one that used to serve another purpose. He looked at former firehouses and churches, but decided on a one-room schoolhouse because it would be a smaller project, he says.
The Garfield School was vacant but still owned by the same woman who had purchased it in a public sale in 1950. Williams contacted the woman’s sister, who eventually agreed to sell him the building.
“I was pleased to be able to find it,” he says, noting that unlike other schoolhouses that had been divided into rooms, this one was not.
That doesn’t mean it was move-in ready.
The inside required some serious cleaning out and restoration. There was no real kitchen. Outside, the unoccupied property was overgrown.
“Unfortunately it ended up as a place for high school kids to make a fuss,” Williams says.
To know Kelly Williams is to know that transforming the Garfield School into his home was not just a renovation project but, fittingly, a research and education project, too.
“I’m kind of driven to understand how things were before the way they are now,” he says.
As if to emphasize the point, he pulls out a giant 1898 atlas that pinpoints the location of all the one-room schoolhouses in the county. As part of his research, Williams found every one that is still standing — “a fun project,” he recalls.
The Garfield School renovation
Williams’ project essentially was a three-pronged process: restoring the building architecturally, renovating where necessary for function and practicality, and preserving its history.
Among the first steps was removing a staircase and loft-type mezzanine installed by the previous owner and repairing the subsequent damage to the original trim. Williams had a local millworker produce identical pieces of trim. He also repaired trim, molding and wainscoting where the owner had replaced a window with a door that was narrower in width. The door had been installed to access a spring porch addition on the side of the house not visible from the road.
When Williams tore up the linoleum that covered the original soft pine floor, he found black footprints made by the iron feet of school desks.
“I really wanted to retain it, but there was too much irregularity and damage to the floor,” he says.
Instead, he had it sanded down, varnished and stained, but not before doing another bit of research. Guided by the floor markings and some old classroom photos, Williams determined that students at the Garfield School sat in three different desk configurations over the years.
“That was very cool,” he says of the discovery.
Using a different color tape for each configuration, he mapped the location of each desk with an X on the unfinished floor, then photographed the three classroom layouts, carefully preserving them in a binder with other photos he’s received from former students.
In addition to the main classroom space, the Garfield School had two small rooms on either side of its front entrance. Both, Williams says, were used to store coats and lunches.
“These two little rooms were a terrible mess,” he recalls.
Preserving the original cabinets in both rooms, he made some very practical — and essential — adjustments to the restoration project and converted one room to a bathroom and the other to a laundry room with stackable washer and dryer.
Another important project: converting the spring porch into a fully enclosed kitchen/dining addition. Save for that concession to necessity, the remainder of the building is still one fully open space.
But preserving that space meant more than simply the open square footage. Williams wanted to preserve the essence of the Garfield School as well.
“My goal was to keep it clear what this space had been,” he says.
While replacing the desks would have been an impractical use of the 900 square feet of living space, the blackboards were another matter. Williams found two and reinstalled them, so they now take up the building’s entire back wall, just as they did over a century ago. He also installed a chalk tray that exactly matches the original.
The school still had the original teacher’s platform when Williams moved in, but it was uneven. He laid Masonite on top of it and interlocking vinyl plank to match the hardwood floors.
A cursive alphabet now hangs over the blackboard along with a photo of George Washington — “You have to have George Washington,” Williams says with a smile — and two photos of the school’s namesake, President James A. Garfield, who was assassinated three years before the school was built.
A small table on the platform holds a teacher’s bell that once belonged to Anna Engle, a teacher in the Rapho Township School District and daughter of Henry Engle, who donated the land for Garfield School.
“He really is taking the preservation to the level that it should be,” says Mary Virginia “Ginger” Shelley, author of “Lancaster County’s One-Room Schools and the History of the Common School Movement.”
Shelley started researching one-room schoolhouses while working for the county historical society and published her book in 2016.
“I’ve been to several schoolhouse conferences in different parts of the country, and we have gone to many schoolhouses,” Shelley says. “I’ve never been into another schoolhouse that the inside is so authentic when it’s used as a private residence.”
One-room life in a Lancaster County schoolhouse
Williams completed the project in 2000, but made one important addition in 2004: a wife.
Growing up in Elizabethtown, Stauffer attended family picnics at the Limestone Schoolhouse in Salisbury Township, owned by her grandfather, Elmer Zimmerman. She also was previously employed by the state department of education, so living in a one-room schoolhouse holds special significance.
“It is very cool to be in this building that was part of the beginning of public education in this state,” Stauffer says.
Together, Williams and Stauffer have created a warm, cozy home that gives new meaning to the idea of an open floor plan. Imagine, perhaps, putting a studio apartment inside a school. Moveable screens and strategically placed bookcases and furniture help delineate seating areas, the bedroom and office space.
Swing-arm curtain rods allow them to fully expose the original 8-foot-high windows, flooding the home with daylight.
“It’s another feature that I really enjoy so I wanted to be able to enjoy it as much as I could,” Williams says of the windows.
Without separate rooms, wall space is at a premium, and much of it pays homage to the former schoolhouse. A quilt depicting the Garfield School hangs over the bed. Former students Vera Nissley and Anna Mae Newcomer made it in 1984, on the occasion of the school’s 100th anniversary, Williams says.
But there is room for other interests as well. Neatly organized bookshelves hold everything from old Sears & Roebuck catalogs to hymnals and an encyclopedia of musical instruments. Williams and Stauffer share not only an appreciation for their home’s history but also of music. They have a collection of zithers — Williams is a student of the broad category of stringed instruments — and both sing with the Wheatland Chorale. One more reason to love their high-ceilinged one-room space.
“I just enjoy large indoor spaces, places that have been built for people,” Williams says, noting their great acoustics. “There’s actually a little bit of an echo in here, which I really like.”
Nevertheless, the couple occasionally wonder what it would be like to be a little less open.
“I can’t bring myself to install anything permanent, but we’re sort of looking in the direction of dividing the space into rooms with bookcases and armoires and cabinets,” Williams says.
Some things, however, are too important to change.
When Williams finished his renovations in 2000, he held an open house for those who had attended Garfield School. Six former teachers and dozens of former students attended. Each one of them wrote their name in chalk on the blackboard under the heading “Honor Roll.”
Twenty years later, their chalk-written names remain untouched, another reminder of how the Garfield School’s past is very much alive — and lovingly celebrated — in its present.