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New owners start restoration of schoolhouse with vision it will be 'crown jewel' of Deer Island

by: MARK MILLER - Jason Dunn (right) and Diane Johnson (left) stand in front of framework in one of the cavernous classrooms of the old Deer Island School. The couple plans to transform about half of the room, which Dunn said is nearly 1,000 square feet in size, into a master bedroom.A couple has ambitious plans to transform the defunct Deer Island School from an abandoned schoolhouse into the pride of the community.

This story might sound familiar. But the owners are new, and so is the vision.

Jason Dunn and Diane Johnson purchased the Deer Island School property from Jay and Deborah Meritt in March. The Meritts, who live in Scappoose, had planned to convert the old schoolhouse into an “elegant” restaurant and bar. But Dunn and Johnson have what is arguably an even wilder idea: renovating the building and making it their new home.

“We’ve been referring to this as our ‘forever home,’” says Johnson, whose background is in nonprofit work and end-of-life care. “We’ve had other homes and properties, and we’ve traveled a lot, and we’ve been looking for something that was going to be our final, fun, big place, and this is it.”

by: MARK MILLER - Jason Dunn stands in what he and partner Diane Johnson plan to make into their master bathroom in the old Deer Island School. Part of the room will be walled off and converted into a coat closet, according to the couple's designs.“We were looking for a place to buy, and we wanted something extremely unique,” her partner Dunn says.

The Deer Island School has been a local landmark for more than a century. It was most recently operated by the St. Helens School District before it was shuttered at the end of the 2007-08 school year. The school board declared the property as surplus about a year later, and last May, they sold it to the Meritts for $150,000.

The building dates back to 1908. According to Columbia County planner Glen Higgins, it is on a county register of historic buildings.

Dunn and Johnson are emphatic that they intend to preserve and restore the structure, which Dunn says “has a feeling of majesty.”

“What our goal is is to, as I refer to it, be the custodian of the building, and live in it, and care for it, and restore it,” says Dunn, who used to own a remodeling and cabinetry business in the Portland area.

Building a home

To create their Deer Island Manor, Dunn and Johnson plan to remodel the schoolhouse, dividing one classroom into three bedrooms, converting the other classroom into a great room, kitchen and dining room, and making hall space into bathrooms, a coat closet and a utility room. Half of the old gymnasium will be used as a gallery for their “eclectic” art collection, while the other half will serve as an exercise room, they say.

The exterior of the building is to remain virtually unchanged, with even the old doors and Deer Island School sign slated to remain in place, although Dunn says about 20 large windows will have to be replaced. The building received a new paint job last year during its ownership by the Meritts, and Dunn says both the schoolhouse and gymnasium roofs are in decent condition.

Including the gymnasium, the schoolhouse is some 6,370 square feet in size, according to Dunn. Even without the gymnasium, which was built as an add-on in the 1930s, it is a generous 4,270 square feet, he adds.

by: MARK MILLER - This built-in cabinet in one of the Deer Island School classrooms will be repaired and restored, according to Jason Dunn, who intends to convert the corner of the room into a guest bedroom. Also in frame is Dunn's partner, Diane Johnson.Dunn and Johnson also have to reckon with many of the common problems in old buildings: rotting wood, an outmoded electrical panel and poor insulation. All of that will be fixed as well, they say.

“It doesn’t intimidate me in the slightest,” Dunn says. “It’s just a process.”

Getting permission

Because of the structure’s historic status and their plans to change its function from schoolhouse into home, Dunn and Johnson — who live near Tigard — were required to seek Columbia County’s approval for their planned renovations.

“I’ve talked to quite a few people about this project over the last month, and so far, I haven’t run into anyone who is opposed to it at all,” Higgins said at a Columbia County Planning Commission hearing to consider the proposal Monday, May 5. “There’s really been no opposition.”

Dunn told the commissioners he plans to see the project through.

“I am up to the task, as far as skill and financial resources, to restore the school,” said Dunn. “We love the building. ... We want it to be the crown jewel of Deer Island.”

The commission weighed in favor of the project, with Commissioner Terry Luttrell calling it a “no-brainer.”

by: MARK MILLER - The Deer Island School, which was shuttered by the St. Helens School District in 2008 and eventually sold off as surplus property. The building is now owned by Jason Dunn and Diane Johnson, a Portland-area couple who plan to restore, renovate and eventually move into the old schoolhouse.“I did go to school there, so I have some memories there,” Luttrell remarked.

Although the county has now given its blessing for the project to proceed, Dunn and Johnson are not yet able to move into their intended new home. Dunn says they plan to apply for an occupancy permit once the renovations are substantially complete — probably in about six months, he predicted.

For now, Dunn and Johnson are working on renovating the schoolhouse, filling it with furniture and fixtures — many of which they have obtained at auction, they say — and encouraging members of the community to come by to visit. They are also open to hosting school reunions and other special events on the property.

“We want to give back to the community,” says Dunn. “That’s a big goal of ours.”

“People are excited that we’re here — and we are, too, of course,” Johnson says. “We’re kind of having to pinch ourselves that this is our home.”

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