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History in the Remaking

When the Boise, Idaho, school district set out to build Riverside Elementary School four years ago, it thought it might have to demolish or relocate an 112-year-old house on the proposed site for the new school.

Instead, the district got together with the Idaho Historic Preservation Council to restore the building, known as Bown House. In the process, they turned the home of an early Idaho settler into a living history lesson.

School board member Janet Orndorff said that although the house was in good shape, major problems had to be addressed, including rewiring the electrical system and putting in a new heating system. "The house is built of 20-inch-thick sandstone blocks, so that was a real challenge," she said.

Students from a nearby Job Corps program for at-risk youths repaired the roof and replaced a widow's walk and cupola that had been removed in the 1930s.

"As they were working on it, several commented that if they had had an opportunity to learn history in this way before, they might have enjoyed school a lot more," Ms. Orndorff said. "They were quite fascinated with the project."

Woodworking students from an alternative school made banks modeled after Bown House, which district elementary students used to collect $5,000 in pennies, nickels, and dimes for the project. And some students at a local junior high school collected $1,000 in pennies.

"It's been a real neat community effort," Principal Peter Bailey said. "Since it is on our campus, we are proud to be involved."

Although the house will not be formally open to district students until next spring, the Riverside Elementary students have taken a few test tours.

Downstairs, students can relive a day in the 19th century. In the schoolroom, the children write on slates and read from a McGuffey reader. In the kitchen, they can pretend they are the Bowns' grandchildren, churning butter and peeling apples with century-old kitchen tools.

Upstairs, students participate in hands-on geography, history, and economics activities.

The Boise partnership received a National Preservation Honor Award earlier this year from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The Bown House is an example of nontraditional partners joining forces to both meet their objectives and enrich the community in the process," said Richard Moe, the president of the trust.

--Meg Sommerfeld

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