In the end, it came down to the Yellow School’s basement.
“It was a disaster,” said Chris Horan. There was extensive water damage, a lot of junk, and a chimney shaft full of pigeons.
But, Horan said, when he and his wife, Denisse, “saw the basement’s nine-foot ceilings and the space, we looked at each other and simultaneously said, ‘This is perfect.’
“When most people would have run, we engaged.”
Horan, a 48-year-old Newburyport developer, and his wife are in the process of turning the century-old former school in the Byfield section of Newbury into a home for their family, which includes son Tristan, 15, and daughter Arianne, 11.
“We always loved larger, older homes,” Horan said. “And we were always looking for a place that had a big basement for our kids.”
The Yellow School on Lunt Street was built in 1901 and served as a schoolhouse until 1998. Over the years, many uses for the building were considered, including a community arts center. When the arts center plans fell through, the town used the building for storage for years. There was even talk of it being demolished.
The town put it on the market in 2011, along with a second school and other municipal properties.
When Horan heard the Yellow School was for sale, he considered buying it as an investment property, probably for development into condos.
“Then when I saw it, I fell in love with it,” he said. And so did his wife, who is director of operations for a Boston law firm, Regan Associates.
They put together a proposal to turn it into their home and made a bid. The one other bidder proposed condos.
“We were probably an unlikely buyer in the sense that not many people would consider this for a single-family home,” Horan said. “It was tricky because whoever bought this would have to put a lot of money into it.”
The couple bought the property for $125,000. Horan declined to put a final price tag on the renovations, but said it will be several hundred thousand dollars.
The work began July 25, and the family hopes to be living in the house by Christmas.
“It’s an ambitious goal, but so far we are on schedule,” Horan said.
The ongoing construction has generated a lot of interest in town, and a lot of support.
“Most everybody thinks it’s awesome,” said Avery Woodworth, a neighbor who has been involved for years in trying to preserve the schoolhouse.
Now, as owner of Brickhouse Construction in Byfield, Woodworth is working on the renovations.
“The bottom line is everybody, at least who is close here, wanted to see it used because it was a derelict property,” he said. “And it’s being used in a positive manner.”
Horan, who is the general contractor for the project and often on site, said “people are always coming by and telling me stories’’ about the school. “There has been good energy and karma. It’s all positive,” he added.
Martha Taylor, Newbury’s town planner, called the project exciting.
It is going to be, from everything Horan says, “a wonderful home,” Taylor said. “And he is being very sensitive to the historic character of the building.”
There is a covenant in place stipulating that the building must remain painted yellow with white trim, and the exterior detail has to be maintained. Horan said there will be added touches, such as shutters on the windows, “to make it less institutional and more like a home.”
The project includes creation of a stone driveway in front of the building that splits to create a center courtyard. “The idea is to make it the centerpiece of Byfield Village,” Horan said.
The three-story building, which has 12-foot ceilings on the first and second floors, will have about 8,500 square feet of finished living space. The Horans are adding a two-car garage that has an upstairs room with another 500 square feet.
Horan said the “grandness and sense of scale” in the building will be maintained.
The house will include five bedrooms, six full bathrooms, and one half-bath. All the maple floors are being restored, as are the school’s 40 windows. Woodwork has also been preserved, and in some cases moved to other places in the building. Some classroom doors will also be reused.
“We’re trying to do a transitional design, preserving the old but also introducing the new; a hybrid of the two,” said Horan.
The architect for the project is John Sava of Newburyport. And the Horans have been extensively involved in the design.
“Being in the business, I always wanted to design my own home. And this gave me a unique opportunity,” said Horan, who has been in real estate and development for 30 years. “So every little detail has been thought through.”
The basement will include a bedroom and bath and have a separate exterior entrance. And, since the Horan children are involved with theater, it will have a stage and theater room, as well as a playroom. Other unusual features include a library (complete with a fireplace) on the first floor, and a second-floor master suite with two bathrooms connected by a dressing room.
Horan said he is “thrilled” with the progression of the project and how it has been embraced by the town.
“One of the gratifying things of doing this project is getting to know the people in the area,” he said. “There’s a sense of community.”Wendy Killeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.