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Home-schoolers convert an old school into a home

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Home schooling her four children in her Oxford Township home years ago, Lynn Grabenstein says it wasn't uncommon for random strangers to wander in through her family's front door in the middle of their lessons. They were looking for the principal's office.

"I realized then that I should probably start locking the front door," Lynn says with a laugh.

Unexpected guests — often alumni — are to be expected when you've converted a former school into your home. And that's exactly what Lynn and Ed Grabenstein did more than 20 years ago, deciding to raise and teach their children in an old elementary school on Thomas Road in Oxford Township.

The two-story, 7,300-square-foot school, originally built in 1930 and added on to in the late 1950s by Oxford Public Schools, still has many of the elements it had when it was Thomas Elementary School: the gym, school cafeteria, even urinals in the old boys' restrooms. Original slate chalkboards still stand in the kitchen.

Home schooling — something Lynn did for 21 years — wasn't just an act for the Grabensteins, it was a place.

"It's kind of a hybrid between a two-room schoolhouse and a small elementary school. ... We thought, 'We can remodel this as the home and have the school. It's the best of both worlds,' " says Ed Grabenstein, a local chiropractor.

Renovating it into a four-bedroom home has been a years-long process. Aside from the cement plaque above the front door that reads, "Thomas School," it doesn't stand out like an old school building. Inside, the original two classrooms have been converted into a spacious living room, kitchen and master bedroom suite.

With their children now grown, Ed and Lynn are now selling their home, looking for their next big remodeling project. Looking back, they have nothing but fond memories of the school they've called home.

"It was just the biggest gift to our children," Lynn says. "It was just so much fun for them."

The red brick school on Thomas Road was run by Oxford Public Schools until the early 1980s when the district rented it to Liberty Christian Academy for roughly 10 years, Ed says. From there, it went through different incarnations as a day care and outside tutoring center.

By the time the Grabensteins saw it in the early 1990s, the "For Sale" sign was just sitting on the front lawn. "It sat vacant for a long time," says Realtor Jim Skylis.

"We looked at it and said no," says Ed.

"It was terrible," Lynn says.

But they continued to think about buying it. It took two more visits before the couple, who were already home-schooling their children (Lynn says it was something she always wanted to do and not about a particular school system), decided they could tackle the project as the ultimate fixer-upper in 1993.

"The third time must've been the charm," says Lynn. "We thought, 'It'll be a great experience for the kids.' "

Just inside the front door, a wide staircase leads up to the living room with 12-foot ceilings. The tall ceilings were "one of the big deciding factors for us," Lynn says.

The couple, who have a traditional design aesthetic with a mix of antiques and some more contemporary pieces, tore down two walls that originally divided the schoolhouse's original two classrooms to create the living room, kitchen and a spacious master bedroom suite. Storage closets and bathrooms to the west of the living room were converted into a spacious open concept kitchen and dining room. French doors off the open concept kitchen and dining room provide a lovely view of the back deck and large 3-acre lot.

To the east of the living room is a large master bedroom suite painted a soothing aquamarine blue color.

And while the original portion of the school feels very much like a home, much of the lower level maintains its late 1950s school vibe, from the tile floor and concrete block walls to the drop ceiling.

What was once a row of classrooms has been converted into two 2.5-car garages. On the other side of the hallway is the gym.

Ed and Lynn say they've hosted just about everything in their 2,400 square foot school gym, which still has built-in late 1950s-style lunch tables tucked behind closed doors. They've had anniversary parties, plays, Christmas banquets, graduation parties, even a King Arthur-themed New Year's party. They painted it themselves and retiled the floor.

"We have a hockey family," says Lynn. "We'd go in the gym as a family and play floor hockey. It was so much fun."

Joel Grabenstein, Ed and Lynn's oldest son, says having your own playground and gym is every kid's dream. He says every day was an adventure.

"My brother and I would make the youngest sibling wear the goalie pads to play hockey, or have friends over for lively and often painful games of dodgeball," says Joel, 32, in an email. "We were never bored, that's for sure. Between the endless help needed to fix up the place and the space to do anything we could imagine, we were always occupied."

Ed says it actually wasn't hard to adapt a commercial building into a residential one. "All the plumbing is where the original plumbing was," he says.

There was one noticeable architectural difference: the height of toilets and sinks, originally built for grade-schoolers. "Everything was real short," Lynn says.

Attached to the gym is the old school kitchen, which the Grabensteins completely redid with new cabinets, black-and-white checkered flooring and counters. Lynn says her kids, who she home-schooled until they were in high school, used to run a muffin business out of the school kitchen, whipping up batches of muffins to sell in downtown Oxford.

"I started with my oldest son and it taught him fractions, how to manage money, and how to be personable," says Lynn. "He handed it down to the next one. By the time my daughter had it, she was selling 40 dozen muffins a week in town."

Lynn, who was part of a home-school cooperative with dozens of other home-schoolers and their parents, says the kitchen's roll-down window came in handy when both the gym and kitchen were being used at the same time.

"The balls wouldn't come in here," says Lynn. "They wouldn't have flying missiles."

In the outside hallway, a 2002 mural painted by former home-schoolers is still in place on the wall. One is by a student who now works for Microsoft. One student painted her version of the "Mona Lisa." Another is by the Grabensteins' daughter, Joy, who was 10 at the time, and another by their son, Josh, who was 13.

"When we started home schooling, if we wanted something done, we had to go do it ourselves," Lynn says. "There weren't the resources. But it was good."

When the Grabensteins first moved in, they spent the first year in the 1950s portion of the school, living and teaching in one classroom and sleeping in another. Ed admits there were times they wondered what they'd gotten themselves into. At the end of that first year, the couple asked their kids if they wanted to stay.

"There was no question they wanted to stay," Ed says.

So they persevered. Outside in the large, open backyard, there are a few other vestiges of the past. An old jungle gym and metal slide are still in place. A fence encloses the large lot.

As they prepare to leave behind the school they've called home for more than 20 years, Lynn and Ed say they have so many good memories — and so do their kids. "I truly couldn't have wished for a better childhood," Joel says.

(313) 223-4686

(313) 223-4686

For sale: The old Thomas Elementary School

This 7,300-square-foot former elementary school-turned-home sits on nearly 3 acres and is listed at $729,000. It has four bedrooms, two full baths, four half baths, a gymnasium and two 2.5-car garages. Call Associate Broker Jim Skylis of Century 21 Real Estate 217 at (248) 628-4818 for information.