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Couple transforms school into bed-and-breakfast

MAIDEN ROCK--Those who enter the former Maiden Rock Schoolhouse these days shouldn't expect to attend classes, but to enjoy recess.

That's because the well-known community fixture has been changed from a place for getting an education to a getaway for relaxation and recreation. Owners Gary and Jennifer Peterson opened the Maiden Rock Inn, a bed-and-breakfast there, last month.

Their renovation of the structure, ongoing for the last 14 years, is still a work in progress, they agree. But just how far they've come in turning a public learning facility into a homelike refuge over that time is impressive.

"We wanted a space where we could work together," Gary Peterson said Thursday, reflecting on their arrival in the village after living in the Twin Cities.

Since then, they've made the 1906 original building and its 1939 gym addition their residence, while also hosting events for area residents. They reminded about the monthly square dances held three-quarters of the year at the site in recent years, discontinued as preparations for its latest purpose intensified.

Peterson is a stair builder and has tackled the extensive construction, assisted by laborers he hires. His wife is an artist and painter, furthering her creativity in a studio right off the one-time school's main entrance (it had been the lunchroom), though she'll eventually be displaced when they transform that room into a retail outlet and deli.

"He's amazing the way he can take one of my small drawings and make it a reality," she said of her spouse's building skills.

A tour of the B&B last week showed a reception area at the top of the entrance stairs decorated in keeping with the historic nature of the surroundings. Straight beyond is a kitchen the pair installed and, to the south, school classrooms converted into a restaurant, with seating for 15. Most everywhere, tall windows let in massive amounts of light to brighten the artistic detail work done on walls and around fixtures.

Downstairs, quarters once rendered nearly unusable by moisture infiltrating from the outdoors have become rooms for recreational pursuits, watching TV and exercising. One section has been designated for a future wine cellar (they plan to import wine from France); the business is not only licensed for a small restaurant, but for beer and wine serving as well (a bar is on the lower level).

Upstairs (and interior appointments like heirloom clocks between floors provide a visual feast along the way), two ex-classrooms accounting for 800 square feet of space have been remodeled into two guest rooms, designed for two occupants apiece. Each has its own theme, one a sunny environment and the other more of a studious retreat. They're complete with individual thermostats and private bathrooms, the centerpiece of the latter's being a freestanding clawfoot tub.

The Petersons plan more amenities in an unfinished part of the upstairs, including a spa, reading room and a hot tub on the roof, reached via a spiral staircase. Their present overnight guest accommodations could also eventually be expanded due to the availability of the section on the lower level where they previously lived.

"Ed Sjostrom and his wife Merle got to sleep here," Peterson told about their first guests since the B&B opened, especially notable because Sjostrom had attended the schoolhouse as a youth and later was employed there as a custodian.

In their food service, envisioned as more than the breakfast accompanying room rental, the owners are emphasizing organic, natural and locally grown foods whenever possible. Mrs. Peterson said the morning meal might consist of traditional favorites (she mentioned scones, rolls or fruit), yet could feature fresh vegetables as well.

"I like to be spontaneous," she said of her cooking and baking. "I go for whatever's in season."

Her mate understood the last graduating class from what had been the local K-12 school graduated in 1957. Thereafter, it was used by the Ellsworth district as an elementary school, until 1980. The district gave the property to the village, which leased it to Maiden Rock's arts community for $1 a year.

"Several artists used it for studio space," he said, adding the basement was also formerly leased to the county for a well-baby clinic and a second floor area to a computer enterprise, briefly.

Maintenance problems and expense ultimately caught up with the village and it was decided to sell, he said. For example, the main roof had let go around the chimney, there was leakage and the floors were deteriorating. The Petersons found the property advertised in a newspaper after looking at opportunities closer to the Cities.

"It was a beautiful building," he said, notwithstanding the fact they've had to drain the grounds, excavate them, repair the foundation, install drain tile, revamp wiring, plumbing and ventilation systems, replace floors, put in new ceilings (including some decorative tin ones obtained from the former Pepin school), upgrade all the windows, cover stairs, fix the aforementioned roof troubles and more.

Despite a total interior space he estimated at approximately 16,000 square feet, they've added on twice: a workshop addition in 2002 and, lately, a rooftop nest. An outside grotto behind a retaining wall has been introduced, too. They've carefully preserved the character of every aspect.

Peterson is a Cities native and his wife lived in Arizona, Nevada and California before moving to the metropolitan area, he said. They got acquainted when he made wooden plaques for her, displaying Biblical messages. They've been married for 18 years; he has a daughter, Betsy, now in France, another daughter, Phoebe, in Minneapolis, and a son, Grady, in Maple Grove, Minn.

The couple has kept focused on their B&B idea for the last 10 years, he said. He continues to be a stair builder, but looks forward to when this project surpasses his occupation.

"As we gain income here, I'll be able to slack off (on stair building)," he said.