BELLE FOURCHE | James Pietila didn’t envision becoming the go-to guy for revitalizing old school buildings in Belle Fourche.
But he and his wife, Provatia, have already purchased the former Lincoln school, transforming the old schoolhouse into their personal home.
And last November, they closed on the purchase of the former Roosevelt School building, which means the title of old school restoration specialist may be his whether he wants it or not.
“We never intended to be building restorers here in town. That was never our plan,” said Pietila, standing in the doorway of what was originally Belle Fourche High School, located at 1010 State St.
“But once we got the one school, and we can maintain these buildings in good shape because they are such icons in the community, why not?” he said.
Pietila bought the 44,000-square-foot, three-story Roosevelt school building, making an offer with an attorney representing the former owners through a divorce, and after the city had unsuccessfully offered the building at auction, he said.
Under its former ownership, the BFHS/Roosevelt property had been used as a personal home and a lodging and campground facility, with RV hookups outside and a beer garden built up on one side of the brick building.
Pietila has other plans for the building and figured to just hunker down through the winter and start the extensive clean-up process.
But after hosting some preliminary events, among them roller skating parties and indoor markets held in the old gymnasium, what he is calling the Historic Roosevelt Events Center is already off to a good start.
“Everyone has been so excited to be in the building again,” Pietila said.
“Living here, there’s not a lot to do around town in the winter, especially for kids. If we can make a space for family-friendly events, that’s what we want to do,” he said.
At present, only the old gym, and the school’s band room are being used for events. The Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce is planning to move into the former school office in April.
Pietila envisions keeping the first floor of the building for community events, with the second floor classrooms being transformed into office and studio space. The third floor has potential to become luxury loft apartments, he said.
Also in the works are plans to restore a 400-seat fine arts theater, with seating, stage, curtains and lighting mostly intact.
All that will have to wait until the building receives a complete new roof. Leaks in some parts of the building have destroyed original wood flooring and caused other damage.
“The building itself is in pretty good shape. We’ve got some peeling paint and plaster and the roof is beyond its useful life, but it’ll be getting an entire new roof this summer,” he said.
The main building originally was built in two sections, with the first part completed in 1920 and an addition was completed in the mid- to late 1920s, he said.
The building served as Belle Fourche High School until a new high school was completed in the late 1950s, then it housed classrooms for secondary and junior high grades until being sold in the late 1990s.
Pietila hopes to firm up the building’s heritage as a place of learning this summer, with plans to host visits during an all-school reunion held as part of the Belle Fourche Roundup Days Fourth-of-July celebration.
He hopes former students and teachers will visit the old school during that holiday weekend and record any memories.
He especially wants to learn more about the origin of a painted mural depicting scenes from Belle Fourche history, which still graces a hallway.
But for now, he’ll continue to host monthly indoor markets, with another roller skating party on March 3, events that have well-received so far.
“A lot of folks went to school here and they’re really excited to be able to use the building again," he said.