Saved By The Bell

An old brick schoolhouse languishing among the cornfields of Franklin once housed farm animals, had rain falling on the inside, and desperately needed some TLC. A Hoosier family by way of New York understood the assignment.
Photography by Angela Jackson

WHEN Stacie Grissom was a young student attending Franklin’s Hopewell Elementary, she liked to pretend that her school was her actual house. She’d plan out the best places to put in a kitchen and a living room in this grand and sprawling home that she imagined would feel like a castle. But, alas, “we don’t have castles in America,” says Stacie, now 35. “We have schools and firehouses and bank buildings.”

Decades later, Stacie and her husband, Sean Wilson, are living out their own version of this childhood dream. In 2021, while living in New York City during the height of the pandemic, they bought a historic schoolhouse 6 miles south of Hopewell Elementary, a 110-year-old brick beauty that they are converting into their family home. Built in 1914, Union Joint Graded School #9 was Johnson County’s first consolidated school, serving 100 students in four classrooms. When it closed in the mid-1930s, the walkout basement was used as someone’s barn. “Cows, pigs, sheep, chickens,” Stacie says. “Turkeys were up in the living room.”

Photography by Angela Jackson

Livestock aside, the numbers alone would have dissuaded most buyers: 9,000 square feet … 67 windows … 26 interior doors … 13-foot ceilings… 3 acres of land. And though the building was once again inhabited by humans post-barn, the historic structure needed just about every imaginable upgrade: a new roof, replacement windows, and an entire septic system, for starters. The couple had to rewire. They had to evict the bats. It was a job for someone with “more guts than sense,” the daughter of the previous owners once joked.

Coincidentally, Stacie has often followed her gut. Her gut took her to New York City in her 20s. Her gut brought her back to Indiana in her 30s. And now, Stacie and Sean stand inside their gutted house on a cold winter morning. The renovation was supposed to have been done by Thanksgiving of 2023, but there are still no interior walls, ceilings, heat, or bathrooms. A bird flits between the soaring rafters. But in her bright red down coat, clipped hair, and stylish tortoiseshell glasses, Stacie looks more invigorated than tired—even though she doesn’t sleep as much as she once did.

“More guts than sense,” she repeats. “We’re definitely overly optimistic people.”

Photography by Angela Jackson

Their love story has the makings of a fairy tale. They met in grade school. Stacie was a year older and outgoing. Sean, a year younger and shy. By high school, they were dating, a relationship that endured through college, though Stacie was an English major at DePauw and Sean studied history at Princeton. Like many ambitious people from small towns, Stacie dreamed of living a larger life. In high school, she told people she wanted to go to New York, even though she admits, “I didn’t even know what that meant.”

So New York is where they went. Sean attended Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medicine and then did his orthopedic surgery residency at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Stacie was the third employee at BarkBox, a startup subscription service for dog products. “It was totally random,” she says. “A friend from Franklin sent me this tweet. ‘Looking for a job in content? Must love dogs.’” The office was a windowless room in Chinatown. She stayed with the company for 11 years. By 2020, when delivery services were booming during Covid, BarkBox boasted revenues of $378 million. The following year, it went public.

But the pandemic took its toll. Sean was working in the Bronx, the city’s epicenter for Covid. “During the pandemic, everything changed,” says Sean. “You’re paying a crazy amount of money to live in a tiny apartment.” And then, their son, Arlo, was born in 2021. “We were ready to leave. We had no family there. We had friends, but none of them had kids. We didn’t have a safety net.”

Photography by Angela Jackson

While they had always planned to eventually return to the Midwest, the move now felt urgent. “You start to realize the thing that really matters is being around the people you love,” Stacie recalls. “I woke up one day, and I was like, I want to move to Franklin, and I really hope Sean agrees because it’s not really negotiable.”

“I was fine with it,” Sean says. “I just had to find a job.”

Sean searched for work, eventually joining Southern Indiana Orthopedics in Columbus. Stacie searched for a house, something quirky and historic, a natural impulse passed down by her family, who believe in saving old things of high quality. Her grandparents had a furniture-stripping business and owned an antique shop. Her father, Milt Grissom, owns a commercial real estate company and does woodworking, as does her brother, Alex, who also lives in Franklin. “It is not a painted-furniture family,” Stacie says. But houses on the National Register in Franklin seldom come up for sale. Just when Stacie was poised to launch a letter-writing campaign, their real estate broker, an old friend, sent an email with an odd subject header: “Don’t judge me.”

Photography by Angela Jackson

Stacie clicked and saw a photograph of the brick schoolhouse, which she remembered from childhood. “I started sweating, texting Sean furiously, calling my mom.” Her parents and sister, who all live in Franklin, toured the school, shooting a Facetime video. With their characteristic optimism, Stacie and Sean looked past the plants growing out of the basement walls and the crickets and spiders and grasped the building’s potential, its good bones. The school needed love and work. They were willing to give both. Stacie sold her BarkBox shares, and the day she got the money, they bought the schoolhouse for $175,000 without ever stepping through the door.

Her father was all-in and initially served as general contractor. “He was scratching out numbers,” Sean recalls. Though not all of his math was correct—the windows, for example, ended up being four times what he originally figured—she still considers him “truly the brains of this operation.” He has saved the couple a lot of money and stress, Sean says. That’s not all. “He obviously has an emotional investment in this, as well.”

It’s been challenging, Milt Grissom concedes, to maintain the building’s historic integrity and deal with supply chain delays due to Covid, but he’s confident the end result will be stunning—and big enough for family reunions. For years, the family used to pass the old school when they vacationed near Sweetwater and Cordry lakes. He always thought it was a cool building—always such a surprise, this mammoth brick structure in the middle of cornfields—though he never imagined his daughter would own it. Still, he wasn’t surprised Stacie took the plunge. “She doesn’t have a lot of fear,” he says.

And so, the young family’s three-year odyssey began.

Photography by Angela Jackson

Step one was cleanout. They demoed non-original walls and dropped ceilings, and they removed anything with water damage. Next came a new roof, as rain had been falling inside the school. They waterproofed the foundation and put in a French drain. They put up 67 new windows and seven doors, a painful but necessary expense. A mason repointed the exterior bricks. New septic and plumbing followed, and then more than a mile of new electrical wiring was installed. Oh, and they had another baby (Margot, now a year and a half) in the middle of all this.

The next steps now are insulation, drywall, HVAC, floors, and the kitchen. They hope to move in this spring. “It’s a project of a lifetime,” Stacie says. “It will never be done. Never done-done.”

The original school had four classrooms, two “pail rooms” (where kids stored their bags and lunches), and no bathrooms. In the new design, one classroom will be the kitchen; a second, the living room; the third, the primary suite; and the fourth divided into three bedrooms. The bottom floor will remain a basement with space for storage, crafts, and exercise. Also in the works are a three-car garage for two cars and a golf cart, topped with a walkout deck.

Photo courtesy Johnson County Museum of History

Every day at the schoolhouse, old meets new. One minute, Stacie is digging through the archives of the Johnson County Museum of History to find vintage black-and-white class photos, which she plans to reproduce for wall art. They depict sober boys in overalls and girls with hair ribbons and gingham dresses. The next minute, she’s posting peppy videos on social media. “One day, you’re young, hip, and carefree,” Stacie narrates in a video on her YouTube channel, which has 75,000 subscribers, “and the next you’re so excited about spray-foam insulation getting installed that you can’t sleep.”

Her social media posts bring in a modest income, as well as helpful tips and some words of encouragement. “Awesome job,” writes one fan. “Can’t wait to see the finished product!!! I’m a fellow Hoosier and I am excited to potentially drive by there one day.”

Disagreements have been rare, the couple say, though each has their passions.

Sean, the family chef, cares about the kitchen, appliances, and music. Stacie created tile mosaics for the entryways and refinished 21 interior doors, replacing lost glass and attaching salvaged blackboards, a labor of love that took all summer. She has also created a crest featuring their family mascot, the turkey; three persimmons, beloved fruit of her father’s hometown of Mitchell, Indiana; a glorious tree in honor of the ancient silver maple that students from Union Joint planted in the schoolhouse’s backyard on Arbor Day; and a special line from the Wendell Berry poem read at their wedding, “Quiet in heart, and in eye, clear.” As for interior decor, Stacie envisions simple lines and bright primary colors. This is, after all, a school.

Photography by Angela Jackson

During construction, they’ve found some unusual things. A kitten skull in the wall. A 72-inch snakeskin. “There was every animal known to man in there,” Milt Grissom jokes, “except tigers, lions, and wolves.” Though the couple both did 4-H as kids—Sean grew up with hogs, Stacie with sheep—neither envisions livestock in their future.

“I definitely want chickens,” Sean says, “and she’s coming around to it.”

“I’m daunted by all we have to do right now, so I’m not daydreaming about more living things to take care of,” Stacie says. “It’s enough to keep a toddler and one-year-old alive and not killing each other.”

Photography by Angela Jackson

Looking through the plastic-coated windows across the road to the long horizon line and the enormous gray sky, one can sense a hush stretching out over the tilled cornfields. It’s quite a change from Harlem, where the little family’s entire apartment was smaller than a single classroom. “When you’re a kid growing up in Indiana, you’re like, ‘Yecch, it’s so flat.’ And then you realize people don’t have sunsets every night in different parts of the country,” Stacie muses. “You don’t get the horizon. This is beautiful.” She pauses, summing up everything she sees. “It’s good to be back.”

Outside in the cold, the yard is huge, open, and flat. Perfect for a pool. Or a tennis court. Or both. The kids would love it! But even an optimist like Stacie has her limits. “They get a dirt field to go play soccer.”