HANSON — It happened when they were on an errand to buy their daughter a dress in January 2018. Christine and James Guindon found something else that caught their eye that day — the former East Washington Street School in Hanson, which had stood empty and unused for nearly 20 years.
For a couple searching for a location in which to expand an early childhood education business, it was just about what they were looking for, and about a year later workmen began renovation.
Buzz around town began soon thereafter.
“I think it’s been a source of curiosity for a lot of people,” Christine said of the reaction to the activity surrounding the building since the Guindons bought the former elementary school at 195 East Washington St.
“Everybody drives by,” James agreed.
Christine is the owner/director of The Learning Well Early Child Education Center at 91 Copeland St., in West Bridgewater and James is a roofer who also does slate and copper work. They had transformed a former church — in a renovated farm building — into The Learning Well and were looking to expand because waiting lists for the school were becoming longer.
The Hanson location already has a waiting list for infants. Christine Guindon said the aim is to have the main floor ready for inspection and, ultimately, opening in November while James continues finish work on the basement level.
“I just really want the town to be proud of it,” she said. “I want it to be a really neat part of the community, and I want people in the community and the surrounding towns to come and enjoy the programs and to utilize it because it’s so unique.”
She opened the West Bridgewater facility in 2016 after she had run a day care out of her home for 10 years, while her children were small and finding available day care had proven difficult for her.
“It’s an important part of a family nowadays, they’re looking for a place where their children will be safe,”
The Learning Well offers a year-round program serving 60 children in 45 families. On a visit to the West Bridgewater School on Friday, Aug. 2, preschoolers were learning about Oktoberfest and other cultural traditions during a unit on Germany as hand-painted German Flags were strung along one end of the class. Younger students in another class were finishing a unit on France before moving on to Italy.
The Guindons had never been to Hanson before that fateful shopping trip, James said, but both had the same reaction to seeing the building — it was perfect for their plans.
“It had been sitting and all the paint from the ceiling was on the floor,” Christine noted. “You really had to see past the bad condition it was in.”
Their two sons have been working on the renovation and her three daughters are teachers at the West Bridgewater location.
“We have a vision for here,” Christine said, noting she would be able to offer two classrooms for each age group she serves in Hanson, compared with the one for each possible in West Bridgewater.
The Hanson neighbors were happy to hear of their plans, Christine said, and they turned out to support the project at public hearings before zoning officials.
A handicapped ramp will be added on one side of the building, and special-order windows to replace the original windows will be installed — but they had to be reordered when the wrong size was initially delivered.
“We have viewing windows [in the hallways], because I am a firm believer that parents, families and people who are touring can see our programs,” Christine said.
The main floor will be divided by age groups with infants to age 2.9 in four different classrooms and preschoolers in a larger class in the basement, along with a gross motor skills/indoor play area and large bathrooms. Classrooms on the main floor also have bathrooms.
“If you’re not in the field you don’t really understand what goes into making a program that fits all ages,” she said. “I surround myself with great people who know what they are talking about, who have taught me so many things.”
Christine said the financial investment has been “much more than anticipated,” mainly due to abatement, removal of oil tanks in the basement, and installation of drainage and a new five-foot thick cement floor in the basement as well as the handicapped ramp and a wheelchair lift.
“I think it was something meant for us,” James said. “I think history in towns is getting lost. You can go through every single town and see buildings being taken down.”
While this school is not historic, he noted the architectural details such as the huge windows are not common these days.
“When we started this program, the biggest thing to me was trying to keep local people involved in it,” James said. “I thought it was important that the towns around it actually did the work.”
Jeff Shaw, “an excellent site man who didn’t kill me on costs” is a local businessman.
“I hope that the community or the town will want to maybe use this space,” she said, noting the basement room would be good for dance or karate classes — or even birthday parties for children who attend the day care.
James took five months to plan the project and gave priority to Hanson companies for subcontracting work on the school.
“The biggest challenge is the one in front of you,” he said, noting that the project’s standing costs for construction are on-target, but other “soft” cost, such as replacing bricks at the back of the school, were unexpected.
He has done a lot of restoration work, including the roof of the Tremont Street Church in Boston — which had been sold and converted to condos — as well as the Mt. Auburn Street Church in Arlington.
Several people they know, from business contacts to family members had passed the school building in the past, but he and Christine had never been to Hanson.
He also noted that a neighbor on one side of the school used to play football with him at Plymouth State — and they hadn’t seen each other since high school. Another man, now living in Washington, D.C., came to visit the building because he had gone to school there and was revisiting his former hometown.