This Former Baker City School Is Now An Arts Hub, Music Venue, And Bike Hostel – This Is Oregon
For 10 years, artist John Simkins and his poodle were the sole occupants of a ghost town on the edge of the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon. They lived in the old Andrews schoolwhere Simpkins painted oversized abstract works on canvas, inspired by nature and folklore.
When the school owner planned to renovate the space last year, Simpkins had to move.
He found another school, five hours away, which he called home.
Simpkins is now a true “artist-in-residence” at the Churchill School, a six-room former schoolhouse in Baker City that has been converted into an arts center. Owners Brian and Corrine Vegter have transformed Churchill into a concert hall, art studio, craft shop, bike hostel, recording studio, book publisher, haunted house…and apartment from Simpkins.
“It’s a great workspace,” Simpkins said from his studio and living room, located in what was once the faculty lounge.
Simpkins’ small bedroom is the former principal’s office. A pair of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms have been converted into a bath and shower.
After a decade of loneliness, Simpkins finds himself living in a school bustling with activity.
“It’s wonderful because there’s all these activities going on all the time,” he said. “I think this place is really remarkable, and I’m really proud of Brian and Corrine for what they did and the risks they took to do it.”
About 16 years ago, the Vegters moved from New York to eastern Oregon, looking for a change of pace and a place where they could live as full-time entertainers. Corrine mainly works in metal sculpturewhile Brian paints.
In Baker City, Brian co-founded an art gallery which he ran for 10 years. Both cycling enthusiasts, the couple ran the Baker City Cycling Classic for a decade. Then, in 2018, they took a leap of faith and bought a red-brick building built in 1925 that served as a primary school until 2002.
The school was sold at public auction in 2006 but was never developed. The Vegters, noticing that the owners of the school had begun selling their other properties in town, approached them to share their vision for the space.
The owners liked the concept and sold the school to the Vegters for $194,000, according to county records.
“So we sold our house, liquidated our savings, and here we are,” Brian said. “We went into it knowing it wouldn’t be an overnight success. At the same time, here we are four years later, and we can shop most of the time. All spaces that are lettable have been rented.
When the Vegters bought the school, its roof was leaking and the windows were covered with plywood. It was months before they even had running water.
But they saw the potential.
“We liked the large classrooms with the massive, expansive windows,” Corrine said. “Even though they were boarded up, we knew that once the boards were removed and the windows fixed, they would bring in some truly amazing light. The initial idea was always to make each classroom a kind of studio workspace.
The couple did much of the renovations themselves. Corrine has claimed one of the rooms as her welding shop. Across the hall is a woodworking area with various saws and tools. A science classroom became the Vegters’ apartment. The schoolyard has become a sculpture garden. Every October, part of the basement becomes the “haunted studios”.
The cafeteria and gymnasium now serve as a concert hall with a capacity of 250 people. Seattle-based indie rock band Telekinesis opened their US tour at Churchill in 2019. That same year (before the pandemic halted gigs) they hosted the Welsh singer Jon Langford and guitarist and composer Calvin Johnson.
“Booking agents would be like, ‘Wait, what? You had Jon Langford in the middle of nowhere? said Brian. “For a place in rural Oregon, we’re a big space and conveniently located between Seattle and Salt Lake City, or Portland and Boise. We haven’t lost sight of that we’ve developed this thing where these fantastic musicians recognize, ‘Oh, that’s a worthwhile stop.’
Local artists can rent a shared space in the Home Room studio. At the end of the corridor, the artists Sarah The Count and tom novak run the Room 31 Gallerywhere they show their artwork and hold group meditations every Monday evening.
Another classroom has been converted into a hostel for cyclists and skiers. Hostel guests have access to showers in the old gym and sleep on bunk beds. Fares are $30 for cyclists. Guests with a car can book the room through Airbnb for $35 plus fees.
The Vegters have also converted a classroom into a one-bedroom apartment available to rent on Airbnb for $130 a night. The space is often full.
“Once in a while someone would say, ‘You should just build another Airbnb,’ and if all we wanted was money, yes, every room here could be an Airbnb,” said Brian. “But that’s not what we want to do with space.”
Their vision is to create an arts incubator in eastern Oregon that attracts emerging artists and traveling musicians.
Christopher Hobson, who runs the Churchill Publishing Library in the school’s basement, is delighted to see the talent attracted to the Churchill School and how it is changing the local art scene. He grew up in Baker City and attended Churchill when it was a school.
“I think we kind of graduated to arts and crafts, kind of a folk art vibe that eastern Oregon had had for a long time,” Hobson said. “We’re coming to a bolder approach to sharing art.”
Churchill Publishing Library is in the business of “storytelling,” Hobson said, whether that’s helping clients edit, publish and market books or create podcasts or videos.
“My Churchill and Brian’s Churchill have really done a lot to guide people into this art scene by sharing these stories, by making artists available to talk,” he said. “A lot of people, when you show them an abstract painting, you hear people say, ‘Well, I don’t get it. “”
At Churchill, they can meet the artists and ask questions about the work.
“They can step away from that and appreciate this kind of art a little more,” Hobson said.
These public interactions were part of the appeal for oil painter Amy Vangaasbeck, who rents a studio in Churchill.
“I love that people can see the progress of the painting,” she said. “Before, I had a showcase gallery and I would sit at the window and do my art there, and it drew people in and connected art viewers to myself and my art. “
Wasting no space inside the school, the Vegters transformed its wide hallways into the Hall Pass Gallery. Throughout December and January, a collection of oversized oil paintings by Simpkins is on display here, depicting his work during his decade of solitude at Andrews School.
Simpkins is grateful for his time in Churchill, but thinks he might soon leave the hustle and bustle of school for something in the wilderness.
“I’m getting old,” the 71-year-old artist said. “I really want to focus on what makes my mind joyful and really creative, and I’ve walked and listened enough to know that it has something to do with that calmness and closeness to nature.”
Meanwhile, the Churchill School is just getting started. The concerts are coming back and more and more artists are hearing about the space.
“Symbolically, I view the Churchill School as a beacon,” Simpkins said. “The light it throws, … it draws creative minds to this place.”
IF YOU ARE GOING TO: Churchill School is located at 3451 Broadway St. in Baker City. For more information on upcoming concerts, events, or one-night reservations, visit churchillbaker.com.