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The swing set and monkey bars sit idly gathering rust at the edge of a playground where weeds are slowly gaining the upper hand. But the words "Waugh School" still proudly remain on the front of Larry Reed and Cinda Gilliland's home, a reminder that this is a place where generations of country kids learned reading, writing and arithmetic amid the pastures of rural east Petaluma.

When the couple bought the aging schoolhouse for about $520,000 in 2007 from the Waugh School District, one might have assumed they were really after the six acres of land that went with it. Certainly the gently sloping property at the corner of Old Adobe and Corona roads was enticing to a pair of landscape architects. But it was the prospect of preserving the country schoolhouse and actually using it that prompted them to place a last-minute bid when the property went on the market four years ago.

What they didn't anticipate was how severely the economy would collapse, tightening lending and forcing them to put on the back burner plans to build a granny unit to live in until they could eventually build a new home on the property. The old schoolhouse, which was supposed to become their artist's studio and office space, instead became their home.

Little has changed since the shouts of children were last heard within the walls some six years ago. Reed and Gilliland have set up a bedroom behind a red curtain on the school stage. They cook and shower in a trailer parked just outside a basement room that had, among other things, served as a third classroom and a library. An office has been converted into a tiny bedroom for their grown daughter, and their son slept wedged in an old-fashioned cloak closet before he moved out to start college.

But the couple isn't complaining.

"It's a beautiful open space. We're just high enough in the Sonoma foothills where you can get a view back down to the city. We're actually at the top of the watershed of two creeks. So we sit up on a little bit of a prow," said Reed, gazing out through the large classroom windows on a sunny Sunday to open fields and a neighbor's pond.

Reed's roots in Petaluma go back to 1852, when his great-great-grandfather, LeGrand Ellsworth, settled here. Coincidentally, that was also the same year that Lorenzo Waugh, a Methodist minister and missionary from Virginia, arrived in Petaluma and built the town's first Methodist Church, hauling the redwood logs with his own team.

"Everything was new and there was not a house in a line between me and town," Waugh wrote in his 1885 autobiography. He was granted 300 acres by General Mariano Vallejo, whose ranch headquarters were down the road. Waugh's ministry focused on youth temperance and education, and in 1863 he donated property to build what was first known as The Bethel School in the Waugh District. The Sonoma County Journal newspaper in 1863 reported that it was the first country schoolhouse in Sonoma County. In 1897, it became a public school and was renamed Waugh School.

That first old schoolhouse, located about where the playground is now, came down and a new school was built in 1925.

By the time Reed and Gilliland set up residence in those old rooms, the school was suffering the ravages of time and had been empty for three years. When the Waugh School District built Meadow School in 1991, the old building was vacated. The Petaluma Charter School then used it from 1997 to 2004, after which it sat empty, succumbing to the elements.

Although it is timeworn, Reed and Gilliland believe the school is worth saving.

"Having been on the design review board in Petaluma, I knew how sensitive historical buildings were. We liked the bones in this building and certainly were intrigued by the history," says Reed, who has a master's degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University. He and Gilliland are both principals with the SWA Group, a landscape architecture firm that has done major design projects all over the world. Larry worked with architect Renzo Piano to create a green roof atop the revamped California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Gilliland also has a degree in art from Stanford University and is part of the design team that won a city-sponsored contest to remake Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square.

The couple have no interest in gutting the interior. Instead, they hope to keep it looking as much like a school as possible. In fact, their first project four years ago was to repair the flagpole and buy fresh new flags to wave. Their second task was to rebuild rotted windows to make the building weather tight.

The property was rezoned to agricultural zoning, which would allow for one home and a granny unit. Gilliland and Reed enlisted Berkeley architect David Trachtenberg to draw up detailed plans that would provide for a kitchen upstairs and other amenities while leaving it looking largely like a school. But banks are reluctant to provide financing, particularly for a home that looks like a school. So for the time being, the couple is moving forward with scaled-back plans to remodel the old school kitchen in the basement and one of the bathrooms upstairs.

"One thing we found is it's a great space to have parties because it feels very accommodating and the space has some drama to it," says Gilliland, who likens it to her experience living in a New York loft, but with unbeatable country views.

Trachtenberg, who has reconfigured many old commercial buildings into residential units, says it's unfortunate that people have narrow definitions of what a house can and should look like.

"They're just full of opportunities and make wonderful projects," he says of many old buildings that have outlived their original use but still have viable foundations, walls and architecture.

"It forces you as both an architect and homeowner to rethink what domestic life is all about. We get stuck in our habitual ways of thinking about things," he adds. "Larry and Cinda are very artistic people and they understand that the architecture is about creating the stage or the frame for life. There's an endless variety in the way people can imagine that space. A schoolhouse just has many wonderful qualities about it that if approached properly are very freeing."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.