Historic Bell Tower Renovated

Posted July 18, 2019

July 18, 2019 – This story originally ran in The Sanders County Ledger.  By Ed Moreth

The Paradise Elementary School Preservation Committee finished one more major project in its renovation plans to get the Paradise Center renovated for a working art facility and community center and at the same time preserve the old school’s historical presence.

Thompson Falls resident Rudy Boukal spent more than two weeks tearing out the old rotted floor, windows and window frames of the center’s bell tower and put in new materials throughout, including six custom made window frames that had to be hauled up from the outside using a zip line pulley like system with the help of Terry Christensen, who utilized his old logging equipment and rock and ice climbing gear to get the job done.

Christensen’s wife, Judi, helped the two men hoist the 50-60-pound window frames from about 75 feet away 50 feet up to where the old windows had been removed. Boukal knew the 65-foot tall frames would not go through the 24X36-inch trap door in the bell tower, unless he did it in parts, which he didn’t want to do. It was Terry who came up with the idea of hauling them up from the outside. 

The bell tower is an important part of the 109-year-old building, according to Karen Thorson, a board member of the Paradise Elementary School Preservation Committee, the nonprofit entity that turned the former school into the Paradise Center, which is used for a community center, visitor center and arts center. It routinely holds art classes and local plays, houses a Glacial Lake Missoula exhibit, and has museum displays of the school and community, including a large train display, which is still a work in progress. The center is comprised of two buildings, the schoolhouse and the former gymnasium. The property is owned by Sanders County, which leases it to the preservation committee for one dollar a year, said Thorson.

The bell tower project was done in part by a $4,500 grant from the Montana Historical Foundation, which has provided the preservation committee with funds for two other projects at the center. The grant paid for about 120 hours of Boukal’s labor, along with the materials; he also put an estimated 200 hours of volunteer time into the project, which he finished two weeks ago.

Though the bell tower is only used to house the old school’s large steel bell, it was important to get the work done, said John Thorson, who wrote the grant. Windows had been busted, the floor was rotted away in several areas, and the weather was taking its toll on the 121-square foot room. “It had been open for some time, maybe a decade, and there were birds living in there,” said Karen Thorson, who added that the bell tower image is the Paradise Center logo and is used on the center’s website and promotional materials. 

“Repair of the bell tower is one of the most significant things that has been done,” said Judy Stamm, president of the Paradise Elementary School Preservation Committee. “The tower houses the school bell that has become an important part of the school’s identity. Not only in the past to call students, but also now as a symbol of the committee’s effort to preserve the structure. Without the bell tower the architecture of the building itself would be diminished,” said Stamm, who added that the committee is fortunate to have Boukal’s skills to do the restoration job.

John Thorson helped Boukal replace the flooring, which they started on in May and had to be done prior to the window work. Only three of the six windows were still in place, but the wooden frames were in terrible shape, said Boukal. The other windows were already broken and gone. The 62-year-old Boukal did most of the replacement carpentry work at his Thompson Falls home. He said there were about 80 parts from one-eighth of an inch piece to the 65-inch tall frame per window. 

“This project is important to me because it will repair a central feature of the school. I think that locals consider the bell tower the signature feature of the building. Also, it was important to restore, as best as possible, the original appearance of what was built over 100 years ago,” said Boukal.  

He said he used new technology for efficiency purposes, such as having fir for the frames instead of white oak, and he designed the windows so they would be easily accessible for maintenance. He said he applied a weather-resistant resin overlay bonded to the wood by heat and pressure. “This process fuses the molecules of the overlay with the fibers of the wood to form a bond as strong as the wood itself,” said Boukal.

Though he modernized the project, it had to look like the original, which was built in 1910. He first looked at old photographs of the building to make his draft design and once he got the preservation committee to approve his plan, he went to work. 

“It was definitely a challenge to preserve the historical integrity of the old school, but it was something I could do, and I love a challenge,” said Boukal, who’s been a woodworker for nearly 40 years and has done several other restoration projects. He’s also volunteered his time on other projects at the center. He created two 20-plus foot long cabinets for a large railroad exhibit in the historic classroom. He and John Thorson constructed a dozen easels for an art classroom and made audience risers for the auditorium, formerly the gymnasium, and Boukal assisted in renovating the restrooms in the auditorium. 

Boukal said he volunteers at the center because it’s simply a characteristic of a small community, particularly one where there is a real need. “Without the contribution of time and effort on behalf of our community, life would be all the more tough and lacking the ability to improve. I believe that through my efforts in helping and in supporting the Paradise Center and the Sanders County Arts Council, I become one more person that will make this dream a reality,” he said.  

“I am keeping alive the heritage of American craftsmanship, quality of skill, and dedicated labor that began and built this country into what it is today, a stark reminder to the industrial element in our society to not forget its roots.”