Transformation of former Merion Village middle school maintains some of the flavor Words: Jim Weiker | Photos: Adam Cairns

There’s no need to tell visitors to the Barrett Apartments that the building was once a school.

They can practically hear students running through these halls.

In converting the 117-year-old building into 51 apartments, developer Casto made a point of preserving its history, right down to the lockers in the 16-foot-wide hallways.

Original wood and concrete floors remain, along with pressed tin on the 13- and 14-foot-high ceilings.

Hallways are decorated with slate chalkboards from the school, which closed in 2006.

Enlarged photos from old school yearbooks adorn common spaces. Even the red radiators can still be found (now decorative).

“We’re really proud of this,” said Casto partner Bill Riat, who grew up near the Merion Village school.

Casto workers weren’t sure what to expect when they started on the project almost two years ago.

But for once, the surprises turned out to be pleasant ones: The high tin ceilings and 20-foot-tall windows had been hidden behind dropped ceilings.

The top floor yielded the biggest surprise. When workers removed the dropped ceilings, they discovered the original ceiling was 26 feet high. Further demolition revealed that the space had been a gymnasium.

“You never know what you’re going to find, but this turned out to be fabulous,” Riat said. “The top floor was just a spectacular space.”

Casto converted the gym into six apartments, all featuring a loft overlooking a living room.

Outside, the building looks nearly the same as it did when it opened in 1900, although the space around the former school has changed dramatically.

In addition to converting the four-story school into apartments, Casto added 52 rental townhomes and 22 for-sale homes on the former school grounds.

The project has transformed the corner of Merion Village sandwiched between German Village and Parsons Avenue.

“This neighborhood has a lot of potential,” said Riat, who attended school at St. Leo on Frebis Avenue nearby. “I’m optimistic about it.”

Casto and the affordable-housing company Homeport bought Barrett from Columbus City Schools in early 2015 for $1.8 million. After buying out Homeport’s share, Casto developed the property, despite neighbors' concerns that the project wouldn't be up to neighborhood standards.

The 22 stand-alone homes, most with three bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths, all sold quickly, fetching between $399,000 and $515,000. Sale prices were higher than the neighborhood average, helped by a 15-year break on property taxes and by amenities such as clean and deep basements not found in the area’s older homes.

Kimberly Hamrick, who grew up in German Village and now lives in Schumacher Place, bought one of the new homes for herself and her son, lured by the tax break and the prospect of urban living.

"I sincerely enjoy living in the city," Hamrick said. "The atmosphere of the (German) Village area, strolling the brick streets to the Book Loft, getting pancakes at the German Village Coffee Shop, or ice cream from Jeni's near the park. ... There is no other place in the Columbus area quite like it."

Hamrick attributes the area's vibrancy to the expansion of Nationwide Children's Hospital. She paid $420,000 for her home, which she knows might shock longtime residents.

"They are always amazed to hear that homes now sell every day in the Merion Village area for $300,000, $400,000 or more," said Hamrick, who is a real-estate agent with HER Realtors. "I believe the Barrett School project only enhances the values and supports the rising home equities that the area is seeing."

The Barrett apartments have rented quickly, with 86 percent of those in the former school spoken for and 65 percent of the new ones rented, according to Casto.

Rents range from $899 for a 516-square-foot garden-level apartment to $2,899 for a 1,648-square-foot two-bedroom loft apartment.

Riat believes this is the first former Columbus school converted into apartments. Anne Dorrian-Lenzotti, director of the school district’s real-estate department, said she could only confirm that it’s the first since 2000.

However, it’s not likely to be the last.

Several Columbus schools are about to be auctioned, including a few, such as Neil Avenue Middle School and Indianola Middle School, that are expected to attract interest from developers.

Riat said Casto is looking at others.

“I wish Columbus had more old buildings like these,” he said.

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