Clark fork valley press mineral independent – local news, community celebrates paradise center opening

History was in the making with the opening of the Paradise Center, on the hill on the east edge of Paradise, on Saturday, July 21. It was the culimination of the three-day fifth annual Artists in Paradie exhibit in what is now called the auditorium adjacent to the former Paradise Elementary School. The auditorium was formerly the school’s gymnasium, with lots of history there as well.

Artists in Paradise was again sponsored by the hard-working Sanders County Arts Council. Taking part in the exhibit were Ellen Childress, hand-thrown functional stoneware; Tom Collins, hand-carved wood sculpture; Andrea Fernandez, acrylic paintings; Rick Harter, acrylic and watercolor paintings, and pen and ink drawings; Orval Kuester, nature photography; Ed Moreth, photography; Ilene Paulsen, acrylic and watercolor paintings; Cheri Seli, nature photography; Liz Smith, rock and copper creations; Karen Thorson, oil and watercolor paintings, and fused glass; Diane Zimmerman, alcohol ink, acrylics and mixed media; and Special Showing, a kaleidoscope by Summer Arts Camp students.

On the culiminating day, the Paradise Elementary Preservation Committee hosted the opening of the Paradise Center, in the works since the committee assumed administrative responsibility for the buildings and ground in 2016. The school ceased operation in 2013, and there was a mandatory three-year waiting period before school trustees could relinquist responsibility for the property. Committee members gave guided tours of what is now the Paradise Center, 108-year-old brick building housing students until about five years ago. Progress in repurposing the former school, including the gymnasium, was explained to interested visitors during the open house.

IN 2016, the committee began preservation, renovation and repurposing the site through grants; individual, business and organizational contributions; and volunteer work. According to the Paradise Center Progress Report 2018, “The former school is becoming a community, visitor and arts center, and is already serving Sanders County and Northwest Montana.

General accomplishments in just a two-year span include installing HVAC in the multipurpose room; creating a master plan for the site; installing additional outdoor lighting; patching and painting numerous rooms; acquiring 200 chairs and 20 tables; installing a “Donor Tree” of funders; removing obsolete wiring; renovating restrooms in the auditorium; ungrading the Paradise Center website and Facebook page; developing branding with a center logo; obtaining signage; and improving the parking area. Most recently, an ADA-complaint concrete ramp to the Paradise Center entry was installed.

The former school is being nicely transformed into a visitor center, depicicting history of the Paradise area of Montana and surrounding communities. Already accomplished is a 3D northwest Montana exhibit, with components including Towns in Northwest Montana, Glacial Lake Missoula, Tourist Activities and Attractions, State Parks, Road to the Buffalo, The Big Burn (fires of 1910), Rentable Fire Lookouts, Historic Classroom, and Old Western Town. The committee has collaborated to create “history stories” for the displays.

Thorson pointed out that the school trophy room in the basement had been relocated, showing off the maroon and gold of the Paradise Bombers. Thorson’s tour also took visitors through the basement room filled with wooden models by Harvey Gould and his wife depicting a western town at the turn into the 20th century. Gould was an engineer with the Montana Highway Department. “It was kind of a labor of love for him,” Thorson said of Gould. The display was completed in 2017 and orginally located at the Dixon Senior Center before being moved to the schoolhouse.

Thorson said a grant for a feasibility study by a community design team at the School of Architecture at Montana State University was received by the committee. The design team was in Paradise in 2016 and developed concepts for the Paradise Center in the long term. It features construction of a structure to connect the classroom building to the auditorium.