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Totally Awesome

Charlotteans hope to establish artistic community in the middle of nowhere

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It all started with a picture. Last August, friends Dorne Pentes and Jim McGuire, along with their wives and kids, were vacationing in the mountains of western North Carolina when Pentes saw it. "Wow, check this out," he said, pointing to a picture in a real estate magazine. Pentes was often on the lookout for promising real estate deals, and the rest of the group looked at each other knowingly. Here he goes again, they thought. But then McGuire scanned the picture and immediately understood why his friend was so excited.

The School of Rock (center) and Fort Awesome (red building on right) - SAM BOYKIN
  • Sam Boykin
  • The School of Rock (center) and Fort Awesome (red building on right)

"Let's go look at it," McGuire said.

The Charlotteans all piled into the car and drove to nearby Lansing, NC, a miniscule town near the Virginia border with a population of less than 200. As they pulled up in front of the structure they saw in the magazine, they all felt instinctively drawn to it. Looming above them, situated high atop a grassy hill, stood a massive, two-story, 20,000-square-foot building made of granite and stone. It was the old Lansing High School. It had been built in 1937 as part of the Works Project Administration, a federal program started by President Franklin Roosevelt to employ blue-collar workers during the Depression. And there was more. Adjacent to the main school was an additional two-story, 8,000-square-foot school building built in the 1970s.

Pentes and McGuire looked at each other. They would have to be crazy to tackle such a monumental undertaking. This wasn't some cozy little mountain cabin in a trendy resort town that needed a fresh coat of paint and some light carpentry work. These were two huge structures located in a run-down mill town in the middle of nowhere that needed major renovations. Besides, they were both married, had kids, and were self-employed. Money and time were relatively limited commodities in their lives. It was, of course, absurd to even consider the idea. Preposterous.

They put in a bid.

"It seemed completely overwhelming and irrational, but it was also like 'Wow, what if we actually got this thing,'" McGuire said.

"Yes, it's located in an old mill town with an aging population and not a lot of growth," Pentes said. "But it's all surrounded by massive beauty. We had to go for it."

Two months later, after several offers and counteroffers, the two families, somewhat to their surprise, found themselves the proud new owners of a pair of giant, aging and dilapidated buildings in Lansing.

Um, OK. Now what?

Birth of The Fort Awesome School of Rock

Now that the buildings were actually theirs, it was time to get busy. But there was just one problem: No one was really sure what to do with them. "Festivals, artist studios, a hippie hangout, who knows," Pentes said back in February, when things were just getting underway. "We're trying to let it be what it becomes, if that makes any sense."

"We didn't really think that far ahead," McGuire said. "We kind of said let's just get it, and we'll figure it out later. Our rational side wanted to have a specific game plan, but it was too overwhelming, so we just took it one step at a time."

(Left-right) Jim, Noah and Laura McGuire, and Wendy Fishman, Dorne, Elias and Eden Blue Pentes - SAM BOYKIN
  • Sam Boykin
  • (Left-right) Jim, Noah and Laura McGuire, and Wendy Fishman, Dorne, Elias and Eden Blue Pentes

If there's anyone capable of turning some old school buildings in the middle of nowhere into a hip mountain retreat, the McGuire and Pentes families probably have as good a shot at making it work as anyone.

Pentes, 43, is an independent filmmaker and co-president of WonderWorld Film/Video, a Charlotte film and video production company. He and his wife, Wendy Fishman, curator of film and video at the Light Factory, live in NoDa with their two children, Elias, 6, and Eden Blue, 3.

McGuire, 46, is president of Jim McGuire Photography. The long-time Plaza-Midwood resident co-hosts the annual Eat, Drink & Be Scary "carnEVIL" Halloween parties. He also helped create the Transformus festival in Deerfield, NC, a three-day event that celebrates art and self-expression, and this past May -- the festival's third year -- it drew close to 1,500 people. McGuire and his wife, Laura, have two kids: Noah, 6, and Finnegan, 3.

The two families started driving up to Lansing on the weekends once or twice a month. While they still didn't have a specific game plan, things slowly started to take shape. They decided they would rent out space in the main school building, ideally to a restaurant or winery, or perhaps a few retail stores and maybe an art gallery -- something to drum up interest in the area and keep visitors entertained. The smaller, second building would serve as a kind of communal housing facility, where friends and family could stay. "Basically, it's a more private, less formal place where we can hang out, party and create art," McGuire said.

McGuire and Pentes started fixing the roof, plumbing, electricity and other big structural stuff. Laura and Wendy focused on renovating the smaller building's interior, converting the classrooms into bedrooms and adding other homey touches. "It was fun, decorating and making the place livable and comfortable," Laura said.

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