An old schoolhouse becomes an outlet for vision, hope and music | Music Feature | Indy Week

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An old schoolhouse becomes an outlet for vision, hope and music

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"I have this big problem," says Jay Miller, "of thinking that everything can be brought back." Today, Miller sits at a large conference table that commands the meeting room of the Murphey School, an old schoolhouse just off N.C. 10 where Durham and Orange counties meet, built in 1923 but mostly abandoned for the last two decades. It's Miller's most recent resurrection—and a matter of pure faith.

With a thick mustache and longish sandy-brown hair under a green and tan baseball cap, Miller, 51, looks a little like the late Jim "Catfish" Hunter during the pitcher's Swingin' A's days. He has an easygoing, quietly engaging manner, too—you can picture him getting along famously with a CEO or the guy in line behind him at the grocery store checkout. He tells his story and that of the school, which is now the Shared Visions Retreat Center, and makes it feel natural to tag along.

Miller came to Durham from Birmingham, Ala., in 1977 to attend Duke University. After graduating in three years, he worked at The Music Loft, a tiny shop off Ninth Street that majored in guitars, drums and PAs. "Kind of an underground store, a rock 'n' roll store," Miller recalls. After six months, the owner decided he wanted to sell. Miller bought The Music Loft and eventually turned it into a six-store chain headquartered on Hillsborough Road in Durham

In 2002, Miller sold the largest store to the national chain Guitar Center and the remaining five locations mostly to store managers. He was only 43, and in a position to do what he wanted, salary optional. He considered law school but began managing nonprofits, creating the Shared Visions Foundation with the goal of providing technical assistance and grants to small nonprofits. His wife, Ebeth Scott-Sinclair, works with the leadership-and-faith-focused Johnson Intern Program through the foundation. Miller works with boards and committees to lead assorted projects.

On his way to some Shared Visions function, Miller turned onto NC 10 and saw the Murphey School. "I thought it was a beautiful building, but it was in horrible, horrible condition," he says.

As he eventually discovered, the building also brimmed with history: When the Murphey School (the "e" was dropped at some point in the '60s, hence Murphy School Road) was built in 1923, it exemplified the early 20th-century consolidation movement in North Carolina's public education system. Larger schools meant more students, which meant better opportunities for grade-based instruction. A bungalow behind the school, home to the Mental Health Association of Orange County for the last year, housed the staff.

An adjoining auditorium was built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project, and it functioned as a community center of sorts in the '40s and '50s. Legend has it that Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow played shows at the auditorium. The Murphey School closed in 1959, with the building initially leased to the Mt. Hermon Baptist Church before being sold and eventually turned into a nightclub.

Despite all that history—enough that the Murphey School was recently accepted for the National Register of Historic Places—the property sat vacant and crumbling for years after the club closed in the late '80s. Then Miller passed by. He'd wanted to create a retreat center and what he calls "an incubator for nonprofits"—a place for workshops and music and fundraisers, and this was the spot.

"I had an excuse to dive in and renovate the building," Miller says. "You've got to have an excuse, and you've got to have a plan." He closed on the property in April of 2008; for the next two-plus years, Miller was on-site six days each week.

He wasn't alone. Steve Wachholz—the owner of the site's primary contractor, Triangle Green Build—is a gung-ho sort who considers pouring 67 concrete footings in a crawlspace and installing about 800 feet of girders to support the floor "a fun challenge." Among other tasks at Murphey School, Wachholz and crew restored the original pressed-tin ceiling and created period-appropriate bathrooms. Existing materials were used, or appropriate salvaged materials, such as windows from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall renovation, were brought in to complement existing features. In short, they transformed a building of caved-in floors and junk piles into a marvel of solar panels, radiant heat and shining wood, topped by a section of faux-terra-cotta roof made of tin.

Triangle Green Build also created a box ceiling in the auditorium, the crown jewel of the Shared Visions Retreat Center. The huge windows along both sides are the hall's most striking feature; it's just some stained glass and a few pews away from being church. "I don't think the room is acoustically phenomenal or anything," offers Miller, whose experience behind a mixing board and as a member of such diverse outfits as Lise Uyanik and the Mobile City Band, Southwing and Up Cane Creek allow him to pass such judgments. "But it has a certain character and that authentic 1930s kind of sound."

"I'm not really a new-age type," says Linda McDonough. She directs the Just Right Academy, a nonprofit, private learning center and the center's only current tenant. "But I do think buildings have good energy or bad, and this one has some of the best I've ever seen."

That is, it was a building well worth bringing back.

In Spanish, pura fé means "pure faith." Pura Fé Antonia Crescioni was given that first name by her biological father, Juan Antonio Crescioni-Collazo, a man she never saw until she was 40 years old. As a child growing up in show business—jingles and commercials were her specialties during her lower-school years—she went by Toni.

In her mid-20s, she returned to what she calls her "real name," that gift from her father.

"I was proud of my roots," she says, speaking from South Dakota, via e-mail due to a faulty phone connection. "That is probably what makes me who I am!! Roots!!! History!!! Culture!!! I believe everybody should know who and where they come from. Names, places, languages, creation stories, their cosmos, science, their philosophy and way of life—all is running through our veins and genetic memory, all are sacred places."

Even when reading Pura Fé's words on a computer screen instead of having them delivered directly, you feel the inclination to hang on to something to prevent getting swept away by a torrent of multiple-exclamation-mark passion and memories and joy. But you keep a lifeline close and take a leap of faith because you sense a fascinating journey.

It began in New York City in 1959. Growing up in New York, Pura Fé went to several professional children's schools, including Lincoln Square Academy, where her schoolmates included Ben Stiller, Irene Cara, Laurence Fishburne and Robbie Benson. At a young age, she traveled in bus-and-truck Broadway show tours in addition to her work in commercials.

Such a musical bent was inevitable; the stuff was everywhere for Pura Fé. Her mother, Nanice Monk Lund, toured for many years with the Duke Ellington Orchestra when she wasn't singing with her six sisters as the Monk Sisters. They were just following their mother's lead: Pura Fé's grandmother, Easter Sanders, a Tuscarora Indian from the Neuse River area, performed with her six sisters as the Singing Sanders Girls.

"All of this was a very huge influence on me. My love for a cappella and choirs are endless," Pura Fé says. "We count four generations of seven singing sisters in a row, through the maternal line." The extended family of her maternal grandfather, Kepple Monk, even included a cousin named Thelonious.

When Pura Fé became an active member of the American Indian Community House (AICH) in New York City, her music carved its own path. She formed an all-female a cappella trio that sang native songs and took the name Pura Fé from its founder. Four men joined, and the group soared even higher. "We were the hottest group in all of Indian Country," she recalls. "Drums, rattles, poetry, and harmony: it hit everybody's heart!" Despite that success, the group streamlined back into a trio, now named Ulali, first making deep impressions as part of Robbie Robertson's Red Road Ensemble and then traveling the world as a genre-defining act.

But that wasn't enough. "I wanted to get close to my tribe and neighboring tribes," she says. Pura Fé moved to North Carolina. "I embedded myself in Robeson County. This is a place that I will always call home—Pembroke and 40 thousand Indians!! I was in heaven!!" It was also the place where she picked up the lap slide guitar, creating a sound that explores the musical bonds between the African-American and Indian people of the South.

"If you listen to old field recording that predate blues, you can hear Choctaw, Seminole, Muskogee, Yuchi and Delaware. You hear Shawnee and Iroquois Stomp Dance songs. And you hear that shuffle rhythm and scale of blues music. That shuffle is the same as that heartbeat beat you hear in all native round dance beats," says Pura Fé. "Indigenous music is another part of the blues."

On Aug. 20 and 21, a musical vision meets Shared Visions. The Pura Fé Trio, with multi-instrumentalists Peter Knudson and Cary Morin rounding out the threesome, will play the first concerts in the renovated auditorium of the Shared Visions Retreat Center. Each night, of course, will be a show of faith.

The Pura Fé Trio, with guests the Deer Clan Singers, will perform at 8 p.m. Aug. 20 and 21 at the Shared Visions Retreat Center. The performances will be recorded for a live album. Admission is free, but attendance is limited to 100 each evening, and reservations are required. See musicmaker.org/pura-fe-trio-durham for complete details. And for more information on the Retreat Center and the Shared Visions Foundation, see sharedvisions.org/svrc.html.

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