IRONTON – When Emily Parker holds this weekend’s open house, it will be to recognize the opening of her Arcadian Academy of Music, as well as to celebrate the repurposing of an historic building on Ironton’s Main Street that once seemed destined for the wrecking ball.
Parker, 34, grew up on a six-generation family farm owned by her parents, Dr. Bill and Paula McKinney of Belleview. After years of living outside the area, she and her husband Brian, 35, who grew up on a farm outside St. Joseph, left prestigious careers in Chicago to raise their two children among family and friends in the Arcadia Valley.
The story begins when Parker was just 3 years old and was being cared for by her grandmother, Jeanette McKinney, who spent most of her career teaching band and choir in Irondale, Arcadia Valley, Bismarck and Potosi schools.
“She retired around the time I was born and became my primary babysitter,” Parker said. “From my playpen I would watch her teaching piano lessons. She said I’d go to the piano and mimic what I saw her students do.”
McKinney ended up teaching her granddaughter piano from the age of 3 until she turned 15.
“At that point my grandmother felt like I needed to go elsewhere and I started going down to SEMO once a week for piano lessons,” Parker said.
After graduating from Arcadia Valley High School, Parker attended college at University of Missouri-Columbia where she earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal music education.
She next attended Northwestern University in Chicago where she received her master’s in piano pedagogy. She then spent the next five years teaching at the school’s music academy prior to moving back to the Valley with Brian.
The couple met at church during their first year at Mizzou. The next year Brian transferred to American University in Washington, D.C. where he received his law degree and soon became a mergers and acquisitions attorney for a Chicago law firm that is the largest in the world.
“The plan always was that Brian and I would go off, get our educations, get our first jobs, try to pay off student debts — do all that kind of thing,” Parker said. “And when we had kids, we would move back here.
“I quit my job at Northwestern around Christmas of 2008 and we had our first child, Nadia, in January 2009. Then Brian quit the law firm and we moved down here that summer.”
He opened a law practice soon after their arrival and will soon begin his second term as Iron County prosecuting attorney next month. In 2011, the couple’s attention turned from Brian to Emily.
“I always cared a lot about making sure there was quality education here,” she said. “It made me sad that when my grandmother couldn’t teach me anymore I had to travel two hours every week for piano lessons.
“It made me said that I had three choir teachers during my four years in high school. They would all move on to a better job. You couldn’t retain quality teachers because they could make more money elsewhere or they wanted to be closer to the city.
“I always wanted to come back and provide quality education here. I wouldn’t move away to make more money. I wouldn’t move away to the city because this is my home. I have a reason to be here.”
When the couple first came to town an old three-story brick building caught Brian’s eye — the Ironton Lodge Hall at 133 N. Main St.
Built in 1873 by local contractor C. W. Forster, the building initially housed local chapters of both the Masons and the International Order of Odd Fellows. Then, for several decades, both the women’s organization for the Odd Fellows and Chapter 349 of the Order of the Eastern Star met in the building.
In addition to the use of its upper floors by fraternal organizations, the building also served as a meeting place for the community and the lower level at various times housed John M. Moore’s dry goods and clothing store, an electrical light company, a doctor’s office and the Ironton Post Office.
The Odd Fellows’ lease was purchased by the Masons in 1964, officially ending the tenure of one of the two original fraternal tenants. The Masons continued using the building until the early 1990s. The Parkers took possession of the building in April 2012.
“At first I had been very apprehensive about buying the building because it needed a lot of work and I didn’t know anything about old buildings and renovation,” she said. “It was in very rough shape.
“Each floor was basically one gigantic room, so the walls that are here now were added by us. The building had no plumbing. We had to put in new wiring to meet city code and stabilize the stairs.”
The biggest hurdle, however, was getting the building a spot on the National Historic Register.
“We hired an historical consultant who compiled all the paperwork,” she said. “It took about a year to do that, but then we were able to apply for federal and state grants that helped to pay for the work.
“Finding people that had renovation experience on buildings like this was tough. Most of the people either came from Iron or St. Francois County. There were a few people I had to go to St. Louis for the specialty stuff.
“Our architect designed the Performing Arts Center for Lincoln University and she has experience creating good acoustics in a room. The walls are set at angles. Nothing is at a right angle in here. That is purposeful so the sound waves are dispersed rather than bouncing back and forth.”
Completed at the end of October, the building’s transformation is nothing short of remarkable. The first floor holds a reception area, office, classrooms and Parker’s studio. The entire second floor is a recital room that can accommodate an audience of up to 90 people.
The third floor is the couple’s residence they share with their 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, Benjamin. The building’s roof contains solar panels which keeps utility costs very low.
An accompanist for Mineral Area College choirs and special programs, Parker said she will offer a limited teaching schedule on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Auditions are required. In the years ahead she plans to add additional instructors of different instruments to make her business a true academy of music.
The open house takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
“People are invited to drop by and wander through the building,” she said. “It will be a chance for the community to see we’re taking care of the place.”
For more information call 573-546-0202.
“I always cared a lot about making sure there was quality education here.” — Emily Parker, musician
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or email@example.com