A crowd gathers at the blessing and rededication ceremony of Waimea’s historic Spencer House on Sunday afternoon. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Bill Sanborn, Waimea Preservation Association president, speaks Sunday during the blessing and rededication of Waimea’s historic Spencer House. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Louella Schutte, a Spencer family descendant, speaks during the blessing and rededication ceremony of the historic Waimea home, alongside project committee member Patti Cook. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Kahu Danny Akaka Jr. blesses the historic Spencer House in Waimea on Sunday afternoon. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)

From left, Anna Akaka looks on while Louella Schutte, Paul Johnston, and Bill Sanborn untie the maile lei following the blessing by Danny Akaka Jr. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Volunteers are breathing new life into a home built more than a century ago, when its closest neighbor was a large grass shack.

Built in the 1840s, the Spencer House is a prominent landmark in the heart of Waimea, located next to McDonald’s in the Waimea Center on Mamalahoa Highway. Besides having once been a residence, it was also formerly a hotel, courthouse, general store and commercial center with a restaurant, retail shops and law offices.

Today, the Friends of Historic Spencer House is working toward revitalizing the building with a 21st century purpose and a focus on community building. This is a project of the Waimea Preservation Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the town’s character and history, as well as encouraging awareness of its heritage.

Members of the project’s all-volunteer committee are Paul Johnston, Sherman Warner, Betsy Sanderson, Bob Bonar, Patti Cook, Lauren Avery and Ann DiLoretto. They’re striving to preserve Waimea’s past while building its future.

After months of gathering public input, the association recently revealed the building will become a welcome/visitor center, gathering place, innovation center, as well as office and event space. Hundreds of people attended the blessing and rededication of Spencer House Sunday, also when the public got a peek inside the relatively bare 22 rooms. A few relatives of the Spencer family were in attendance, some of whom met for the first time.

All attendees were encouraged to contribute to help make the community’s dream a reality.

Already, the Waimea Preservation Association has received support from individuals, businesses and organizations. Spencer family members have loaned 18 historical photographs and paintings of their kupuna. More than 50 Hilton Grand Vacations Club employees cleaned and painted the house, and donated replacement carpeting. Waimea contractor David Winters replaced the subflooring in three rooms. Gary Sears of Sherwin Williams Paint Co. donated paint. Alex Woodbury of Woodbury Home Inspection Inc. conducted a detailed home inspection.

Still, there are plenty of ways to support the project, including donating furnishings, technology equipment, holiday decorations and manpower. Expertise is needed from handymen, landscapers, historians, information technology gurus and others willing to give their time and talents.

The Waimea Preservation Association also needs help piecing together Spencer House’s history.

Based on fragmentary written records and architectural details, Johnston, the project leader, said William French, “the Merchant Prince,” probably built the house in the 1840s. He had numerous dealings, such as a cattle business, blacksmith/carpentry shop and mercantile business, in Waimea. When French died in 1851, it appears he passed his business to Francis McFarland Spencer, who moved to Hawaii Island after his family survived a shipwreck off Oahu, and James Louzada, one of Waimea’s first paniolo.

Johnston said Spencer and Louzada eventually merged their operation with Robert Janion’s Waimea Grazing and Agricultural Co. Later, Spencer’s daughter Frances married a judge, and it appears the house was used as a courtroom. The house also became a hotel called the Bickerton Hotel. When the judge and his wife moved to Oahu, the house was passed to her brother.

On Oct. 1, the Waimea Preservation Association signed a yearlong lease on the property, still owned by the Spencer family, but managed by PATDI Inc. It is still trying to raise at least $65,000 by the year’s end to cover rent, utilities, insurance, repairs, maintenance and other needs. Since fundraising began four months ago, 140 donors have donated roughly $50,000, Johnston said.

The remaining funds are critical in ensuring the sustainability of the project, Cook added. All donations, which are tax deductible, can be made online at waimeapreservation.org or mailed to Waimea Preservation Association, P.O. Box 6570, Kamuela, HI 96743.

Discussions about creating a welcome center in Waimea, similar to the one in Hawi, have gone on for a while. That center, established by the North Kohala Community Resource Center, has become an invaluable resource for sharing information and history about the district, as well as bridging people together in ways that benefit the community, Cook said.

As a community gathering place, the Spencer House will allow the public to exchange ideas and information in an informal way, as well as keep up with town happenings and issues. There could be exhibits about Waimea’s history along with displays revealing details about present and upcoming projects. The goal would be to inform and engage, Warner said.

Creating the center and community gathering place is the project’s first phase.

The association is still determining the pricing and requirements for renting the building for events and office space. Its first renter held a gathering Saturday and the house was full of life, Cook said.

Warner also mentioned how the committee is thinking about offering co-working space, an arrangement with more flexibility than traditional offices and is not permanent. Such spaces are multipurpose and shared by multiple tenants who rent by the hour or day. Co-working typically fosters collaboration and synergy, knowledge sharing, and built-in networking opportunities, he said.

Associated with this open, community-style office environment is creating an innovation center, the project’s second phase. This would be an incubator where entrepreneurs can work with nonprofits and social enterprise visionaries. It’s also where children and adults can learn skills needed in society today and tomorrow’s world, committee members said.

Those interested in renting space can do so now by calling Sanderson at 938-2897. Upcoming events include the Spencer House Island Legacy Fair, happening from 3 to 6 p.m. Nov. 29 and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 30, and the Collectibles Show, occurring from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 6 and from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Dec. 7.

By Carolyn Lucas-Zenk – West Hawaii Today – clucas-zenk@westhawaiitoday.com