If you were a teenager in Taylor at almost any point during the last century, walking into the town’s former high school is an emotional roller-coaster. There’s the feeling of nostalgia, the bittersweet recognition of the passage of time, maybe lingering stress because you haven’t done your homework. But once you get farther into the reclaimed school building, where classroom doors are decorated with names like the Loose Screw and the Hangout Pinball Lounge, memories are replaced by a craving for a double IPA or nitrogen-frozen ice cream, both of which you can get at Old Taylor High. As I pass through the first-floor hallway with my family, I tell my eight-year-old son Javi that his grandpa graduated from this school. He responds by wiggling his little body into one of the green lockers that still line the halls.
On a sweltering summer Friday, my husband Vic and I select craft brews from the 46 taps at the Loose Screw Craft Beer House and Garden, and then tote our full pint glasses across the hall to the Hangout Pinball Lounge where there are nine pinball machines, dating from 1969 to 2019, in a former English classroom. Javi lingers in the hallway for a bit, checking out the Rubik’s Cube art, since he’s a cuber himself, and then joins us at the Hangout and bellies up to his first pinball machine of the night.
Old Taylor High was a high school from 1923 to 1969 (for white students; there were separate high schools for Black students and Mexican American students before integration), and it operated as the town’s middle school from 1969 to 2000. Now it’s a space where the community comes together for beer, live music, and play, as well as an incubator where entrepreneurs launch small businesses in former classrooms.
The development, which opened in March 2019, owes its existence in part to Taylor’s Janetta McCoy, who once owned a bed-and-breakfast across the street from the mostly vacant and under-maintained school. In 2016, McCoy brought together a task force of neighbors to oversee the vision for the school building’s next chapter. The local school district maintained Taylor High at that time, though the building was no longer used for school offices or activities. Meals on Wheels was operating out of the kitchen, but there were also rumors of squatters. McCoy, once a professor of environmental design and architecture in Washington State, brought her knowledge of repurposing public spaces to the task force. The group reviewed proposals for apartments and a medical facility in the old school. Ultimately, they recommended that the school district sell the building to the Cliff and Kaitlin Olle, a local couple who envisioned a mixed-use development in the center of town.
When the Olles bought the building for about a half-million dollars in October 2016, their vision was to retain the feeling of a school while removing drop ceilings from classrooms, updating HVAC throughout, and restoring the windows to their 1920s splendor. They applied to the Texas Historical Commission to make the high school a historic landmark, which meant that features of the building would need to convey its previous function as a school. Given their budget, the Olles focused on bringing the building back to the aesthetic it had after its 1980s renovation. “We did not change the exterior colors, so the building looks just how residents of Taylor who attended school there remember it looking,” Kaitlin said. “And Cliff found YouTube videos on renovating the 1920s plaster walls in the hallways, so he tried it and then taught the technique to our work crew.”
Today, the complex houses 31 small businesses. In addition to the beer garden and pinball lounge, patrons can enjoy a scoop of ice cream at the Chemistry Lab, which the Olles opened this summer. Inside the renovated school building, there’s also a tattoo artist, a barber, a coffee shop, and Wilco Art Lab, where local makers offer art classes to children and adults. The school’s former band hall is home to comfort-fare restaurant Plowman’s Kitchen; a cheer gym, Cheer Skillz Academy, set up shop in the gym earlier this year. Across the campus lawn from the Loose Screw, food trucks offer dining options from tacos to pizza to seafood. Libros Bookmobile, a used bookstore inside a renovated yellow school bus, spotlights Hispanic authors and hosts a book club for adults. If you really want to relive the old days, you can move into the school; there are twelve apartments in an annex building that served as the middle school while the high school was still in operation.
A majority of the business owners renting space at Old Taylor High are trying out entrepreneurship for the first time, and rely on the mentorship and support of their landlords. The Olles have owned businesses, from a wireless internet provider to a commercial warehouse, since they married in 2004. “We are happy to pass along the mistakes we have made, share our struggles, and chat with our tenants for hours about everything we have learned,” Kaitlin said. “We try to be creative and help people execute their ideas. If the individual businesses are successful, then our campus is successful.” And since the Olles realize that Old Taylor High is tucked away in town rather than right on Main Street, the prices to rent space are reasonable.
What Old Taylor High lacks in visibility it makes up for in walkability for many residents in Taylor. “When the Loose Screw opened, it was just so heartwarming that this idea that began at my dining room table had come to fruition,” McCoy said. “To be able to walk to supper or to the beer garden or to the coffee shop, that’s a little bit European-sounding. And that’s one of the reasons we like to travel to places like Italy because there’s a coffee shop on every corner. That’s one of the things that we love about Old Taylor High—that it’s in the community and it’s within walking distance of so many residences.”
European comparisons came up again when I spoke with Taylor cartoon artist Dennis Gustav Levitin, who moved here in 2010 from Ballerup, Denmark, outside Copenhagen. “Where I’m from, we utilize old buildings. We keep the exterior to preserve the history and vintage look and then modernize the buildings inside to make use of them instead of having this run-down old building that’s not being used.” Bugs Bunny creator Tex Avery was born in Taylor and his family’s home stood on part of the property that is now Old Taylor High, but Levitin, who has a weekly cartoon in the local newspaper the Taylor Press under his Toon Squad moniker, didn’t know Avery was a Taylor native until someone mentioned it to him in 2016. “I was like, man, why is it not more known? He’s on the scale of Walt Disney.” To remind Taylor residents that they are living and playing near Avery’s original home, the Olles and individual business owners commissioned Levitin to paint Tex Avery tribute art on the walls of several Old Taylor High businesses. His life-size paintings of Bugs Bunny and two of Avery’s characters from the 1946 short film The Hick Chick adorn the walls of the school’s hallways.
The chalk mural in the Chemistry Lab ice cream shop and the painted papel picado design on Libros Bookmobile are also Levitin’s work. Veronica Johnson launched the bookshop on wheels in September 2021 and popped up at farmers’ markets in the nearby towns of Hutto and Pflugerville while searching for a permanent home for her business. Then she met Wilco Art Lab owner Shay Jung, who convinced her that Old Taylor High would be the ideal fit for Johnson’s unique business. “Some days it just feels like we were meant for each other,” Johnson said of her shop and Old Taylor High. Many of the business owners I spoke with echoed this sentiment, especially after grueling commercial-real-estate searches filled with landlords—many living out of town or out of state—that they felt were just collecting checks rather than creating community.
On a Sunday afternoon later in July, I returned to Old Taylor High on my own on an introvert’s mission: I’d browse Libros’ book selection then head to the Loose Screw for a nonalcoholic beverage after a weekend of indulgence. That plan quickly went south as I bought not only a book but also local art, and then ran into two friends. The couple had decided to stop at Old Taylor High before heading to a walk-through for the house they were buying together. I joined them for a round to celebrate their new home. Someone handed us a chiweenie puppy to pet. Then I spotted Johnson, who had just closed up shop at Libros and was meeting a friend for a post-shift brew. In a world of weeks-in-advance Google calendar invites, the pivot from solo date to a round with friends, a puppy, and a bookseller sighting suited me just fine.