Written May 7, 2012 by Joel Sauer
Perhaps more than any other question, this is the one we get most often. It is elegant and simple, yet remarkably poignant. Why?
Usually the person asking is on their first tour of the place, their face looking like they just discovered something hairy in the meat drawer of the fridge. They walk on tip-toes with their arms pulled back in t-rex fashion trying not to touch anything. I have to admit, the place is a mess. It was empty for nearly five years and what little occupancy it had was college kids bent on awesome parties. And then we made it even worse.
It’s amazing the amount of dust created by pulling down 110-year-old horse-hair (yes, really) plaster, lath and 15 layers of paint. Ceilings really do the job. When this house was built it was heated by coal. It did the job, but wasn’t the cleanest stuff. Our local neighborhood historian, Bernie, told me they used to paint the interior of the house drab and dark colors just to blend in with the soot on the walls. Now that soot is in the air and on the floor, since we’ve had to tear out the walls to make room for duct work, new wiring, re-opened doorways and fun stuff like that. You can still see the coal soot clinging to the backside of the old plaster. Impressive staying power, soot.
So back to why. My answer is as simple and elegant has the question itself: because we wanted to. That’s not meant to be flip; we really did want to. There might be some nostalgia involved: me for the East Drive house in Fort Wayne and the big house in Kaukauna, and Ellen for her old house on Taylor Street. All conjure great memories of Christmases, neighborhoods, front porch sitting and unique old-house attributes. Those who know me know my affinity for old buildings and houses. For proof, check out our family vacation photos – most don’t have any people in them, just buildings, doors (nothing better than a great old door!) and old houses.
OK, that’s all fine and good, but why a fixer-upper? I mean a steroid-popping, jaw-dropping, red-ink creating, “did you know there would be this much dust”, behind every wall there’s a surprise fixer-upper?!?!
Oh that. We can attribute that to the first house we almost purchased in West Central. It was beautifully restored and the owner, Brian, was completely passionate about every aspect of it. It was move-in ready, right down to the paint colors. We really came close on that one, even hiring an architect to draw up plans for a garage. Somewhere in this process, Ellen and I both got the itch to do our own restore. It’s an integral part of the journey. Instead of reading or hearing about the “surprises behind every wall”, we get to discover them! It’s visceral. Plus there’s a noble aspect to it: we’ve taken a historic gem off the endangered species list. And she (the house) deserved that.
We both admit there’s a bit of insanity that has to be part of the equation. Rational people just don’t take on a project like this. To illustrate, on a recent visit to the house, there was so much destruction happening all at once Ellen actually had to walk into a corner and take a few minutes “in her happy place”. She got better.
So there you go. Maybe the answer on why is more that we had to than just wanted to. It does feel that primal. The stars aligned and the house at 1110 West Washington came to us. We’re glad she did.