When homebuyers chance upon the house of their dreams, they’ll often reflect that it was the hand crafted wood paneling or the gingerbread trim that sold them. Perhaps the spiral staircase captured their fancy. Or, a fascinating history of the dwelling stirred their souls. When preservationist architects go house hunting, basic instincts are no different. Kathy Hoeft and Gary Long, architects who specialize in historic buildings, stopped for a cup of coffee in a mountain town and found the home of their dreams.
It was available, priced right and needed immediate attention. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Kathy says with a wince. To hear the litany of problems they have fixed will stun any amateur. But both Kathy and Gary knew they were in for an ordeal that couldn’t be resisted.
Robert S. Roeschlaub, Colorado’s first trained architect, arrived in 1873 and designed their two-story Gothic Revival home. Gary, who is both an architect and historian, says that Roeschlaub trained at New York’s Columbia University in 1867, which was the only American university providing a degree in architecture. After apprenticing in Chicago, he set out for the West. With gold and silver mines attracting Easterners to Colorado, Roeschlaub was no exception. One of his clients was a mining engineer named John Adams Church.
When Kathy and Gary bought the mining engineer’s house, it had stood idle for ten years. “We started by jacking up the house just to level the foundation. The tail end was falling off and had sustained a fire,” Gary says. That was just the beginning. “Our primary issue was to make it a residence and an office. For us it was an opportunity. It was so badly damaged. So we could fix it to our pleasure. We simply pulled off the mess in the back and retained a slightly larger addition of kitchen, office and an additional bedroom overhead. We arranged an easement to not alter the front or the sides of the house but to add to the rear. It’s the sympathetic approach to preservation. We immediately saw value in the wainscoting and stair railing. So we started with kids and friends and hard labor just to clean them.”
If it sounds as though Kathy and Gary made the mistake of a lifetime, consider their professions. Kathy is an expert in historic preservation as well as an architect. Gary served as a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, heading up the graduate program in architectural design and environmental engineering. Together they’ve tackled the Byers-Evans House in Denver as well as the Molly Brown House, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Civic Center Park in Denver and a host of other historic sites. Kathy says when she and Gary first began to work in historic preservation in 1975, “so few people were trained in it that work flooded through the doors.”
But even for experts, sizing up a property is daunting. The house had been constructed near a beaver pond. Gary says there is evidence that builders tried to shore up one sinking corner as they were building. One corner of a room was ten inches lower than the opposite corner. That meant that none of the doors could close. The house had no heating. There had been a water pipe system that froze and broke, so the plumbing was damaged. The woodwork was amber and someone had painted over woodwork in purple without prepping the paint. A new electrical system went in. And there were plenty of surprises: “We were working in the dining room and the ceiling came down,” he says.
Still, Gary and Kathy sensed a kinship with Roeschlaub. Kathy also graduated from Columbia University and Gary researched the distinguished Civil War record of Roeschlaub as well as his imprint on Colorado. Not long after his arrival, Roeschlaub became the architect of choice for the Denver schools. Today he is probably best remembered as the architect of Denver’s Trinity United Methodist Church and the Central City Opera House. Many of the buildings and homes he designed have been demolished, so for a history buff and architect, bringing a rare Roeschlaub back to life provided a thrill amid turmoil.
“We respected what had been done and felt as if we were completing his house, following in his shoes,” Gary says. Roeschlaub had designed the back rooms that Gary simply built more substantially. The rest of the home is true to size and shape of the original. But it’s not a period piece. Their home is not a museum, and the gloomy interior now is bathed in light with white walls and lacy, transparent curtains. The ceilings, 11 feet high are punctuated by the vertical windows of the Victorian period without being swathed in heavy drapes. The furnishings are mixed, too.
Brightly colored Oriental rugs join family heirlooms and one-of-a-kind found furniture. An Arts & Crafts-style rug runs up the stairs. It’s a reproduction based on a pattern by 19thcentury British designer William Morris. Wallpaper borders hug the wall corners. “These are take-offs on historic wallpapers that are late 19th century,” Kathy says, chosen according to taste and not accuracy. “If you were doing a museum you would choose a restoration date or period and be consistent, not haphazardly choose things from a time outside the restoration period,” she says.
But her taste leans toward the eclectic combination of turn-of-the-century patterns and whimsical additions: a small table from Asia, a chair with carved cats’ heads. Since the Victorians loved to collect exotic finds from all around the world, these touches keep to the feel, if not the authenticity, of the times.
And plenty of authentic flourishes remain. An iron mantle with a faux-painted marble hearth is soapstone. They’ve kept the original stair and bathroom wainscoting—even though that prevented the installation of a vapor barrier in the bathroom. All the interior hardware and doors are original as are the transom windows above each door, which flood the rooms in light. These small, horizontal windows are the legacy of a health concern in a previous age when the original intent was to ventilate rooms with fresh air.
They brought in expert craftspeople to tackle jobs too difficult or time consuming. They decided to buy inexpensive kitchen cabinets, but pay an expert to put up wallpaper borders. “The pros do it so much faster,” Gary says, and Kathy adds that the wallpaper is not inexpensive. “Unless you are a pretty good craftsperson, you would want to hire someone,” she says.
But they put in considerable labor, too, when it came chores they could accomplish. After a struggle with paint choices for the walls, Kathy eventually swept color onto the walls with a rolled t-shirt instead of brushes. “We chose color by trial and error. We would just start over and tried ragging the walls with three colors. That’s not a single color on these walls. That’s three different colors. First we tried a sponge and ended up with an old t-shirt rag technique. We put on a base color and then a slightly darker color and a lighter color on the rag. If you look closely, it’s almost like chamois.”
The house, of course, isn’t finished. The tone in Gary’s voice is a mixture of pride and exhaustion. And then with a pause that any owner of an old house will appreciate: “It’s an education for all of us. We work with old buildings and we know the 19th century backwards and forwards. We also ran out of steam. We have to repaint the house. So now we’re already into heavy capital maintenance and we are not even finished with the interior,” he says with a sigh.
Of course, to the novice, the change is nothing less than transforming. To stand in a house that hints at 19th century elements of design–the charming window porches outside shading the windows, the exquisite winding stair banister, a glossy hearth the color of ebony and high ceilings ringed in patterns–the setting is unique. No one would imagine the strain and stress of its past few years. After all, toil and trouble have been wiped away. “It’s truly hard to respect an old building. We knew that we were not restoring it but making it an adaptive use,” Gary says, “It’s what we call a rehabilitation. But like any mortals, Kathy and I want people to come in and say, ‘this is wonderful.’” So it is.
1. Look at the foundation. A beautiful house may be sitting on little or no foundation. “You start with a foundation and make sure it is secure,” Gary says. “If it is not, it may not be worth it.” Gary had to shore up his foundation, so it’s not impossible. But it needs to be attended to first, not in the middle of a project. Don’t start with finishes, he says, until you level the floor.
2. A good roof, perhaps a permanent roof is the next concern. Water is the enemy of a house, so Gary says it’s essential to keep water out.
3. Safety is crucial. Bring in a master electrician who can give you an analysis. That will be followed by plumbing and heating.
4. Learn to compromise. An old house may have extraordinary touches like wainscoting that you won’t want to disturb. So perhaps that room won’t get the plumbing you had in mind.
5. Decide what is primary and what is secondary. “Economics is the gut issue,” Gary says. “Where does your money really count?” he asks. Rooms that were added on were less important to him than the original rooms.
The wall border patterns and curtains are stunning. Here are few of their favorite websites:
- Historic and art wallpapers: www.bradbury.com
- Historic hand printed wallpapers: www.carterandco.com
- Historic wallpapers and textiles: www.burrows.com
- Publications that are helpful: Old House Journal at: www.oldhousejournal.com
- For more information on Robert S. Roeschlaub: www.coloradohistory-oahp.org/guides/architects/roeschlaub.pdf