The Renovation Chronicles 

Three families find themselves in three different stages of a long process.

Steve and Debbe Peck are in the midst of incorporating a natural-looking extension onto a 1930s brick house in the West End, but weather and contractor problems have already caused the project to take twice long as planned. The Rev. Kathy Talley is almost done with a two-year complete restoration of an 1874 Italianate-style home in Oregon Hill that had been abandoned for 10 years. And farther east in Church Hill, Hunter and Nancy Sledd are relaxing in their 1878 Greek revival home that they brought completely back to life. It’s been long enough now that they’d almost do it all over again. Almost. What we learned from these three families is that although it’s often an aggravating process, the reward of seeing your vision come to life makes it all worthwhile. Are you ready to take the plunge? You might want to read this first.

“The Vision at 425 S. Laurel”

The Rev. Kathy Talley was moving back to her roots when she bought her Oregon Hill home in June of 2001. Both of her parents grew up within blocks, and her great aunt went to day care in the very building that Talley now calls home.

When Talley’s job as a United Methodist pastor brought her back to Richmond she knew she wanted to live in Oregon Hill, but she was sensitive to the many renters in the community and didn’t want to displace anybody from their home. She began investigating to see which houses the city had seized for delinquent taxes and discovered that the city was accepting bids for the dilapidated house at the corner of Spring and Laurel streets. After two rounds of bidding, Talley eventually purchased the house for $40,000. She was drawn to it because of the large windows that ran down its side, the elaborate molding at the roofline and the fact that it sat on two lots.

But she had her work cut out for her. The previous owner died of a heroin overdose and the house had last been used as a crack house, she says. Then it sat empty for 10 years. Weeds and vines made the house almost unreachable. Once inside, junk was piled to knee level. Talley spent six months clearing the brush and hauling out junk. “A coal shovel works wonders,” she says. Talley filled three city dump trucks, and her father made between two and six trips to the dump a week in his pickup truck, she estimates.

Talley worked with an architect to determine the original layout of the house, then planned to reproduce it with some minor changes. She hired Restoration Builders of Virginia to do the contract work. She says the site supervisor was very understanding of her desire to do as much of the work herself as possible. She recruited family and friends, and did much more than just clear out junk. Talley and her father went as far as doing some of the major foundation work like pulling up floorboards to dig a trench beneath the house and fill it with cement to support the screw jacks under the floor joists. She and friends also stripped and restored the banister from pieces found in the house, laid tiles and did all the interior painting. “It’s been a real community effort,” she says. Talley estimates she saved about $40,000 by doing much of the work. “I learned the real joy of bringing something back to life and the delight in seeing what was just a wreck become a home.”

Although Oregon Hill is not recognized as a historic district at a city level, the city does offer a tax abatement program. For the next 10 years, Talley will pay only local real estate taxes on the unrehabilitated value of her home, then for the next five years the tax goes up 20 percent each year. The state and federal governments do, however, consider Oregon Hill a historic area, and because of the amount Talley spent on the renovation, she is eligible for state historic tax credits. But the historic destination meant that Talley had to remain true to the original mortar and brick colors, windows, siding, stairwell, front hall and parlors and chimneys, which she was happy to do. She even went as far as to paint the outside a baby blue true to the house’s era.

In June just before she moved in, Talley had an open house to benefit the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council, where she sits on the board, so her new neighbors — many of whom had played a part in the process — could see what she’d done with the place. Talley says neighbors had given her mantels and other pieces they weren’t going to use. “This community is really good about sharing.” And she salvaged much of the other architectural features that the house didn’t have. The pine bar in the kitchen is made from an old joist and held up by carved corbels from a house in Jackson Ward. The front door with beveled glass and old winding doorbell is from a farmhouse in Matthews County. The property’s carriage stone is now a step up to the side door. Talley saved old bricks to use for a path to the side door. She also inherited a set of double doors from Richmond Hill, where she worked briefly; they now serve as pantry doors in the kitchen.

Today, Talley’s vision that once seemed so far away is actually within reach. When she bought the house a friend said to her, “Kathy, nobody can say you don’t have vision.” Now that friend, who helped with much of the work, has printed up T-shirts that read: “I survived the vision at 425 S. Laurel.” Talley expects to be finished this month, at right around the two-year mark. Her original estimate for all the work was around $200,000. She says she doesn’t yet know what the final figure will be but expects it to be more than that. What she does know is that her vision was realized.

Escape to the City

Steve and Debbe Peck know they’ve done things a little differently. While most people start off close to the city and then move out to the country, the Pecks have recently sold their Hanover County farmhouse and are moving in toward the city. Their five acres were on what’s become a major road and traffic has just gotten out of hand. What was once quiet and countryish is now a full-blown suburb. Two new high schools in their area, built within five miles of each other, are a good indication of the population explosion.

The Pecks felt lucky to find a brick house with a steep slate roof and dormer windows on a hidden street close to University of Richmond. The house, however, needed a bit of work, but the Pecks were prepared. “This was a chance to build our dream house in the city, but there are no more lots in the city,” says Steve. The house sits just over the Henrico County line, close to their daughter Emma’s school and closer to Steve’s office.

When they bought the 1930s brick Colonial its rooms were small and it had a “cheap ’70s extension” on the back. They met with an architect, bringing their years of clippings, collected in case they ever decided to build a house. The architect helped them realize their vision: to create a cross between a bungalow and a cottage. “Where it’s connected to the landscape,” explains Debbie, who works part time at Lewis Ginter Botanical gardens, “we’re trying to use materials that make it feel natural.”

Instead of just reworking the extension, the Pecks have moved walls and opened up rooms in order to relate the extension to the existing house. They enlarged Emma’s room to include a work space and walk-in closet. The master suite is a completely new structure that features two walls of windows and built-in bookcases. Its bathroom has a Jacuzzi tub, heated towel rods and electric radiated heating in the floor. Downstairs, the living room, dining room remain the same, but the kitchen has been opened up with a center island and large windows running down the back of the house. The focal point of the great room is a gray sandstone fireplace.

On the exterior, what was a boxy-looking house that included a screened-in porch sticking off the side with a Greek-revival doorframe adding some interest, has now been reworked to reach out to the landscape. A columned porch that wraps around and integrates the side screened-in porch was added to the front. For continuity, the same columns also were added to the small back porch. A dormer window off the side of the house is one of the small but important touches — it allows natural light to brighten the upstairs hallway.

“We could have put a two-story vinyl box on the back of this house,” says Steve, “but for less space and more money we decided to put more quality per square foot.” But it hasn’t been an easy process. The Pecks have dealt with incompetent workers and bad weather — both a snowy winter and a rainy spring have set them back. “Everything has conspired against us to make our lives more difficult,” says Steve.

The biggest problem, they say, has been the constant change in the contractor’s workforce. “There hasn’t been anybody on the job that knows anything,” says Steve. “There’s been no continuity.” Seven different people have run the project since it began nine months ago. “At first we thought it was because of us,” says Debbie. Now they chalk it up to high turnover in the construction field. Because of all the changes in personnel — from lead carpenters to project managers to even one of the owners of the construction company — the Pecks feel that no one has been an able to monitor the quality and overall vision of their renovation. As a result, Steve has had to visit the site daily, the budget has increased by 20 percent, and it has already taken more than double the time estimate. Steve says he’d visit the site to find doors swinging the wrong way and trim painted that was supposed to be stained. Steve, who is a detailed craftsman in the guitar repair business, says he’d like to see workers taking pride in their work, “I’d like to see an improvement in the contentiousness in the building community.”

The Pecks agree that they don’t want to emphasize the negative. “We think that ultimately we’ll have a great house,” says Steve. There have been painless chapters of their renovation too — like working with their bricklayers who matched the old brick impeccably — but they do want to make people aware that renovating can be a challenge.

Return of the “Mole People”

A two-year renovation headache results in a light, airy gem.

“We’re probably the craziest people in Church Hill,” says Nancy Sledd, as she and her husband, Hunter, sit casually in the bright living room of their historic home facing Libbie Hill Park.

Looking around the house, with its 11-foot ceilings, enormous windows, large pocket doors and glowing natural light, it’s hard to picture it as the dilapidated structure it was when they bought it from the city in 1991.

The Greek-revival house, built in 1868 by William Hancock, had fallen into disrepair, been condemned for neglect, seized from the previous owner and boarded up. Neighbors said it looked like a waterfall poured from the front door every time it rained. Through the grapevine the Sledds heard that the two-story brick house would be auctioned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

They had lived in Church Hill for 10 years and always admired the house’s ornate iron verandah, and the location couldn’t be beat, so they submitted a proposal. Since the Sledds already had experience renovating a Church Hill historic home and because they were able to demonstrate their desire and financial ability to renovate the Hancock house within the allotted year’s time, they won out over the other four proposals.

Today they look back on it and laugh. Although they knew the house required major renovation, they admit they didn’t quite know what they were getting into. Once the plywood was peeled back from the windows and doors, they could barely squeeze into the front rooms, which were cluttered with the remnants of 19 pianos and other junk from previous owners going back to the Hancocks. They found the staircase hanging from the second floor. A ladder had to be set up to reach the upstairs rooms. And when Hunter and a friend climbed the ladder to explore the upstairs, the friend walked too far back and fell through the floor. The whole back of the house had deteriorated through to the basement because of holes in the roof.

“What we got was a testament to 25 years of a leaky roof,” Hunter says. The rain damage was so extensive that termites had weakened the roof rafters. There was even a tree growing out of the brick into the house.

The first major hurdle was finding a contractor. Most didn’t want to touch the job. Some quoted outrageous prices, others declined, saying that the Sledds would have to hire their entire team to undertake the job. In the end they went through three contractors. The first took them through the demolition and stabilization, which took “four months and many, many dumpsters,” according to Nancy who says at that point the house was basically four brick walls. “We could see that he didn’t know what to do next,” Hunter says.

The second contractor did the majority of the work but after a year threw in his tool belt. “The contractor who I’d been paying his salary for a year said he had other things to do,” says Hunter with disbelief. The lead carpenter ended up taking over the job by default. The Sledds agree that the most frustration came toward the completion of the project when “it took six months to do six weeks’ work.” They had been living in the basement apartment after they sold their other house and were anxious to move upstairs.

“They called us the mole people because we’d pop up every morning to check on the progress,” says Nancy.

After the sheet rock and trim were up, the place looked finished, but it was the details like cabinetry, switchplate covers and painting that took up a lot of time toward the end.

The Sledds’ vision for the house was to “respect the original but make a modern, livable house,” according to Hunter. Because it was located in a historic district, the Sledds had to obtain numerous approvals for many details such as the color of the mortar. They were restricted to restoring the house to its original layout. Luckily, the oldest pictures found of the house included a rectangular room off the sunroom in the back. This became the kitchen. If that room hadn’t existed, the Sledds would have had to put the kitchen in the basement.

“The hardest thing was to figure out how to get modern conveniences like closets and baths when they really didn’t allow for that,” says Nancy. The Sledds added one-and-a-half baths to the house that originally just had one. They also had to come up with creative solutions for ductwork for the central air system. Luckily, the high ceilings (9 feet in the basement and 10 feet upstairs) allowed for storage space above eye level. Would they change anything in retrospect? “I don’t think I’d put in a giant bathtub again,” says Hunter who estimates they’ve probably used it a total of four times, “but it makes the house popular with housesitters.”

The original estimate for the project was 11 months and $250,000. The whole process took close to two years and ran almost 40 percent over budget.

“The good news is that finally it’s worth more than we spent to do it,” says Hunter, “but we’re not going anywhere anyway — you get so emotionally attached.”

The Sledds say they haven’t come across any other house with the sense of light and air that this one has. And although the process was long, it was the “little victories” that made it enjoyable, like the first time they could stand in the dining room. They also had fun with the restoration: They put a time capsule in the living room wall with information about themselves, the house and things they found from the previous owners.

Their favorite memory, however, is that first New Year’s Eve before they began construction when they climbed up on the front porch and watched the fireworks at the Carillon. They knew that no matter what went on in the restoration ahead, they’d always have the gorgeous river view that first attracted them to the house. HS




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