Saturday, October 27, 2018

Rescuing a Historic Home in Battle Creek Michigan by Antonio SolisGomez

View from the corner- yes i had to rake all those leaves, several times before winter

My wife Margaret and I moved to Battle Creek Michigan in the summer of 1993, when I accepted employment with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF).  At the turn of the 20th century Battle Creek was a thriving economic community with over two hundred different companies vying for supremacy in the emerging cereal business.

Brick carriage house that i had hoped to restore. Note my BMW 2002 which I bought new in 1972
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg operated a Health Sanitarium that catered to the rich and famous and promoted exercise and a vegetarian diet. It was in that facility that the process of flaking of corn was invented as an addition to the meals for patients. John Harvey’s brother, Will Keith, wanted to exploit their invention as others were already doing but was refused permission and a break took place between the brothers.

Will Keith was thus the sole owner of the Kellogg cereal brand and it was his genius in advertising that placed him at the forefront of the cereal companies that had taken hold.
The balcony, floor, columns and railings getting renewed

Thus in the early 1900’s Battle Creek experienced a boom in real estate and many fine homes were built with the money that was flowing in. Many of those homes were still standing when I arrived but most were in a state of disrepair.  I now question my motives but at the time it seemed prudent to buy one of those older homes and fix it up.
Odilion worked part-time with me for most of the 4 years. He had a full-time job in a grocery store

I did some of the electrical work like drilling holes in walls to pull electrical wire, wiring lights and outlets
Raising the1st floor ceiling to its original position in order to place a steel beam for support

The home we bought was rumored to have once been used by Sojourner Truth as a refuge for the freed slaves that were being smuggled out of the South by the Underground Railroad. My wife and I thought that a bed and breakfast was an ideal conversion for that old, historically designated house that had some 4000 plus square feet. And I also thought that in fixing that house I was giving back to the community because it had become an eyesore.

several walls were water damaged and before replastering we ran new electrical wire
newly applied insulation on wall and ceiling. note new electrical outlet

It was a corner house that sat on two acres on a main thoroughfare. It was built in the late 1800’s but an update in 1906 had added a red tile roof and some other architectural features as well as a beautiful brick carriage house. Nevertheless the house was dated, had no insulation and an antiquated electrical system.
lots of decorative glass throughout the house. This door led to the balcony on the 2nd floor

Naturally the vacant house had issues, the principal one being that a Non Profit Agency had bought the house with plans to occupy it after remodeling it to suit their needs. The Director, a person from out of town, had turned off the heat during winter and was unaware that the water should also have been turned off because the house was heated with radiators. Thus the water in the radiators froze and broke them and when they thawed in spring the whole place flooded.

One of the floors that was damaged sanded and and ready to be refinished
Some rooms had wallpaper that needed to be removed and the walls cleaned and primed for painting

The water damage was primarily in one half of the house in both the second and first floor. On the second level, the hardwood floors had warped. On the first floor, water had damaged the ceiling and the walls as well as the floor.
My wife Margaret cleaning a circular wall getting it ready to prime and paint

My colleagues at WKKF thought I was crazy to tackle such a daunting fixer-upper and years later, I agree with them. But then I was inspired and as luck would have it, I met several workers that helped me. The first one was Ed Case, a man that was about to become a full fledged pipe fitter, in other words a plumber. Ed and I worked long hours for a month after we both got off work and finally he had been able to replace the eleven radiators that were cracked. He tested the system with a blue dye and it failed. There were several more radiators that had cracks that weren’t visible. That failure was a very low point for me. We finally ended up having to install a gas heater for the second floor and left the first floor to be heated with the radiators.
My brother Tito, Damien and I digging holes and mixing cement

Damien and I installing new end supports for the wrought iron fence on the side street side of the corner lot

After that first winter I hired Odilon, a Mexican man, to assist me with some of the work, primarily scarping old paint that was peeling and cracked on the beautiful wood trim. Another massive job was scraping the second floor balcony, the tall twenty foot wooden columns and the front entrance.

Another issue was discovered when a couple of raccoons were found living in the attic, gaining entrance through a section of the tile roof that was missing. I couldn’t believe it when I found out that the company that manufactured the tile was still in business.  I bought a pallet of tile and found a roofer that knew how to re-install them.
View of the front portion of the refurbished wrought iron fence

Many of the neighbors had been cutting through the yard for years to save a few steps and it became such an irritation that we decided that only a fence would deter them. Being a designated historical property the fence had to conform to certain requirements. We visited a place in Kalamazoo that sold junk and as we walked around, there in front of us were two ten foot piles of rusted, twisted wrought iron fencing. It was definitely old and perfect, I thought, but I had to convince my wife that it could be brought back to life.
side view looking towards the corner: note finished fence and painted columns and neighbor having to stay outside the fence.

We set up an assembly line to restore the fence. I used an electric grinder to de-rust, Margaret’s son Damien welded replacement parts and Margaret painted. It took us two months to finish this mammoth job: sixty plus 8’ sections of fence, stretching 500 plus feet. My brother Tito joined us to install the fence.

There were also some upkeep duties that needed attending. One of them was to cut the grass, which even in a small tractor mower took a few hours. In the fall, we had to rake leaves a few times before the snow arrived. The raking had to be by hand and each time it took several hours. In winter, I had to clear the 500 feet of snow on the sidewalk lest someone slip and get hurt and sue us.
The dining room completed note ceiling and pocket door, fireplace mantel on left

Once the major work of remodeling was completed we had to start insulating the walls, putting up plaster board, painting walls, refinishing the wood floors and installing the second floor bathroom.

All along my wife and I had been living in a section of the house that was the least affected by the flooding. We had sectioned off our living area with sheets of plastic and it was a marvelous day when we were able to inhabit the entire house.

View of front entrance from foyer. Note second exterior door beyond the glass door
We made plans for the B&B but the stars were moving in another direction. We had bought the house in 1995 and in the fall of 1999 we received an offer for the house from a medical doctor who wanted to set-up his practice in it. At about the same time the W.K. Kellogg Foundation offered me a small retirement package. We didn’t hesitate in saying yes to both offers, the harsh winters having worn us down long before. The house still functions as a business although much to my dismay the beautiful brick carriage house was torn down.


Andrea Mauk said...

Thank you for sharing your restoration journey. I am an absolute lover of older and historic homes. I've done my fair share of restoration, and it,at times, is painstaking, heartbreaking and delightful.

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, talk about magical realism.... I read your piece thinking how much your resurrecting this house was like writing a novel. Then I thought, naw, writing a novel is a piece of cake in comparison. What a wonderful job you did and hard to believe you could do it mostly yourself. Thanks for the piece.

Unknown said...

Was a long road dad:)