Radical Excision of the Soul

 

Today I cried.  On the floor.  Gut-wrenching sobs.  Fifty-six years old and I’m crying like a baby.

No words can begin to describe the cutting pain felt.  No words exist to describe the sense of loss.  My partner and I feel bewildered and our efforts discarded.

We feel empty.  And numb.

 

It is always tragic when the interior of any historic building is gutted, but the pain is especially acute when it is done to a building which has just emerged from a six-year renovation by devoted historic preservationists.

In most old buildings which have been recently renovated, it is fairly easy to distinguish original features from new work, even by those who do not have a formal design education or historic preservation background.  Clumsy renovations far outnumber those which are done in a thoughtful and considered manner.  It is not always easy to make new work and necessary alterations flow seamlessly with existing historic fabric.  After all, if it were easy, our towns and cities would not be littered with so many distorted structures exhibiting “a little bit of this and a little bit of that”.

Prior to its renovation, the future of the former church building was quite grim.  It was located in a small (and shrinking) town in the Midwest.  It had suffered decades of neglect and alterations.  It had been stripped of its stained glass windows and the openings were filled with plywood.  Yet against all odds this building found stewards (my partner Jim and I) who were able to give it a second chance. We were able to combine our respective skills and knowledge, acquired over our lifetimes, to make this highly visible building a source of pride for its community once again.  We converted it into a house and it was our priority to do it in the most sensitive way we could.  The “before and after” images, below, will show you how the building looked when we started the project, and how the building looked just before we sold it last year.

The photos at the bottom of the page depict the building as it is today.

 

Stripped of windows, boarded up and an eyesore, the building at the start of our six-year renovation.

 

New trees were planted to replace those which had died years before. In the early days we had no running water in the building so the trees had to be watered with buckets which were filled and then transported to the site.

 

The new owners cut down all the trees. More about this can be found by clicking HERE.

 

The interior when we started.  The three wood posts support rolling wood partitions manufactured by the U.B. & L. Co. of Oakland, California. They originally partitioned small Sunday School classes.

 

Five years later, the kitchen was shaping up in the former Sunday school area. The rolling partitions were used to define the kitchen space and cabinets were designed to allow the doors to still operate (in case the cooks got mad at each other). Antique glass was used for the upper cabinet doors which were designed to reflect period cabinetry. The light fixture, once a damaged flush-mount at the center of the room, was repaired and suspended from chain. Here it defines the dining area.

 

Beadboard was used for the base cabinet door panels as beadboard was used elsewhere in the building originally. I designed the cabinets and Jim (who is a much better woodworker than I) built them from lumber we had salvaged from area buildings which had been demolished.  He used rare and hard-to-find sheets of antique wavy glass to give period character to the doors.  Hindsight is 20/20.

 

There were only two things that we really argued about. I wanted to keep the dark, scratched up floors, Jim wanted to refinish them. He won. I wanted black laminate counter tops because I felt that granite was a cliche and inappropriate for the context. Jim won. We both agreed on white vintage appliances, however.

 

In the sanctuary, both the staircase and balcony were new additions. Here is the staircase under construction.

 

The staircase as completed. The “towers” at each end were built to conceal needed functions on the ground floor – a bathroom shower at one end and a furnace at the other. Their design mirrors that of the entry tower in an opposite corner.

 

I made the newel post to replicate the one in the entry hall and Jim faithfully duplicated its handrail. The square balusters were a bit easier. The lamp is a converted table lamp. The bottom of the stained glass window illuminates a storage closet below the stair.

 

Two former restrooms in the basement had seen better days.

 

The two restrooms, along with a part of the connecting hallway, were merged to create a spacious bathroom.  Note that we even retained the original toilet! (I got my black laminate countertops down here, if not in the kitchen). Today, the room is gutted.

 

One more view of the kitchen as it appeared last year.

 

The kitchen…  now.  The distinctive rolling wood partitions, a vital and integral part of the history of the building, have been removed.  Two of them lay on the floor where they were dropped.

 

The original fir flooring, so lovingly restored by Jim, has been removed.   Original plaster has been removed.

 

The living room as it appeared when completed.

 

The living room a few days ago.  As you can see, the staircase balustrade was afforded no protection from the plaster being ripped out.

 

It appears that the ceiling medallion and light fixture might be retained. Maybe.

 

The ostensible justification for all of this waste and destruction is water infiltration from a storm damaged roof!  The leak was in one corner of the kitchen, and the bulk of the water went straight down to the basement.  There are no stains on the ceiling in the photo above – just needlessly destroyed plaster.  Even if it had gotten wet, it would have dried out if allowed to.

The house in the photographs below was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  It sat vacant for over 10 years with a damaged roof until it was purchased by someone who appreciated its character and history.  The restored house retains its original wood floors and wood trim.  It will no doubt sell quickly because it retains its historic character and appeal.

 

This is what storm damage looks like.

 

Another view of the front.

 

Beautiful! The distinctive architectural character of the house was valued, retained and restored.

 

Original wood floors look great today.

 

OK; so the floor does slope a little. But it was saved because was understood to be an integral part of the house, its character and history. A perfectly level floor of some modern finish could never look this good or appropriate.

 

In this room one can see where the floor has been patched and where the floorboards fall a bit short of the baseboard. Again, the house has more value with this asset than without it. And these superficial flaws add a layer of history. It’s called “character” and it can not be purchased at a big box home “improvement” store.

 

So why were the beautifully restored fir floors in the former church ripped out and discarded?  Why was all of the beautiful woodwork similarly destroyed?  Why was all the original plaster ripped out?  Whatever replaces these things – if they are ever replaced – can never bring back the actual history that was permanently destroyed.  New materials will be just that; new.  And soulless.  It simply boggles the mind.

 

Today I cried.  On the floor.  Gut-wrenching sobs.  Fifty-six years old and I’m crying like a baby.

No words can begin to describe the cutting pain felt.  No words exist to describe the sense of loss.  My partner and I feel bewildered and our efforts discarded.

We feel empty.  And numb.


 

23 Responses to Radical Excision of the Soul

  1. What on earth are they planning by tearing out the plaster?? Not much to change regarding wall and ceiling structure..

    I’m glad to see they retained your beautiful staircase.

  2. To my dying day I will never understand people who casually destroy our architectural/historic heritage.

    The newest images make me ill.

    I feel your pain. And your fury.

    This is utterly senseless destruction.

  3. I have a knot in my stomach. Absolutely no respect for history, or for your skilled and loving restoration. Awful. Just awful.

  4. My condolences on the murder of your beautifully restored church. Angels weep in Heaven for your loss. Sinful and senseless! O:-(

  5. The only explanation would be inexplicable lunacy! I found the destruction of the historical integrity disturbing. In addition the destruction of the trees was a travesty. Planting and lovingly tending trees and to have morons destructively destroy all that was lovely was so disturbing!!! Anyone with a shred of decency and concern for the planet would know that trees absorb pollution & remove it from the air. Now the property is a wasteland! The current owners are idiots and to restore and appreciate are not in their purview; as they are bent on destruction & violent removal of anything artistic, architecturally pleasing or historically preserved.

    • It certainly feels like a wasteland to me. We are having trouble comprehending all of this. Ignorance? Bad advice from a contractor wanting a big pay day? Psycopathy? We just don’t know. The irony of it all is how they professed to love the place when they bought it. All we know is pain right now. Thank you for caring.

      • My prayers are for you in your grief to comfort. The destruction is a travesty. I pray you find solace and comfort in a new project when you are able. Good luck!!!

  6. Oh my goodness. Sweet Eric. I don’t even know what to say. I am so very sorry for your loss. Hugs to you and Jim. I can’t even imagine. You loved and cared for that building like a parent loves a child. Don’t let this heartless situation prevent you from loving and caring for the next diamond in the rough that comes your way.

  7. This makes me sick, I am sorry you are having to see the destruction. I’ve been sharing your renovation project with my clients, who are looking to restore old abandoned buildings (Yes, we still have people with imaginations thank goodness). I am grateful you have your blog and church website, my clients love your work. In other sad news, a church was torn down in the City of Emporia last week, it could have been renovated into a historic dining restaurant. Keep your head up, you do great and wonderful work. Thank you for being a Preservationist among us.

    • Thanks Brandon! If anything, this will just galvanizes us. We’ll keep going. Sorry to learn about the loss in Emporia. Too many people are somehow unable to see old buildings as the amazing resources that they are.

  8. Utterly nauseating. Stupidity. Recklessness. All I can say is the original restoration was gorgeous.

  9. All I can say beyond my extreme sympathies is (EXPLETIVE DELETED). There should be a way to neuter people like this and they should be prevented from buying old houses. This is almost as bad as that asshole that bought Mizner’s La Ronda and was such a dog in the manger that when a guy offered to buy the house for several times its value and move it, the owner wouldn’t sell and instead demolished it – an irreparable loss considering it was in pristine condition much like Inisfada – another irreparable loss. How can the new owners think this was a good idea and why didn’t they just buy a new house if they had no respect for restoration or landscape. If they didn’t want an old house, why?????????????????
    I’m crying right along with you. This is almost as insane as voting for Trump and expecting good results.

    • Thank you for your sympathy. I have learned one important lesson: Potential buyers of historic properties must be thoroughly vetted beforehand and protective covenants must be attached. Never again will I assume that people are sincere when they claim to “love” an old building. Like you, I wonder why people buy an old house if they prefer the HGTV aesthetic. It’s simply incomprehensible.

  10. A sad story that is all-too-common in America. Nearly every old house nut I know has multiple stories of old residential and commercial structures that have been razed or altered beyond recognition for no good reason. We had an 1870s courthouse on our town square that was demolished when I was about 6 years old; I still recall the day that I saw the wrecking ball going at it. My great-grandparents’ 19th century farmhouse was replaced with a double-wide trailer by the young couple who didn’t “want to change a single thing”. Few of our stories are as personal as yours, and there really aren’t any words…

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