HISTORIC HOMES: Residents Revitalize

In the forgotten pockets and back corners, from under tired eaves and weathered scales, comes a revival.  Slow and painstaking, but steady and passionate.

In the late 19th century, when Des Moines` founders were building the city, these were their proudest streets.  But as the money moved out in the following decades, pride turned to shame.

Tanya Keith says, “This was the biggest drug house between Omaha and Chicago.”

Tanya is the reason the Hatton House still towers over River Bend after 117 years.

She says, “There were runaways living here and drugs and prostitution and it was a house of ill-repute!”

But even after decades of neglect, there was something in withered details that sang out — there always is.

Tanya says, “You have to kind of see past something that appears to be an eyesore, I mean, they were ready to knock this house down and now it`s one of the gems of Des Moines architecture.”

Keith and her husband have the Hatton House on the comeback.  Restoration is a long process, for families doing the work themselves and living inside the mess, but each gem that regains its former shine is a shot of inspiration.  Rehabbing can be an addiction in itself.

Tanya says, “There`s a joke that everyone in River Bend owns two houses: the one that you live in and the one that you`re fixing up.”

That`s the case with Aaron Barnum down the street.

He says, “We actually call this place the `Greek Lady` and my wife says I spend more time with the Greek Lady than with her.”

The Greek Lady is his job, and his home is block west.   You should have seen it before he got his hands on it.

For rehabbers, the job usually begins with returning the place to a single-family home.  Most were cut up into apartments long ago.

Barnum says, “A lot of it was after World War II and the city was encouraging these big house to be turned into multi-family because housing was needed in the city that wasn`t available.”

The Garver House in Sherman Hill was actually built to be a duplex in the late 1800s.

David Schlarmann says, “It was really an opportunity to invest in one of the last jewels in the rough in Sherman Hill. There`s a few, but they`re few and far between.”

Sherman Hill is further along than River Bend, and rehabbers like Schlarmann are the reason.

He says, “It`s an investment in my neighborhood. I live less than a block and a half away from this property and so it`s a good chance to improve areas right around me.”

Schlarmann took advantage of historical tax credits and abatements to renovate his own home and is doing the same with the Garver House.  The credits encourage historically-accurate work.

Schlarmann says,  “Too often you see renovations that are sort of cookie-cutter renovations where people come in and they just sort of slap it together because all they`re interested in is making a rental dollar.”

What`s unclear is just what to make of the Garver House`s most memorable feature, a thirty-foot tunnel leading under 16th Street.

“It`s walled off at the end, I have no idea where this tunnel goes and so that`s another piece of history that I`m hoping to discover,” says Schlarmann.

Rehab work will turn many into history buffs, but few into millionaires.

Spencer VandeBerg says, “It`s not like HGTV where they`re making $30,000 and flipping them and doing one in a week.”

Spencer Vandeberg`s place in the Drake neighborhood has taken up his every drop of sweat equity for the last six months, but just look what he`s done.  This bona fide resurrection on 26th Street is his seventh in the area.

He says, “Everybody feels that this is really coming around and that this is gonna be a nice place for anybody to live in the near future.”

The renovations please the eye, but perhaps there`s a greater effect…

Steve Wilke-Shapiro says,  “Revitalizing our older neighborhoods is extremely important for preserving the tax base and the communities that have grown there.”

Those willing to step forward in places like these change more than cosmetics, they change perceptions.

Barnum says, “If it takes a little bit of me fixing up houses here before people realize how nice a neighborhood it is, I`m willing to do that.”

They aren`t for everybody, but then, these grand places were never meant to be.

Tanya says, “My hope is to die in this house, a very long time from now.”

High hopes, once again, in places where so many had fallen.  New love for old things which needed it most.

Wilke-Shapiro says, “Over time, homes develop their own character, they develop their own story… that is lent to them by the people who live there.”

And thanks to these people, the stories simply add a new chapter in books once thought to be closed.


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