Adaptive reuse on NE 30th: A viable alternative to teardown

When the dumpsters and porta-potty arrived a few weeks ago out in front of the old house, we presumed the worst. We’d seen the 1921 Craftsman bungalow near NE 30th and Skidmore decline as bags of garbage piled up on the front porch, bushes grew up over the car in the driveway and the electricity was turned off.

This compact 1921 bungalow near NE 30th and Skidmore in Alameda is being revived from what looked like a sure path toward teardown. March 2, 2020.

Taken with its slow descent over the last couple of years, the recent signals seemed clear enough the property had changed hands and would be torn down to make way for another quickly-built three-story unit (or two) that maximized lot lines and financial returns. We’ve seen this story play out before, including for the old bungalow that used to stand right next door to this unlikely survivor.

But this story is headed in a different direction.

The 1,000-square-foot 1921 Alameda bungalow that looked like the next candidate for a teardown is now being revived, restored and repurposed by a nearby neighbor couple who couldn’t bear to see another teardown / big box happen and who wanted to make room for their extended family (they’re adding an addition to the back of the old bungalow to give the modern family a bit more space).

Harry Ford and Amy Garlock, who live in the house directly across the backyard lot line, watched back in 2016 as the former house kitty-corner across the backyard did get torn down and replaced by two three-story semi-attached boxes which sold for almost $1 million each. When it looked like the bungalow directly behind them was headed down the same path, they began to wonder if there was something they could do.

“We bought it partly so that there wouldn’t be another giant duplex in our backyard,” says Ford.

But Ford also explains the house—which will share a big now-open backyard with their own place on NE 29th—will help meet a very real contemporary need: a quality place to live for their aging-in-place parents.

It’s interesting to note that back in the day, a similar multi-generational family-as-neighbor arrangement was in place just around the corner with the family that once lived in the now-gone bungalow and their in-laws who lived right next door. Former residents of that house remembered dinners that went back and forth, the sharing of tools, supplies, grandparents helping with babysitting. It worked out great for everyone.

Today, Ford is looking forward to having his in-laws just across the backyard, and to interrupting the teardown trend by keeping—and adapting—the historic fabric of the neighborhood. He acknowledges that pretty much any other purchaser of the very run-down house would have razed, rebuilt and sold high to repay the construction loan, then moved on to the next project.

For his family though, the ability to acquire an existing older home at a reasonable price literally in their own backyard, combined with the ability to meet the families’ needs at the moment and for the foreseeable future, made this a reasonable thing to do. Ford and Garlock look at the investment in restoration as a good long-term proposition given the multiple types of “bottom lines” it helps them achieve: economics, quality of life, aesthetics and sustainability.

The origin of the house has an interesting story: when AH started exploring the home’s history this week, we determined that it’s a Sears Roebuck house, built in 1921 by builder Albert W. Horn. The floor plan is pure Sears Argyle, one of the company’s most successful kit homes, sold from 1917-1925. Here, take a look:

The Argyle page from a 1921 Sears Roebuck catalog. From 1908 through 1940, Sears sold more than 70,000 kit homes that were built in almost every major US city by homeowners, their friends and in some cases like this one, actual home builders.

 

1921 Sears Roebuck Argyle floor plan, from the catalog. A solid match with the NE 30th Avenue bungalow.

 

On a recent visit, the scope of the work necessary to bring back the 1921 bungalow was evident: Heating, plumbing, electrical, all interior walls, kitchen, bathroom, fireplace, chimney, exterior siding, finishes, window trim. The 100-year-old foundation and framing are solid. Everything else needs attention.

Standing in the kitchen looking toward the front door through the dining room and living room. There’s a bedroom in the front right, a bathroom down the hall and a bedroom in the back, just to the right in this picture. Turn 90 degrees to the right and there’s a stairway into the full basement. March 2, 2020.

“Sometimes, going down to the studs in an old house like this is just easier because you know exactly what you’re working with,” said Craig McNinch of McNinch Construction who is running the project utilizing drawings by Lynn Harritt. He also restored Ford and Garlock’s current bungalow on NE 29th. “This place has great bones,” says McNinch, gesturing to the full dimension 2 x 4 framing lumber, the solid oak floors and the foundation.

From the dining room looking into the living room. A portal wall framed the opening between the two rooms and came down to meet the columns that are atop the built-in cabinets. Behind the sheets of pressboard material on the left is a fireplace. Just like the historic Argyle plans. March 2, 2020.

McNinch has worked on many restoration projects in the area and acknowledges this one is indeed a challenge. But he likes the vision of restoring what was once a new and exciting home for a young family, the backyard connection of the two houses and families, and the constant stream of positive comments he’s had from neighbors and passersby who are happily surprised with the work. During a recent afternoon, we heard McNinch and his crew loudly encouraged to “keep up the good work” by a passing driver calling from a rolled-down window.

Asbestos abatement contractors recently removed the asphalt shingles revealing the original brown cedar shingle siding. March 2020.

Ford and Garlock’s project to revive the old place reminds all of us that there are alternatives to demolition; that it’s ok to adapt something old to meet current needs; that the grace and history of an old place adds its own kind of meaning to family life.

Stay tuned for updates and more on Sears Roebuck homes.

The End of History

While we know change is actually the default setting of the universe, and we appreciate the economic complexities of restoration and development, there’s no getting away from the gut punch that happens every time we see these forces collide in our neighborhood.

We’ve been exploring this lately here on the blog as a witness to the coming changes at the corner of NE 30 and Skidmore. We’ve lived here almost 30 years and have walked by that house hundreds, maybe thousands of times. But we’ve never lived there, and don’t know anyone who has. It’s not part of our personal story, per se.

We’ve wondered what it might be like, or how objective we could be, if it was a place integral to our family history. If we thought of each demolition in this way, would it become more impactful? Would there be another set of calculations to make that could lead to other options?

We had an inkling of that this week when we learned one of the iconic homes from our family history, a modest Queen Anne bungalow on Diversey Avenue on Chicago’s north side where our father was born, has been demolished and replaced with a condominium. We wrote about the Diversey house here on AH some time back when we asked you to share a picture and story about your favorite house. Here it is, from one of the hundreds of pictures taken during earlier days:

1038 Diversey Parkway, Chicago. Taken about 1918.

1038 Diversey Parkway, Chicago (on the left). Taken about 1918.

 

Here’s the visual on this recent change, thanks to Google streetview. It’s the blue house on the right.
1038-w-diversey-parkway-before

Before

1038-w-diversey-parkway-after

After

We won’t go into detail about how many stories and memories went down with those two houses. Dad was born there, delivered by the doctor who lived next door. Neighborhood picnics were held in the backyard. First day of school pictures on the front steps. Photos of uncles coming and going from the Great War. That house anchored the family as it grew, and it showed in the pictures that flowed from that experience.

During our own growing up years in the Chicago area, decades after the house passed from the family’s hands, whenever we were anywhere near, Dad always took us by, told a story, fed our imaginations with a sense of times past. Maybe our visits and the house’s presence in stories and pictures helped Dad stay oriented in his own family landscape. That’s the thing about our old houses: they become a kind of navigational aid for a family in its journey from past to present to future. After Dad died, we made the pilgrimage back on our own, the pictures of the uncles, the big snow, the sled on the porch burned into our hearts.

That’s where the gut punch comes from. Today, it’s all erased: not a single clue about those houses, those lives.

Clearly, we can’t “save” every old house or building. Our communities are growing and changing and a new infrastructure, informed by the past, is necessary for the city of the future. But we have to find a better way, to build on our strengths and on our past rather than erasing all traces.

 

“House of No Value” ~ 2933 NE Skidmore: The Next Alameda Tear-Down?

9-11 1921 Detail of 915 Skidmore (NE Corner of 30th)

A photo from The Oregonian, September 11, 1921. Built by the Wickman Building Company for the George A. Kettleberg family at a cost of $4,500.

FullSizeRender (11)

January 30, 2016

We were disappointed to read the language of a recent real estate advertisement for the 1921 Craftsman bungalow at the northwest corner of NE 30th and Skidmore.

The 50 x 100 corner lot was recently legally partitioned into two 50 x 50 lots and an allowance made for two houses on what has been (and still is for the moment) a single lot. (Read more about the practice of “lot splitting” and the demolition trend here). Among other things, the ad called out to builders and investors and made it clear this was a tear-down in waiting:

“House of no value. Value in land only.”

This week, the listing broker amended the ad noting that the seller would be willing to consider selling the house as is instead of tearing it down. This is good news. The price moved a bit too in the right direction: now asking $599,900. Last week’s language of “house of no value” was changed this week to this:

“Instant equity with this fixer; hardwood floors; classic floor plan; Seller willing to try conventional financing for full price offer – seller to do no repairs. Or Tear Down and Build 2 new houses! Approved for attached houses!”

AH readers know that old houses do indeed have value, and a multi-layered history that makes them unique and important. Yes, we know that all things (including houses and buildings) do have a life cycle, and that taking care of any older home is an investment. We haven’t had a chance to look around inside the house yet, but old-house-savvy people we respect have and report that yes indeed, it is a fixer with its share of deferred maintenance. But, the bones are solid, and they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Know anyone who’s looking for a bargain of an old house, wants to stem the tide of tear downs, and has a fixer upper in them? Time to make that call.

We’ll volunteer to do a full house history study as moral support for any successful fixer-upper purchaser…

Extra note: below is a screenshot from a faithful AH reader that shows a Google Maps street view image of the property from 2011. Our helpful reader reminds us that it’s possible to turn back street view time to see how this property has aged over the last few years. Try it yourself by searching the address and going to Google Maps street view, then drag the timeline bar back and forth to look for changes. Thanks John!

Skidmore House

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