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A rebirth for a 1920s cottage

January 9, 2012

The Tudor cottage during renovation, 2011. Click any image to enlarge.

[This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times. See http://www. 

When Don Granbois first went out looking for the old stone-clad cottage that Bloomington Restorations, Inc. (BRI) was selling, he couldn’t find it. He drove back and forth several times on East State Road 45 looking for it.

Hidden behind a jungle of saplings, thickets and poison ivy, the little house huddled, its roof collapsing, its floors rotted, one stone wall bulging outward.

Before the rehab, but after the surrounding jungle of poison ivy and saplings were cleared. The Tudor detail in the gable ends was completely obscured.

But back when it was built in 1923 for newlyweds John and Elsie Russell, the charming Tudor-style cottage with half-timbered gable ends was perfect for a young couple starting out in life. John’s grandfather was a prosperous farmer who had owned large tracts of acreage in the area (Russell Road was named for him), and the cottage was built on part of the family land.

But the Russells moved on, and the years were not kind to the little house. By the time Bloomington Restorations Inc. (BRI) acquired rights to sell the cottage, it was uninhabitable. A small addition on the back had been razed by order of the county authorities as unsafe.

Inside, the house was a horror, with rotted food in the dead refrigerator.

“It was seriously dilapidated,” Don recalled. “The foundation was threatened by roots, and there were big gaping holes in the back.” The cottage was filled with abandoned possessions and the old refrigerator contained decayed food. Several floor joists had collapsed.

Many people would have taken one look and said “bulldoze it.” But BRI has successfully restored many decrepit houses that others wrote off as unfixable. Don, who is chair of BRI’s Affordable Housing Committee, felt in the mood for a challenge and purchased the house himself, with the expectation of fixing it up and then selling it.

Sighting along the top floor of the cottage; the ceiling has been raised and rafters doubled to resemble English ceiling beams. You see the top of the stair railing.

“I knew it could be done,” he said. “I also wanted a project, and my wife Judy was very supportive.” Six months of demolition and rebuilding commenced, led by builder Jim Wright-Kaiser.

A structural engineer drew up a plan of attack. The foundation and stone facing had to be stabilized before anything else could happen. The basement walls, built from stone slabs, were excavated to the bottom, and nearby trees whose roots had compromised the foundation were removed. The basement walls were mortared and waterproofed and a French drain was installed. Trenches were then filled in and the front terraced.

Although the stone facing had bulged free from the framing in one place, Wright-Kaiser’s skilled team of experts removed the stones and then put them back in proper place. Bolts were placed at intervals to firmly connect the facing and the framing.

The refurbished living room. The space runs the entire width of the little home.

“Structurally, it’s sounder today than it was when it was built,” Don said proudly.

The entire main-level floor was removed and replaced. Only when the team began working in the basement around the main beam that supported the cottage did they realize how seriously compromised the house actually was: it was teetering on the edge of collapse. Its main supporting beam was swiftly supported in turn and most of the basement was neatly finished off with spray-foam insulation, drywall and Deco-style lighting.

The front doorway has a lovely arched opening.

As built, the main floor originally had three rooms: a living room that extended the entire width of the little house at the front, with two small rooms at the back of the house: the small galley kitchen, and a bedroom / study with a small bathroom.

Wright-Kaiser’s team improved the floor plan by extending the handsome new bathroom partially into the space where the old flue and chimney had been taken out. This created enough room for a new little hallway that unites the kitchen and study, converting the former dead end into a circular floor plan.

Everyone was surprised to discover that the little house had been balloon-framed instead of platform-framed like most 20th-century houses. Balloon framing was used widely in the 1800s between the end of post-and-beam framing and the advent of modern platform-built framing. (One builder told me that “balloon framing” was so-called because a house built with that method went up as fast as a balloon; but Wikipedia states that early post-and-beam carpenters jeered at this building method that used nothing but slender studs and nails and laughed that it would blow in the wind like a balloon.) But balloon framing virtually disappeared in this part of the country in the late 1800s.  Don did research and discovered that due to balloon framing’s even shrinkage rate, the method is more amenable to brick and stone cladding than platform framing. It’s a puzzle: did the original builders in 1923 know this, or were they simply old-timers using a construction method they learned in their youth?

The master bedroom walls have storage built into the knee-walls beneath the sloping ceiling.

The upper floor was very crude, with thin plywood walls and little attempt at finishing. Wright-Kaiser’s team reshaped the upper level into a finished master suite, with bedroom, sitting area and half-bath. They recessed an unfinished set of drawers into the knee-wall to conserve floor space and added two closets.

The upper floor originally had been the least attractive area of the little Tudor cottage. Wright-Kaiser enhanced its appearance by opening the ceiling, doubling up the ceiling joists and framing them in to create Tudor-style overhead “beams.” The dark-stained beams create a pleasant visual staccato against the white walls and ceiling.

“This is a reconstruction, not a historic restoration,” Don emphasized. Too much of the original interior was compromised to be able to restore it fully. But the new materials were carefully chosen to coordinate with 1920s styles: the new dark-stained pine floor, the hardware, the oak trim. The kitchen will bow to modernity and have granite countertops. The point of this project was to take a structure that others believed was worthless, and transform it into a place that will become a home for someone who will love it.

“I think back to what it looked like when we began the process,” Don said reflectively. “We were really lucky to get past the danger points where things could have gone wrong. The further along we went, the more inspired we became. It was a real pleasure to see it come back.”



From → Houses

  1. Derek permalink

    Love this story, Carrol. Hope to see many more homes like this saved…

  2. Loved this post. I can’t believe someone left a ‘fridge with food in it!

  3. Just love this kind of story, one with a happy ending!

  4. Wow! I remember driving past that cottage, surprised when it emerged from the foliage. Is the owner going to sell it now? Or at least have an open house?

    • This article appeared a while ago, and since that time Don has held an open house and found a good new owner. Interestingly, there is a second little limestone cottage that looks almost identical, further out the same road to the east…can’t remember whether it’s near New Unionville or Unionville itself. Take a drive and look for both houses on the north side of the road. Thanks for writing!

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