A beloved house
[This article first appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times in August of 2014.]
Chuck and Patti Russo love their historic house, built in 1906 by Mickey Burke, a Monon railroad conductor. Its wide limestone steps lead up to an inviting front porch, while the elegant interior abounds with period architectural flourishes: high ceilings, large windows, pocket doors, and original trim. It’s an integral part of Prospect Hill’s National Historic District, and the Russos are only the fifth owners over 108 years.
“We love old houses,” said Chuck. “It reminded us of our first home in Morris, IL, which was a 1916 foursquare. When we saw this house we just couldn’t resist it. We never thought we’d get a house like this.”
The former Bloomington residents raised their four children here before relocating to Boulder, Colorado. When they returned in 2012, they were empty-nesters seeking a new home that would accommodate social gatherings and visits from grown children. They looked at a variety of houses, but nothing really struck a chord until they saw the Prospect Hill house.
The Dutch Colonial house has overlays of Free Classic style and is almost identical to an early Montgomery Ward house plan. The house is locally significant because of third owners Bill and Helen Sturbaum, who with their sons restored the building after a period of decline. This set in motion a train of events that led to Prospect Hill’s current rebloom following decades of mid-century decline.
Chuck and Patti were fortunate in being first in line for seven scheduled showings of the house. They took one look and immediately fell in love with it. They made a bid then and there, which was accepted.
Although the former owners had decorated it in a sumptuous retro-Victorian style, the interior was simply too dark for the new owners.
“The former owners recreated 1906,” said Patti. “They had fainting couches, a harpsichord, stamped tin ceilings, and dark burgundy walls. But I’m light-sensitive and we just HAD to make it brighter and more cheerful.”
“We wanted to respect what we had, a beautiful house with Victorian value,” said Chuck. “We have no desire to do anything to the exterior because it’s part of the historic district.”
The couple completely refurbished the main level. Original floors with almost-black finish were stripped; wallpaper was removed, and walls repainted. Tim Laughlin of Plumb, Inc. was the general contractor; Steve Berg of Lee Supply helped with the kitchen and bath; Jason Underwood of InStile and Ron White completed separate tile projects.
“We repainted any trim that was already painted,” said Chuck, “but we left everything that was varnished. After the floors were stripped, it became as bright as a spotlight. ”
Most importantly, the kitchen was completely gutted and rebuilt with simple, modernist lines.
“We weren’t taking out a historic kitchen, so we felt comfortable updating the space,” Patti pointed out. “We started from scratch. The cork flooring was in poor shape and we took it all out. It was a galley kitchen with an entrance to the bathroom at one end. My friend Marie Carpenter and I drew up the kitchen plans, and we asked Steve Berg separately to do the same, and he came up with the same configuration. We moved the location of the bathroom door because we have a lot of guests and we wanted them to feel more comfortable.”
The kitchen was fully opened to the adjacent sitting room with its many south-facing windows, and an island with breakfast bar took the place of the former wall. The high-quality former cabinets were donated to Habitat ReStore. Although the new cabinetry looks custom, it’s actually stock cabinets that complement Arts and Crafts style, albeit with modernist opaque glass fronts. The new flooring is porcelain tile. The adjacent bathroom was enlarged by sacrificing a parlor closet. Because the existing tub had an arched opening above it, the opening between the former closet and bathroom was also remade in an arch.
New limestone tile now surrounds the original fireplace in the dining room, brightening the space. Upstairs, rooms and trim were painted. The work extended over four months late last year, including both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We had all four kids home for the holidays,” said Patti, “and we threw a party for 28 people. We had the kitchen barricaded with caution tape and sawhorses, and can you guess where all those people ended up? In the kitchen!” She laughed at the memory.
The east-facing upstairs windows formerly offered an admirable view from Prospect Hill all the way to the Courthouse lawn, but construction of the new Hyatt Place at Morton and Kirkwood has impinged on the view of the square. Still, the vista is panoramic.
“We tell people, ‘Nineteen steps up, but the view is worth the climb,’” said Patti.
She summed up, “It’s much more than just a house. It’s a home, to all our friends and family as well. Even in the midst of the construction, we hosted many gatherings. The house just feels like us.”
“We’re thrilled,” Chuck emphasized; “we’re thrilled!”