KEVIN LEININGER: Two old homes have escaped the wrecking ball, and one is a diamond in the (very) rough
Ben Wahli loves old houses so much he quit his job so he could restore more of them. Now the former Do It Best executive is planning a makeover that could produce one of the most stunning homes in the historic West Central Neighborhood — one of two current renovation projects sparked by the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Development Services department.
“This really is a passion, a labor of love,” said Wahli, who until early last year was a production manager for the New Haven-based hardware distributor but now devotes his attention to Wahli Enterprises, which Tuesday was selected by the HANDS board over two competitors to rescue the potentially awesome 134-year-old Victorian mansion at 801 W. Berry St.
As I reported in January, the city used a $402,000 federal grant in 2014 to buy the 8,994-square-foot house and seven other blighted properties, planning to sell them for redevelopment. But the Berry Street house designed in 1884 by the then-prominent architects Wing & Mahurin was so dilapidated nobody was interested. Since then, however, West Central has experienced a real estate boom sparked by downtown redevelopment, so earlier this year the city tried again — and ultimately decided Wahli’s plan would be the best fit.
“We’ll pay a lot of attention to historic restoration to the windows, porch, staircase,” Whali said. “But the house has been pretty chopped up, so we’re going to have to piece plans together.” His father, Shmuel, will occupy a third-floor suite and the first and second floors will contain two apartments each. Most of the original interior features vanished long ago, but Wahli said he’ll try to incorporate historic fixtures salvaged from other homes, such as stained glass.
“There are 10-foot ceilings on the first and second floors,” said Wahli, who plans to install transoms above the doors to take advantage of the height. “When people come to live in an historic area, they aren’t looking for IKEA. They want something historically significant.” The original home’s exterior still boasts ornate woodwork and brickwork, but a large utilitarian garage added in the 1930s or ’40s will remain, Wahli said, because it now, too, is considered “historic.” As a local historic district, exterior changes to West Central buildings must be approved by the city.
Wahli is president of the West Central Neighborhood today, but his commitment to the area was obvious even when working for Do It Best. When I first met Wahli in November 2016, he and wife, Tammy, were in the middle of an $80,000 restoration of a Wilt Street house they had bought for $20,000. Today, Wahli Enterprises owns seven properties in West Central, and when they buy the Berry Street house from the city that number will grow. The city has established a minimum bid of $120,000, and Wahli expects to spend another $550,000 on the restoration, which will take about 18 months.
The house, in the late 1890s was home to Sentinel publisher Edward A.K. Hackett, and Wahli’s rescue will come just in time. “Another couple freeze-thaw cycles and we could have lost a unique structure,” said Greg Leatherman, the city’s director of community development.
The house at 1227 Kinsmoor Ave. off Broadway is not nearly as historic or grand, but will be no less important to people who will one day have the chance to call it home.
As I reported in 2015, the city’s Neighborhood Code office had ordered the still-attractive house demolished because of foundation problems. The house has been vacant since at least 2008 and because of foreclosure was under the control of the Bank of America, which eventually sold it to the city for $7,900. When I toured the house three years ago it was still potentially desirable, with its original woodwork intact and new appliances that had never been used.
Later that year the city offered the Kinsmoor house and seven others for development. But, according to HANDS spokeswoman Mary Tyndall, higher-than-expected rehabilitation costs forced the city to remove the house from the list.
Now, however, the city is seeking bids to rebuild the foundation, and once the structure is stabilized the city will develop plans for its purchase and renovation. “It’s one step in the right direction,” Tyndall said.
Two, actually. And just in time.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.