In 1999 Bob and Lemma began to talk about a more serious commitment, though he wasn’t in the market for a house. In 1989, Bob had bought and restored a slightly smaller 1895-96 Queen Anne in the heart of Montgomery, although his ultimate dream was to own a Greek Revival or Federal-style home. Nonetheless, Bob’s buying the Crabtree House with a Life Estate arrangement for Lemma could both protect the house and guarantee her a home for the rest of her days.
The Crabtree House had a lot going for it. It retained many touches added before fires and floods at the mill and then the Great Depression wiped out the family fortune. A 1914 addition closed in the original back porch and added a second-story sleeping porch and larger pantry. Another expansion in 1923 doubled the parlor and dining room and in the latter added a window-seat wall.
The house boasted stained-glass windows in the stairwell and parlor, much of the original door hardware (including decorative cast-iron hinges), and the original oak mantel with its carved oak fireplace cover surrounded by bronze plating. The house has an open feel because the doors between entry, parlor, and dining room are either pocket doors that disappear or glass bifold doors that almost do. Yet there are also cozy nooks, like the tiny bookroom off the parlor.
Bob found more than 300 negatives in Lemma’s attic. The home also held 85 years of journals—some beneath ceilings that were collapsing from a damaged roof.
So for both Lemma and the house, Bob signed the purchase agreement and he and Heike continued their work pretty much as usual. They did make a considerable investment, though, in a standing-seam copper roof and gutters, calling in a second contractor when the first round of work led to water damage on the porch.
Throughout the process, Bob applied lessons learned from his previous restoration. “You need to let a house speak to you,” he says, and you also need to leave enough clues for new generations to interpret. So in the Crabtree basement he left the electric system’s knobs and tubes, as well as a door into the former coal room, even though there is now only half a partition into that space.
“The [dividing] wall had termite damage, and the room had no windows, and when I took it down I thought, ‘I really like this.’ But the door had notations in Lemma’s father’s hand about coal deliveries, and it seemed important to leave it.” He and Heike left original Victorian wallpaper and border in a closet; the walls of most rooms shed plaster as newer wallpaper was removed, and Bob called in a pro for the bigger patching jobs.
When Lemma died in the fall of 2001, Bob and Heike began more interior work, including replacing tile ceilings with sheetrock, painting walls, and refinishing the parlor and dining-room floors, a total of about 4,000 square feet. “The finish was worn off because they had never had much carpet, but they had a nice patina that I didn’t want to lose.” He stripped them with a paste stripper and then pad sanded any stained areas, finishing with polyurethane. “It’s a Herculean task, but you just do so much today, and so much the next time.”
A New Resident
Renter D. J. Shugars took one look at the dining area and pictured herself relaxing on the window seat with a good book.
Those tasks completed, Bob thought it was time to move into the Crabtree House and put his other house up for rent (although his plumber several times commented, “I can’t believe you’re giving up that beautiful house for this old barn.”) After many weeks, though, the most promising response he got to his rental ad couldn’t move in until spring—a wait that would be too big a strain on his budget.
Then D. J. Shugars walked through his door. She was being transferred immediately by a cable network, but said that Bob’s current house, with its quirky little doorways and corners, wouldn’t give her any place for her long rows of bookshelves. “Well,” admitted Bob reluctantly, “I do have this other house.” He drove her to the house at night, stopped briefly, and asked, “Have you seen enough?”
D. J. was not to be so easily put off. “It was a winter night,” she recalls. “I didn’t even see the outside until later.” She loved the wraparound porch, the woodwork–especially the stairwell—and the dining room, where she could envision herself reading on the window seat.
Among the features that charmed D. J. on her first visit was the stairwell, which combines Victorian fillips with more straightforward Edwardian-style balusters.
Three years later D. J. shows no signs of moving out. She loves the combination of open and cozy spaces, and the large pantry that gives her space for canned tomatoes and cooking supplies. From the back porch she can view wildlife ranging from birds (including wild turkeys) to rabbits and deer. In spring the deep slope is spangled with hundreds of naturalized daffodils planted by the Crabtrees. Thus D. J. has become yet another partner in this restoration, tolerating Bob and Heike and/or contractors almost every weekend, but also weighing in with what job should get next priority, and—not least—helping to keep the whole project afloat by renting the house.
Bob thinks Lemma’s spirit still inhabits the place, perhaps with that of her parents and sisters. D. J., who never met Lemma, says she’s never felt her presence. “But I think she would approve of another independent woman who loves to read and loves family and friends, living in her house.”