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The cobbler’s kids have no shoes, but by golly I’m getting a house.
When we first bought our Italianate Victorian fixer in Petoskey, I had my doubts about being in by the Fourth of July, as was promised by my general contractor husband. And with the slowest remodeling loan process in the history of the world, even Trevor, ever easy-going, became impatient. Now, three months past our original start date, he spends each evening and every weekend pulling down horsehair plaster and jacking up warped ceilings.
When we began searching for our first home practically a decade ago, Trevor pined after the abandoned house downtown. “If someone fixed it up, it’d be beautiful,” he’d say. Fast-forward to early 2010 - we’ve sold our house outside of town and are trying to find the right one in town. I’m ready to move into something simple and finished; Trevor is sure he can talk someone into moving out of one of the more character-laden houses so that he can get his hands on it. And he does.
Well, technically, I do.
The house at 105 Division St. in downtown Petoskey was owned, but empty. It was falling apart in so many ways that it wasn’t safe to walk the perimeter. Open pipes and battered rooflines gave easy access to critters, particularly bats. The first time we went in we simply opened the screen to a tall, broken window and climbed over.
It was like walking through a time portal: lighting original to... lighting. Deep, unmarred woodwork, up to our shoulders in some spaces. Stained glass, lead glass, crystal sconces, windows with pulleys, a marble sink in a bedroom with a spout for cold and a spout for hot water. A maid’s room. A maid’s bell. A cook’s bell. An intricately carved toilet, pocket doors as big as walls, an elaborate front stairway and a simple back stairway.
We left the house and went to the county building to track down the owners. I called that night and offered to buy the house.
It had been in her family since her grandparents bought it from the original owners in the early 1900s. Oral history has it that the first inhabitants were early railroad barons in Petoskey, and sure enough, the house towers over the former rail station, and not far from the front steps is a ramp - part of a pulley system used for hauling luggage to Petoskey’s homes and businesses from the trains.
The house was passed through the family and finally landed with the homeowner and her siblings, who had never lived there themselves. It was a difficult decision, to give it up, but I think she imagined our family living there, loving it, bringing it back to life, and she sold us the house that had never been for sale in the first place. So far, she doesn’t want to see what we’re doing to it. We’re hoping she changes her mind.
Since getting the keys - actually, no. There are no keys; the keys for the house are original to the house and you can see right through the keyholes. There are deadbolts since perhaps the mid-1900s but those keys are long gone.
Since taking ownership of the house, we’ve discovered a widow’s walk, a hidden compartment in the entryway large enough for both of my children to hide in, windows to other rooms framed behind plastic walls in the kitchen (pass-throughs, perhaps, or mediums for spreading light around the house), bank deposit slips and a massive cistern in the basement. Baubles and cat toys in the walls and felt lining in the drawers of the beautiful built-in dining room cabinet. Two massive carved columns that stood between the library and the living room. A closet between the walls.
The homeowner’s grandmother had been ill and an elevator was installed. She used a buzzer on the dining room floor for the help, too - both gadgets have since disappeared, but the marks on the flooring are still there.
We’re enjoying the hunt for history in the house, but we’ve moved on to imagining its future. Trevor, his father and his cousin have done a good deal of demolition to the kitchen, tearing out a much-loved butler’s pantry that really did have to go. Even with the new space the kitchen will be small compared to the rest of the house, so we’ve turned the existing mudroom into a pantry and powder room, and the sunporch into a mudroom. Originally cut off from the rest of the house save for the back stair, the kitchen now has a hall to the library.
This week the trades will start their work, and a carpenter will divide the maid’s bedroom into a laundry room and a master bathroom, and finish framing the kitchen, powder room and attic, which will become our children’s playroom. He’ll fix the massive porch and build gates at the tops of the steps, so our basset hound can safely sit outside and watch the boats in Little Traverse Bay.
The roof will come down and a new one will go up, ceilings will be repaired and a skim coat will be applied to the plaster walls. New windows, designed to retain some of the character from the original windows, will be installed and Trevor will strip the intricate door hinges to be used again.
I’d like to say that the exterior will be painted soon, that the floors will be finished and the cabinets hung. But this is a meticulous process, full of safety issues and attempts at energy efficiency, and we expect that our first holiday in the house will be Thanksgiving.
In the meantime, I’ll head to the library and museum to find information on the original owners and, if I’m lucky, a picture of the house in the late 1890s. The girls will be busy planning their rooms (one wants a rock wall and the other wants a castle - do you think these will match the period of the house?). And Trevor, he’ll be busy enough restoring the home’s grandeur while updating everything behind the walls.
Stay tuned for more photos and updates on the house as we uncover its history and begin building our lives there. We’d love to hear your suggestions for colors, decor and details, and your reactions to what we pick. In my next post, I’ll reveal our exterior colors. Here’s a hint: there are six. Do you think the cobbler’s wife would do that to her husband?
Our first official shot of the house, back when we thought we'd be in by summer.
Welcome home! The entryway.
The curious sink in the bedroom.
Standing in the entryway - moving clockwise, the office, the library, the living room.
The dining room cabinet.
Found: Columns, stored in the attic. In the attic!
The dining room, before the seller's belongings were moved out.
View from the top.