Rowhouse exterior before remodel
Photo: James Carrière
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Fernando's Facade

Steve, who works in printing-technology sales and pretty much avoids all DIY activity, was a little surprised when his wife proposed that they take on a new project—again. Actually, Jenna concedes, "he was flipping out."

But even he had to admit that the century-old house deserved a little attention from a relentless salvager like Jenna, who has been known to hoard old corbels, closet doors, and stained glass "in case I need them someday." So maybe the double-hungs no longer went up and down—the house had other virtues, including a rich past.

It was built in 1911 by a developer named Fernando Nelson, who, like Jenna, was self-trained, focused, and broad in his tastes. Before retiring to a mansion nearby, he put up thousands of working-class homes, using his magpie's eye for other builders' details rather than hiring an architect.

Nelson erected this house, along with a number of its neighbors, on the site of a former amusement park. It has a front-facing gable, tall banks of windows, strong horizontal trim, and entry stairs rising sideways to a glassed-in front porch atop a street-facing garage. When the Pelaezes bought it, the house held 2,336 square feet, with five bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, and beams formally boxed in faux-grained gumwood.

But as the couple stepped over the loose tiles on the porch floor, they could see work stretching out before them. Blue carpet camouflaged hardwood floors, and tall, dark wainscot dimmed the dining and living rooms. On the second floor, the baths sat back-to-back, with nary a WC on the first or third floors. The kitchen was divided between two rooms, with the sink area in an enclosed back porch where the washer and dryer also hung out.
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