Meet the Grand Prize Winners: Best Whole House Remodel 2012
The Wallacavage family relied on guts, a strong constitution, and a hefty dose of hope to turn an 1895 Tudor on the verge of being condemned into their dream home
I'd been jogging by this old Tudor every day for years. Call me a stalker, but I was looking for a sign. Then one day, I got one: A small mulberry tree had sprouted from the roof. It was like a hand waving and saying, Come check this out, there's something going on here.
That something was neglect. And in it I saw an opportunity to have a bigger house for my growing family in a neighborhood I'd always loved—the historic Overbrook Farms section of Philadelphia.
I started leaving notes for the owner on the front door, which was jammed open with dated mail and flyers. After months with no reply, I got up the courage to enter the house. I pushed the door all the way open, and all I could see was garbage. It covered every surface. There was no power, no water, no one around—just flies circling and stray cats scurrying.
The stench nearly turned me back, but I stood my ground. As an ICU nurse, I have a strong stomach. More important, I knew the 1895 house was designed by one of my favorite architects, William L. Price, and I couldn't help but think this might be my only chance to get my hands on one of his great buildings.
Shown: New stucco, paint, and an asphalt-shingle roof transformed the exterior from the eyesore on the block to a showpiece.
A jumble of furniture and soggy boxes blocked access to the first-floor rooms, so I started up the stairs—carefully, though, because something unidentifiable was oozing down them. At the top of the landing I found the only bathroom and the source of the ooze. The room was one big litter box, with a thick crust of cat feces on the floor and filling the tub and sink.
The bedrooms down the hall were a mass of congealed clothing, drained water jugs, and more piled-up furniture. So up I went again, to the third floor. There, in a front room, I got my first peek at the floorboards. They were honey-hued heart pine, and they hinted at the rich potential in what was otherwise a 3,800-square-foot nightmare of tightly glued-together filth. Had the health department gotten wind of what I was seeing, the house would have been condemned. And I couldn't let that happen. When I found out it was going into a sheriff's sale because of back property taxes, I tracked down the owner and negotiated a way to buy the house from her, saving it by the skin of my teeth. That was May of 2008.
Shown: It took seven strong men armed with pitchforks to clear five dumpsters' worth of garbage out of the house.
Now—four years, five dumpsters, 800 contractor bags, and countless hours of gut-wrenching work later—that horror show is a dream home to me, my wife, Katie, and our four children: Isabel, 8, Gabriel, 5, Zinash, 4, and the baby, Nathaniel, 9 months. The two older kids were around from the beginning of the project, but it wasn't until midway through the renovation that Katie and I got the call from the adoption agency that our third child, Zinash, who was then 19 months old, was waiting for us in Ethiopia. With my obsessive focus on the house, it was Katie who had worked so hard for this adoption. And though we were overjoyed with the news, the timing couldn't have been worse.
Shown: The Wallacavage clan (clockwise)—Mark, Katie, Nathaniel, Gabriel, Zinash, and Isabel
Our contractor had just abandoned the project, taking with him thousands of dollars earmarked for construction materials and leaving us with gaping holes in the bathroom. You could see right through it from the first floor to the third. So with the little bit of money we had scraped together to hire another pro to fix the bath, we instead bought our plane tickets to Africa.
Upon our return, I did the bathroom myself using fixtures and finishes that people had donated, including a vintage claw-foot tub and pedestal sink from my mother-in-law and marble mosaic floor tiles from a generous neighbor, who had them left over from a job. It isn't perfect, but it works well for us. And having my daughter Zinash is so much better than a professionally installed bathroom. No question about it.
Shown: Mark single-handedly turned the bath from a feral-cat litter box into a charming retreat, featuring beadboard walls and a recessed medicine cabinet.
When people ask how we've come this far with the house on just my nurse's salary, I say that family, friends, and good neighbors are worth their weight in gold. Sure, I pulled myself out of bed at 4 A.M. each day before my shift to do plumbing, hang drywall, and scour, strip, and sand just about every stick of wood in this place. But if it weren't for those folks, we wouldn't be living here today.
Shown: Among the home's most impressive details are the restored fireplace mantel and mosaic-tile surround in the foyer.
When we were struggling to scrape together the $107,000 to pay off the numerous liens and get the deed, my brother stepped in with a $60,000 loan, mortgaging his own house to help us buy ours. And when it came time for the massive cleanup, Jacob—friend, pig farmer, all-around hero—donned a mask and grabbed a pitchfork to labor alongside me.
Shown: Buried beneath waist-deep filth in the dining room was this matching set of table and chairs, as well as two china cupboards, which Mark's mother painstakingly preserved.
All my helpers, including a few skilled tradesmen, worked for next to nothing. There was Brian, my skateboard buddy and the owner of a hardwood-flooring company, who refinished the heart-pine floors and showed me how to mix my own stains for the staircase and much of the home's trim.
And Ed, a master painter and fellow old-house nut from the neighborhood, who restored many of the crumbling plaster walls and taught me how to reglaze all the windows rather than replace them. Insisting that I use only vintage wavy glass for the broken panes, Ed even had me driving around on trash day in search of old sashes to cannibalize. And there was Chris, an electrician who'd just moved in across the street; I hired him on a day rate, and the two of us wired the entire house.
Shown: Freshly plastered and painted walls in a warm peach color give the parlor a welcoming feel. But it's the natural light that streams through the restored one-over-one wood windows that Mark and Katie love most about the room. In the evenings, they rely on light from the Gothic-style wrought-iron chandelier and sconces that Mark bought at an auction.
But my biggest supporter was Katie. She had complete faith in me about this house, even though she didn't step foot inside until after we bought it. She likes to say that it was my sweat and her tears, but the truth is, she was my saving grace. The calm to my crazy, Katie kept our family together. To help cover the bills, she sold used textbooks and picked up odd jobs, all while caring for and homeschooling our kids.
Shown: The top-floor classroom, where Katie leads lessons for the kids. The divided-light casement windows on the bookcase wall are original, as is the paneled window seat in the dormer.
Katie gets credit for the paint colors, too. She and my mother-in-law picked them out. I love the way the buttery hue in the foyer brightens the space. It's the perfect complement to the green in the dining room and the peach on the parlor walls. One of the best things about the house is the layout, which is mostly unchanged from the architect's original plans, and the colors really highlight how great the flow is, room to room.
Next on my to-do list is the kitchen, which I'm dying to build in a large room off the main entry hall. The one we have now is temporary. After 15 months of renovation with no place to prep meals, I patched it together in less than a week using appliances and IKEA cabinets that I got on Craigslist for $1,000. It's in a bedroom on the second floor, adjacent to the bath, which allowed me to tap into existing plumbing and waste lines. We've made it cheery with beadboard on the walls, and having it has saved us tons on takeout. But Katie's been dreaming of a big family kitchen with easy access to the outdoors and an island in the center with seating for the kids to gather around. I want to make it happen for her—for all of us.
Thinking back to all that garbage, the crooked contractor, those 4 A.M. wake-ups, an international adoption, a new baby...man, I think we've earned it. What a ride! Next stop: Dream kitchen.
Shown: The entry porch hosts many family gatherings, including warm-weather meals at a rustic picnic table that Mark and Katie scored on Craigslist for just $100.