Pioneer Spirit Brings a Hand-Tooled House Back to Life
Meet the homeowners who won us over with their DIY skills and landed our 2016 Reader Remodel Contest $10,000 top prize from Delta Faucet
"Our love affair with this house, and the town it's in, began years ago, when I was traveling around southern Utah for work and got tired of staying in hotels. I used to come through Manti a lot, and I talked Jim, who works a couple of hours away, into acquiring a home base. No sooner had we fixed up our first house than I spotted an even better one. It needed everything, but we did it, and today it's on the National Register of Historic Places."
Shown: The exterior of the house serves as a timeline, from the limestone at the far left that was quarried with hand tools in the 1860s, to more clean-cut ashlar masonry added in the 1880s, to an addition that went up with locally made brick around 1910.
"We were living there with every intention of staying put when a friend of ours, Scott Anderson, whose grandparents had lived in Manti, called to say, 'Guess what, they're going to tear down Grandma's house and put in trailer lots.' And I said, 'Not on my watch!'"
Shown: Jim and Shannon Miller, history buffs and serial renovators, snapped up an abandoned teardown in tiny Manti, Utah, thinking they'd clean it up a bit and find a new owner.
"Manti was settled in 1849 by pioneers, people who didn't mind hard work and created the town from scratch. Some of those pioneers built Scott's grandparents' house—ours now—with nothing but hand tools. They used rubble limestone from a local quarry; it was the material at hand. The house was added onto in the late 1880s and again around 1910, when Manti was growing so fast it had its own brick factory. Between the rubble stone, ashlar masonry, and yellow brick, you can see how they changed their technique."
Shown: Now Jim and Shannon say they'll never leave.
"Manti is a gorgeous little place that's gotten itself isolated through no fault of its own. It used to be on a rail line, but it was cut off when the tracks flooded out in 1983. It has one of the first Mormon temples ever built, a fabulous stone structure that goes way back but is still not as old as one section of our house. Living here is like owning a bit of history."
"By the time we first saw it, the house had been empty for years. It was just trashed—nothing but rats, bats, and mouse trails. The people who lived here before us tore out the beautiful L-shaped staircase and punched so many windows in a back wall that it could barely stand. They cut into beams when they lowered the living room's 12-foot ceiling and put a bedroom over it. To reach the bedroom, they added a catwalk with no railing—it was just bizarre."
Shown: The staircase honors one that had been torn out by previous owners. The paneled column hides a critical support post.
"The entrances between rooms were also altered in ways that didn't make sense to us. We found a wood-burning stove sitting on one hearth and a water heater on another. Rooms were dark and strewn with furniture and piles of paper. A lot of the original fixtures and woodwork were gone—after the bank boarded up the windows, scavengers felt free to help themselves."
"Jim and I both believe historic homes should be respected and saved. At first we thought we'd stabilize this one and find a new owner. But it had a bedroom on the first floor, and that was beginning to look good to us. And after we cleared out the debris, we could almost imagine how it was meant to be."
Shown: Previously marred by a dropped ceiling and a wood-burning stove, the living room and its fireplace have been restored to their original charm.
Throw Pillow on white slipcovered chair: HomeGoods
White tray: At Home
Tic Tac Toe set: Crate & Barrel
Blue and white striped throw: Anthropologie
"First we had to deal with structural damage. Every single system would have to be corrected, replaced, or repaired. The outbuildings and yard were littered with abandoned trucks and trailers and hundreds of tires; all that would require some TLC, too. The next surprise: how long this undertaking would take."
Shown: The roomy new kitchen took over a former back room that was bumped out 10 feet, making way for a pro-style Lacanche range and a family-size table, which homeowner Jim Miller helped make with vintage legs.
Table runner: West Elm
Blue striped towel and cutting board: Crate & Barrel
"The house, with entries on all sides, sits on a one-acre corner lot. When the former owners replaced the quarter-turn stairs with a straight run, they created a jumble around the front door. Scott, an architectural designer, remembered the original layout, and his grandparents putting in a picture window. (Jim found the original windows' lintels buried outside.) Scott became our advisor as we assumed the role of GC and tried to turn back time."
Shown: Homeowners Shannon and Jim Miller gather in the new family-size kitchen with their daughter, McKinley Brown, and grandchildren Sofia, 9; Jack, 6; and Eli, 12. Shannon chose the Swedish punched-metal chandelier because it reminded her of chair-back doilies in her grandmother's house.
"Not that we wanted to live like pioneers—though we do joke about moving off the grid. One of the things Jim did was mastermind a geothermal system. We laid 6,000 feet of plastic pipes 9 feet deep. They bring the water up to 51 degrees before it reaches our regular water heater, which supplies new radiant floor heating."
Shown: The kitchen centerpiece is a brass-trimmed, French-blue Lacanche range big enough to feed a wagon train. Vintage stoneware crocks sit above a custom range hood made with corbels the homeowners found in an antiques store.
"We also added insulation. It's a myth that stone houses are warmer in winter and cooler in summer—it's just the opposite."
Shown: During demolition, homeowners Jim and Shannon tore out a dropped ceiling in the master bedroom, revealing crown and picture molding.
Bedding: Rippled Stripe Collection: Coyuchi
Blanket: strato Oversized Throw; The Citizenry
Navy throw and yellow dot pillow: Anthropologie
Blue throw pillow: West Elm
Yellow throw pillow: HomeGoods
"Once we knew we had to take down that 30-foot back wall, we decided to extend the rear part of the house 10 feet so we could have a bigger kitchen, plus a sunroom, mudroom, and half bath. Now we're glad we did it. We have two grown kids, and one of them and her three children are living with us. It's great having a kitchen where we can all gravitate."
Shown: A library ladder injects new-old style in the master bedroom while providing easy access to ceiling-height cupboards. They were added after homeowner Jim Miller demolished a dropped ceiling and stripped away picture-rail molding on that wall. Wife Shannon arrived in time to rescue the rest of the molding, which she refinished with a silvery “rub and buff” wax.
"The back wall wasn't the only problem. The whole house was "fall-downy." To keep two of the walls from caving in while we added beams and posts, we had to chain them together—for two and a half years. We repointed the exterior and replaced the windows (including the picture window, which went back to a pair). That dropped ceiling is no more. Our wonderful carpenters rebuilt the quarter-turn stairs; another friend made the newel posts."
"We took our time learning about each phase so we could figure out what made the most sense, and we priced everything carefully so we could decide whether to splurge or make do. From the beginning, Jim was on every crew and muscled every single thing. He was right there with the subcontractors on the roof and under the house; I scraped wallpaper and stained floor planks alongside them. We have gotten some wonderful friendships out of this deal."
Shown: Carrara marble tile and an ornate fireplace front—unearthed in the basement and given a new nickel finish—add to the master bath's formal, old-world look.
"We painted our home-center kitchen cabinets on-site so we'd have brush marks—the pioneers' cabinets would not have been perfect. Our drywallers loved us because I told them I wanted the walls a little rough, to give them the flavor of plaster."
Shown: Jim turned a sinking garage littered with old cars into a spiffy workshop with a new fiberglass-shingle roof topped by solar panels. Other outbuildings include a new garage and a new guesthouse.
"At the beginning no one recognized the jewel that lack of maintenance had covered up. It was a great day nine years in when a neighbor finally said, "I can see what you saw—it is looking beautiful."
Shown: The garage, with its jaunty cupola, is new; the old garage was rebuilt and is now a solar-powered workshop.
"Yes, it has taken us 10 years! But every minute has been worth it. Now we have other families following right after us. It's a wonderful feeling to save a historic house, and it enriches the community, too. As we liked to say about our house, right after we bought it, 'This place matters.'"
Shown: The homeowners added a sunny guest house with a citrus-green front door and a patio for two. Together, the guest house, workshop, and garage form a kind of courtyard, buffering the yard on this corner lot from traffic.
Remodeling the house required taking the interior down to the studs. The homeowners rebuilt the staircase, which had been put in by the previous owners, to match the original, and added built-ins. They also rejiggered the layout to assign rooms more logically and bumped out the back wall to accommodate a new kitchen, sunroom, powder room, and mudroom. The house, now 2,250 square feet, also has a second floor (not shown) with two bedrooms and one bath.