Good sign for central Erie neighborhood!
Owners hooked on old homes transform an Erie neighborhood
BY GERRY WEISS
Published: November 16. 2007 6:00AM
Donald Duarte, working behind Reese Hills, left, is improving his home in the 200 block of West 21st Street. At right is Matt Hawley, who works with Hills' home repair and construction business, and Hills' son Miles, 6, works on the porch near his dad. (Greg Wohlford / Erie Times-News)
| Buy this photo
Thirty years ago, when Jim Scott moved his funeral home to West 21st and Myrtle streets, people told him he was crazy.
The surrounding neighborhood, which included a two-block stretch of Sassafras Street listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was at an all-time low.
Numerous Victorian houses, rich in character and built before the turn of the 20th century, sat dilapidated, empty and neglected.
Random crimes -- cars stolen, houses burglarized -- were common.
Apathetic homeowners and transient tenants transformed a once-flourishing place into a somewhat seedy spot.
But then, one by one, house by house, Scott watched an unusual trend develop, as a restoration snowball effect rejuvenated his neighborhood.
New homeowners, mostly middle-class professionals, started snatching up and fixing up the reasonably priced properties on West 21st Street, from Sassafras to Chestnut streets, a gentrification you typically see in big cities but not Erie.
At least 15 houses in the 200 and 300 blocks of West 21st Street have been renovated or restored, homeowners there say, with a handful of other homes featuring projects that are works in progress.
"The neighborhood has changed dramatically," said Scott, a resident of the district who also owns three other properties there. "Saint Vincent (Health Center) made a big commitment to the area, with expansion and development of their facility. Then you add in the homeowners, who saw others buying and fixing up properties, saying to themselves, 'They did it, we can do it, too.' I'm proud I came here, and I'm proud I stayed here."
Terry and Lesley Redmond were two of the first residents in the neighborhood to start restoring their home.
Their guests are usually fascinated by the cupola on top of their three-floor house on West 21st Street, but Randy Harris and Sara Galbreath, who are renovating the home built in 1892, say they don’t spend much time there. (Greg Wohlford / Erie Times-News)
| Buy this photo
The couple bought their 1896 Queen Anne-style house at 339 W. 21st St. about 20 years ago. They sank tens of thousands of dollars into the house for one project after another, building three ponds into their backyard, hand-painting the living room and foyer ceilings, laying ceramic tile on the kitchen and bathroom floors.
"It's easier to list what we haven't done," said Lesley Redmond, 59, a retired hairdresser.
When asked why restoration boomed in her neighborhood, she said people "love the nostalgia of living in classic old homes."
"We took a chance on this neighborhood," said Lesley Redmond, who also owns two other nearby houses with her husband. "If it didn't pick up after we moved in, we would've sold and moved out."
When he bought his 1882 Victorian Italianate, John Paul Cappa said, it looked like a haunted mansion.
"It was a disaster," the 43-year-old church choir director said before giving details about the leaky roof, the asbestos-laden furnace, and the exterior wall by the main entrance that was completely caved in.
So he began to restore the house, from the day he closed on 231 W. 21st in 1992 through this summer, when he installed a new garage. Two years ago, he bought another house up the street and started rehabbing that one as well.
In all -- after restoring the inlaid marble and woodwork in the main parlors, sanding the hardwood floors and dozens of other projects -- Cappa has spent about $140,000.
"There's no clear answer why. I just always wanted to live in a house with character, and this house has it," he said. "The houses themselves are the inspiration to restore them. To be honest, there's nothing remarkable about modern suburban buildings that you'd want to restore. What would you want to fix in a suburban house when it's just one square white room after another?"
Some of these West 21st Street homeowners restore the vintage houses for their own living comfort. Others, especially those who own multiple properties, choose to fix up so they can rent out.
Donald Duarte has been living in Erie for the past two years in a house in the 200 block of West 21st Street. The Boston man plans to sell the home when he’s finished renovating it. (ROB ENGELHARDT/Erie Times-News)
| Buy this photo
Then there's Donald Duarte, a 38-year-old carpenter from Boston.
When he was working in New Bedford, Mass., he bought an old home, completely renovated it and quickly sold it, turning a princely profit of $80,000.
Seeing that he was a success at the trendy art of "house flipping," Duarte moved to Erie in February 2006 after his uncle, who lives in Harborcreek, told him of a potentially lucrative real estate opportunity at 219 W. 21 St.
Duarte paid $45,000 for a house that he said "should've been condemned." He immediately got to work, buying three dozen new windows, refinishing the oak floors, and replacing the soggy roof. He did most of the labor himself.
When Duarte puts the property on the market in June 2008, he hopes to fetch $125,000.
"There's a great charm to older homes," said Duarte, who has been living at the house for nearly two years. "After all the work I've put into it, a house of this stature, in Boston, would sell for half a million."
Deb Cable, a partner with Dorris Appraisal Co. in Erie and former homeowner in the 200 block of West 21st Street, said the effect of all of the activity would stabilize and then spike the values of the homes throughout the district.
"Those homes are huge, and the renovations are an enormous and expensive undertaking," said Cable, adding that the neighborhood has seen a major transfer of older to younger homeowners. "But the hard work will pay off in the long run."
Tom Necastro, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, has sold and shown several houses in the historic neighborhood.
He currently has the house at 215 W. 21st St. listed. The owner, Ed Johnson Jr., bought it a few years ago and fixed it up after the building sat empty for years.
Outside, Johnson retained the classic architecture of a Victorian-style home. Inside, he made it modern, knocking down walls and creating an open floor plan.
"The stock of Victorian homes in Erie are shrinking, and most of them are falling apart or converted into multifamily rentals, so far away from what they were originally," Necastro said.
"Look at the old homes on East Sixth, 10th and 21st streets," the Realtor added. "Neglected structures that have been cobbled up beyond recognition, cut into apartments, the architecture removed. The houses on West 21st Street are not in great shape, but you can still buy them and restore them. It's worth it for those people who have always wanted to live in a big old house."
During her childhood years, Sara Galbreath would often ride shotgun in her father's car whenever he stopped by a rental property he owned on West 22nd Street.
On the way there, they would always drive by a 10-bedroom yellow brick 1892 Victorian Italianate on West 21st, with its large windows and magnetic presence.
"That has always been my favorite house anywhere, ever," Galbreath said. "It was just so grand, so fabulous. It spoke to me."
Now 26, she and her boyfriend, Randy Harris, live there, after Harris bought the property in May.
The house was in deplorable shape -- "a major fixer-upper," Galbreath said -- with an old roof and burst pipes in the basement only the tip of a long list of projects.
The rehabbing began the first week after they moved in.
It hasn't stopped.
"I wanted it to look the way I remembered it as a child," Galbreath said. "There's so much character to this house, so much originality. There's no other house that looks like it the entire city."