My Perfect Little Money Pit is Worth Every Penny
by Shannon Lee
When it was time for Chris Brandt to purchase a home, not just any house would do. It had to be a very special place, with architecture that wowed, an interesting history, and the potential to be a perfect time capsule home. He found exactly what he wanted with this gorgeous 1928 Master Model home in Rochester, NY. He and his long-time girlfriend, Kit, have poured heart and soul into restoring their Perfect Little Money Pit.
I was so excited to talk to Chris about all of his adventures in restoration!
Out of all the homes you could have purchased, what was it about this one that spoke to you?
I just had to have our house for a number of reasons. First, I have slowly, but surely become a preservation purist. My interest in historic architecture and historic preservation started around the same time that my family bought their new old house built in 1928 close to the city of Rochester. It is a strikingly beautiful tudor revival home with walls of stone and stucco. My parents still call that house home, and it was through living in its great architecture and learning restoration skills through the several family projects we undertook that my interest was grown into an all-consuming obsession.
During grad school I started hunting real estate listings in and around Rochester looking for houses that had the rare combination of good architectural design, interesting history, and were as close to a time capsule as possible. After only 8 months of full-time employment (talk about being brash and naive), I took my search to the next level and hired a realtor. I had seen what looked like an interesting and cute tudor revival in one of the newspaper real estate sections months ago, but never looked at the interior photos online. It was hard to tell with all of the dolls and densely packed furniture, but I thought I could discern several original light fixtures, original steel casement windows, stained glass built-ins, an original kitchen, and an original bathroom. After a lot of back and forth (the seller wanted to take the house off the market and remodel the kitchen to make it more modern), my realtor finally got us inside.
The night before the showing, on a whim I decided to quickly research the house to see what might come up on the priceless Fulton History newspaper database. In my wildest dreams I could not have predicted the results. The house was a nationally sponsored demonstration house. In total nearly 20 newspaper articles were written about it while it was being built and opened to the public in 1928. There were several historic photographs of the interior and exterior, as well as lists of all of the contractors and materials used.
Seeing the house in person the next day confirmed that I absolutely had to have it, despite it being wrapped in heinous, heinous vinyl siding. It checked all of the boxes…it was an extreme time capsule, had a unique and significant history, and it was well designed.
You’ve completed a lot of projects on the house already! Which was your favorite project so far?
It was not necessarily fun, but removing the vinyl siding from the front of the house, stripping all of the wood shingles and trim down to bare wood, and carefully repainting it in a historic color scheme was a hugely rewarding project. It still makes me proud every time I turn onto our street and see that striking triple-gable facade restored.
Last year you were hoping to make it onto the National Register. How did that go?
We had originally intended on waiting a year to start our process of stripping the vinyl siding off of the house. However, after a friend of ours at the New York State Historic Preservation Office advised us that our house was individually eligible for listing on the National Register, with the caveat that the front facade be restored before listing, we set to work on undertaking the huge project. The winter and spring before we stripped off the vinyl siding I worked on writing the nomination with editorial help from a good preservation friend from grad school…thanks Marcy! I then worked with NYSSHPO on final editing. The nomination was submitted, reviewed and approved by the state board and the following month was approved and listed on the National Register.
What has surprised you the most about restoring this house?
The most surprising thing has been the supportive disbelief of neighbors and others with our various restoration projects. Everyone seems to think that these projects are too hard, too big, or too expensive, but a little bit of self-education and a lot of elbow grease goes a long way to doing it right for your house. There hasn’t been a single project that has been too difficult to accomplish, but maybe Kit and I are just crazy. We have also been fascinated with how much many of our visitors and friends love our house…considering its an “undesirable” time-capsule in need of modern updates. I like to think that since 98% of the house is original, everything just feels right and timeless…there is no scary dated 1970s bathroom remodel, neo-traditional 1950s kitchen, or undersized out of place dining room chandelier.
What’s the next really big project you will tackle?
Our next big project is underway right now. We are trying to do one large project per year, until we are done. We are stripping the garage siding and trim down to bare wood and repainting it, as well as tearing off and re-roofing the garage. The previous owner decided to cut costs when they re-roofed the house 10 years ago and did nothing on the garage. Needless to say, the garage roof definitely should have been replaced 10 years ago. We have had a temporary tarp over the roof to keep things dry and protect the not very small hole in the roof caused by years of leaks.
Anything else you want to tell me about the Perfect Little Money Pit?
We hope our trials and tribulations entertain and encourage people to be good stewards of their historic homes. We also hope, that although we are preservation purists, we have shown that living in a 1928 time-capsule house is still functional and appropriate for the 21st century without having to tear-out irreplaceable original features. We just felt an obligation to look beyond a pragmatic return on investment and instead focused on being the absolute best caretakers we could be for a very special little house that needed a lot of love. It will take years, but when we’re done our Perfect Little Money Pit will actually be restored to its former 1928 Democrat and Chronicle Master Model Home glory.
Have an amazing hold house story to share with us? Send it our way! letters (at) circaoldhouses (dot) com
AUTHOR SHANNON LEE
Shannon Lee has a soft spot for fixer-uppers that need a helping hand. Over the past two decades she has written about home improvement challenges and victories in blogs, articles, books and more. Though she has loved her share of old houses, today she and her family are finally settled into their dream home deep in the Pennsylvania woods, a place they call Marvel Hill.