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Part I: Falling in love with a decrepit 1870s Victorian

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City people Mark Goff and Phillip Engel couldn't resist the extreme fixer-upper they found in California wine country. As our Renovation Diary series begins, the couple dive right in to their life-changing home renovation project.

Images Courtesy of Mark Goff and Phillip Engel

After years of shuttling between New York City and Los Angeles, Mark Goff and Phillip Engel wanted to change their location and their lives. They landed in the tiny town of Healdsburg, California (approximately 1.5 hours from San Francisco in Sonoma County Wine Country, population 11,254). The home they found there—an extreme fixer—was certainly transformative. The work they did on the 1870 Victorian turned the business analyst (Engel) and graphic designer (Goff) into seasoned renovation experts and tested their patience and skill. Running from now through October, for our second annual Renovation Diary, the pair describes the joy and the frustration of bringing the decrepit home back to life, a process Goff fully details in his blog, 227NorthStreet.

It all started in Los Angeles, with a couple of self-described "old, show-biz broads" who lived across the street. On Christmas Eve in 2002, we were walking our dog and we saw them outside: Mimi Reed and Thareen Auroraa. At the time, Mimi was 89 and Thareen was 91. We waved and said hello, and they invited us for cocktails later. It was the first of many visits; as they would often call us around 4:35 p.m. to tell us "the bar is open!"

A chance meeting with these women (Thareen Auroraa on the left and Mimi Reed at right) eventually led Mark Goff and Phillip Engel to the door of a crumbling 1870 era home that they remodeled. The women had spent most of their lives onstage, and they lovingly signed this 1950s or 1960s era photo to Goff and Engel, inscribing it "the way we were." Engel says: "This was a Lucille Ball-type skit they did with fake spaghetti."

They had had a long careers (Mimi was an acrobatic dancer, Thareen was an operatic singer), and their 1940s bungalow had a 1970s-style bar with grasscloth wallpaper, a big mirror behind the bar, and hundred of photos of them with industry people—including Henry Winkler and the entire cast of Happy Days, Alan Alda, Abbott and Costello, and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The two of them had formed a kind of burlesque act that often opened for strippers, but they never actually stripped themselves. Although Mimi really regretted that, as she always said "we would have made a hell of a lot more money as strippers!"

Thareen had a grandson, an interior designer named Stewart Allen. Stewart and his husband live in Healdsburg, and we got to know them, and eventually visited them at their home.

Mark had managed the costume departments for several television shows and films, but he was done with it. We were looking for a new place to live, and we had been checking out places in Oregon, Mark's home state. But, one day while we were visiting Stewart in Healdsburg, Mark said, "You know, I could live here. It’s kind of like Oregon." Our thinking shifted and we started concentrating our search in Healdsburg.

The architectural style of the house, seen here early in the project, is called Italianate Victorian. "It's hard to put a name to it," says Goff. "The people who built it weren't architects, and they added flourishes they considered fancy as they saw fit. It's kind of a collage of styles." The home's facade has remained nearly intact for 140 years, and the only thing that was deleted was a second-story balcony. The men recently replaced it.

One day, Stewart called us to tell us about his favorite house in town, a 1870 Victorian on North Street, near the town plaza.He sent us a little video of it, saying, "You wouldn’t believe what it’s like inside! It’s in such bad shape." When we were in town next, we asked our real estate agent to show it to us, telling him we weren’t going to buy it, we just wanted to look at it.

At that time, it was listed $1.6 million, a lot more than we paid for it, and it was a 100 percent fixer from the foundation to the top of the roof. But Phillip began talking about it nonstop, saying: "Now, I know we aren’t going to buy this house, but if we were, here’s what I’d do…." He didn’t think it was in the realm of possibility, mainly because of the price.

At this time, we were trying to buy another property in town in a short sale. It wasn’t going well, and Mark checked on the North Street house on a whim. It was now for sale by owner, and the price had been reduced. That’s when he started his email campaign with the owner.

It took five months of back and forth emails, beating around the bush, and hashing out details to finally work out a deal with terms everyone was happy with. There were all kinds of crazy requests before that, and the then-owner even floated the idea of us paying in another currency besides the U.S. dollar.

Demolishing the wall plaster inside the house was laborious, dirty work. The scratch coat (or base coat) contained horsehair, making the job, in Goff's words, "nasty" and face masks a necessity. When the plaster was removed, wood that hadn't seen the light of day for more than a century was revealed—as well as countless rodent nests. "It was like a mouse condo complex in there," says Goff.

At the end, he brought in a real estate agent to look things over, but just before she saw the deal, he changed the terms. She called us and said she was going over to see the house, but we told her we were at the end with it. She told us to be patient and let her look at it and talk to the owner.

She called us the next day, and said the original deal was fine with the owner and he was ready to sell. She told us that when she visited the house, she went "in and out very fast, because I was afraid it would fall down on me."

We can only imagine what she said to him, "Don’t be an idiot, you have to sell this house to these people! They are the dumbest people in the world!" She probably told him that no one in their right mind would pay money for such a shit hole!

Now this was in 2009, and it was the absolute bottom of the market. The house was in such bad condition, no bank would finance it. So, the owner held the note on the house. He acted as the mortgage company for three years, and we made payments to him. Our agreement was to pay him directly while we fixed it up, and then we would refinance with a regular bank. The point of all of this is, real estate and remodeling has an emotional side. If you want to take it on, you have to have passion. We had enough passion to handle this house.

Before demolition began, the men carefully removed all the trim that remained, labelled it, and stowed it in the basement. Throughout the project, they worked on stripping and repairing the molding to be used again. After this photo was taken, the newel post, handrail, and stair railings were fully restored to their original glory.

We knew from the beginning that we would do most of the work ourselves. That was always the plan, and it was how we were able to afford it. By doing it ourselves, it cost us at least 70 percent less.

We had a set amount that we wanted to spend, and we did have to cut things out and save for things, but since we were doing it ourselves we had the luxury of pausing and waiting for things when we needed too—something you can’t do easily when you are hiring everything done. To be honest, we didn’t have a set plan. At the beginning of this process, Phillip bought a white binder. He printed a photo of the house for the cover and divided it into categories. We kept up with it for about two weeks, and then never touched it again.

The point of all of this is, real estate and remodeling has an emotional side. If you want to take it on, you have to have passion

There’s a logical order to construction. You build a firm foundation, demo the house, add the systems, put back the walls, add the trim and finishes. But after the basics, we had everything to do, so we just picked the projects we felt like working on and concentrated on them one at a time. We worked after work and on weekends, often until 11 p.m. at night. It was like having two full-time jobs.

We weren’t totally inexperienced, Mark had restored his bungalow in Southern California, but that was nothing compared to this house. The Pasadena house was mostly cosmetic, and the Healdsburg house was...well, everything. Our friends and family thought we were crazy to take on the restoration of North Street ourselves; but there’s something in us that reacts to that kind of thing. When someone tells us it can’t be done, our first reaction is: We are going to prove you wrong, and we'll make it bigger, better, and faster than it was before. That’s what drove this.

There are two bay windows in the house. Behind one is the living room, the other fronts the library-office (seen here pre-remodel). "You might expect that a house like this would have wonderful, old wood floors under the carpet," says Goff. "Not this one. Old photos tell us the house had wall-to-wall carpet from day one. Back when it was built, this room had a carpet with a huge floral print." The men put in new hardwood floors themselves, using square-head nails for an authentic to the era look.

We hired a contractor to do the foundation and addition, we hired skilled day labor as needed, and we had some great friends and family who helped out, like my dad who came up for a week. But by and large, it was us day in and day out for seven years and counting.

Mark started by designing the house. He's always been able to think three dimensionally, and because he is a graphic designer, he knows his way around Adobe Illustrator. There were two big shortcomings in the home’s layout: It needed a larger kitchen and a master suite—features that weren’t important when it was built. We took five small rooms across the back of the house and reimagined them as a bigger kitchen, powder room, closet, and sitting room. It seemed natural to add a master bedroom with a proper closet and bathroom on top of part of that space, on the second floor. A later addition on the side, probably added around 1903, was too far gone to save—it had never had a foundation. So we removed that. Mark drew it all up, and a structural engineer reviewed and stamped it for us.

We had been thinking about the layout for a long time, and Mark started designing the house before we even closed, so by the time the deal was done, we had a direction, a floor plan, and an elevation. We also decided that we would take some liberties, that it would be a renovation, not a restoration. For instance, they didn’t have central heat and air conditioning back then, and we wanted those features. We decided we aren’t Victorians, and we didn’t want to live like the Victorians.

Our decision was helped along by a architectural historian named Erik Kamvik. He visited the house and said it was a borderline teardown. We are the kind of people who hear a statement like that and see it as the glass being half full. We thought: "At least it’s not a TOTAL teardown!"

Now, Healdsburg is a small town, and from the beginning, there was a lot of interest in the house. Many people knew it, they loved it, and they wanted it to stay the same. It was known in town as the "White House."

John Marshall built the home for his new wife back in 1870. Marshall was a blacksmith and a volunteer fireman. He died from smoke inhalation after battling a local blaze. A grand home when it was built, it is well documented with photographs held at the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society. The fact that it has looked much the same throughout its history has endeared it to many in the small town.

It’s more formally called the Marshall House, after John Marshall, a blacksmith, who built it for his new wife in 1870. We don’t know her name, but we know she was a very diminutive person. We have a picture of her outside the house, and she’s definitely short, and maybe that's why all the doorknobs are set so low.

You could say the house was something of a celebrity in town. It sat vacant for 60 years, just off the Healdsburg Plaza. Everyone dreamed of fixing it up and living in it. People still love to come up and chat with when they see us working, and we’ve even had people walk in and start looking around. The truth is, it can make it hard to get things done. But we like to chat and we enjoy sharing our house.

But what some people don’t realize is that we can hear what they say through the single-pane windows. They walk by while we are inside and talk about what we are doing...and what they think we are doing wrong. It’s fun and kind of funny to hear people speculate about what’s going on here. We are on a "haunted" Healdsburg tour too, and that’s also amusing to hear. The house, by the way, is not haunted. We’ve never seen anything, and in fact a psychic who went through reported she sensed nothing at all here—but that’s not the story they tell on the tour.

Another time, a stranger passing by commented: "It looks like a million dollar pile of kindling to me!" Later, Mark said that all he could think was, "Bitter party of one, your table is ready!"

– As told by Phillip Engel and Mark Goff

In our next installment... DIY trial by fire.