Beyond the surface: Couple renovate sandstone home in central Lawrence
Ann and James Cooper weren’t looking to move. Their family had a nice starter home in an East Lawrence subdivision, but Ann, like many of us, is a bit of a voyeur and enjoys attending open houses.
With a touch of curiosity and a large dose of luck, Ann discovered an old, sandstone home in central Lawrence. The property and home, which date back to the 1860s, are nestled on more than 2 acres of land hidden with overgrown junipers and other unruly flora. You could literally drive by on a daily basis and never know what a charming homestead exists down the winding drive.
Serendipity brought the young family to this home that just felt right.
“‘Feel’ is the operative word,” James says. “We came over here with our kids, and they immediately starting running down the hallway, and we thought, ‘This just feels right.'”
Ann grew up on a farm in Nebraska and James on the outskirts of Chicago in a suburb that had brownstone homes and an abundance of mature trees. While their starter home served its purpose, it lacked trees and land. This old stone estate had property and vegetation to spare.
James recalls those inaugural summers.
“The first thing I did was trim these giant juniper trees,” he says. “We couldn’t see the kids playing in the yard. You couldn’t see the road, and in all our clearing we actually discovered this old stone wall that encircles a courtyard that was totally buried in brush.”
On one of those sunny days while the couple toiled away in the massive yard, yanking and pulling out overgrown limbs, a car pulled up to the secluded driveway. The elderly driver told the Coopers that this was his childhood home.
“An old Olmstead family member drove up asking to see the house,” James says. “He was in town from Oregon visiting the university. He told us about how they used to hunt rabbits on the property. Seeing the place brought him to tears.”
The more than 2-foot-thick sandstone walls are impressive, lending to enormous window wells and sturdy construction. And the sprawling acres and overgrown trees are notable, plus the sheer history of such a aged home is full of fascinating tidbits.
A strong facet of interest to this weathered house is the modern updates it touts. In the cheery salmon-colored family room sits a behemoth-sized stone fireplace, hearth and chimney. The fireplace has an iron firebox embedded in it and two large vents, one near the chimney and one close to the floor. The cool air from the house gravitates to the floor but then is passively drawn to the firebox when a fire is started. The air circulates around the cast-iron firebox and escapes through vents cut into the stone above the mantel. The stone then heats up and radiates warmth throughout the house even after the fire dies out.
“I can actually curl up into a ball and fit in there,” James says. “This is by far the biggest fireplace we have ever had. At first we would put one of those little logs in, and that didn’t work at all. It needs a lot of wood. Last night we built the largest fire we’ve ever had, and it was incredible. You couldn’t even touch the stone.”
Another energy update was insulation that was blown into the attic back in the 1980s, when such a practice was fairly uncommon. The home also boasts of optimal southern window exposure to aid in energy consumption as well. One area of energy efficiency that the Coopers have practiced is air-drying their laundry.
“I find the clothes line really therapeutic,” James says. “I would run home on great days when the sun and wind is right to hang clothes. It’s neat to have our clothes dried for free.”
The kitchen has vaulted ceilings much like the family room, and it is surprisingly open and airy for such an old home. The Coopers have had to make some updates like addressing some settling issues.
“If you fell in the kitchen or spilled something it would all roll to one area, the floor was so slanted,” James says. “But we love the light, and the big island is great now that it is level.”
Off of the kitchen is a long hallway marked with the heights of not only the Coopers’ kids but all their friends as well. The wall is adorned with a healthy smattering of kids’ artwork and scuff marks from various antics.
“I’m probably a little more anal than my wife about writing on walls and such,” James says. “She is definitely more relaxed than I am.”
While the Coopers have settled into their historic stone home, they are all too aware that with a structure like this there is always something to do.
But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve never regretted buying this house and moving out of a new subdivision,” James says. “Even with each new project and thing to fix, it’s worth it.”
— Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.