If these walls at 1109 N.Y. could talk, they could tell you how they once showed mercy on an entire construction crew.
The old 1860s home on New York Street, you see, had a few problems. For one, it had a floor that probably only a skateboarder would appreciate. It sloped 7 inches from one side of the house to the other.
It didn’t exactly take Matt Jones or Eric Jay of Lawrence-based Struct/Restruct to assume the role of Sherlock Holmes to know they were going to have to get at this house’s foundation if they wanted to save it.
And make no mistake, Jones and Jay want to save houses.
So they did what some remodelers have never done in their lives: they lifted the house off its foundation. Funny thing, though, Jones and Jay hadn’t ever lifted a house either — not by themselves, anyway.
“At one point, we had the whole house suspended and our whole crew of guys underneath it,” Jay said as he and Jones shared a smile.
Never let it be said that Jones and Jay aren’t willing to take a chance on a house. Of course, if you’ve ever driven by one of their homes, you’ve already figured that out.
In the 900 block of Delaware Street — or better yet from the alley off Delaware — you can see many of them. From the front, many of them look like traditional east Lawrence homes, which is to say there are no two that look exactly alike.
But from the back side, tradition takes a beating. There you’ll find evidence of a type of architecture that doesn’t speak as much to east Lawrence’s blue-collar past as much as it does to its funky present.
Jones and Jay’s company has completed four renovations on the block, adding modern additions that incorporate unique peaks, sheets of glass, and nontraditional exteriors of concrete, stainless steel cables and distinctive timber.
In a nutshell, they take the past and the present, and have the two shake hands.
“I think what we’re really trying to do is convince people that they would like to try to live here,” Jay said.
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There are trees all over this town that feel like Matt Jones is spying on them. And they’re right.
Sometimes Jones will watch them for years, like the old Elm tree he saw each day on the way to his bank. One day as he drove down Ohio Street, he saw the dying tree was marked to be cut down.
“So I stopped and put a note on the tree asking if I could have it,” Jones said. “That actually worked.”
The tree produced a beautiful burl Elm timber that Jones used for furniture that is inside downtown Lawrence’s Esquina restaurant.
Here at 925 Del., the company’s latest renovation project, the finds were a little easier to come by. Jones heard that renovation work on the nearby Poehler building involved large amounts of roof sheathing that were being removed. Now, the lumber is serving as ceiling planks in the 925 Del. project. On the floor is locally milled timber from another tree Jones had kept his eye on.
“It is just another insight into our area,” Jones said.
Outside, two large 18-inch logs sit beside the house, waiting for the band saw. Another insight for another day.
The backside of this house, too, is receiving a modern addition, complete with off-kilter roof lines and a courtyardlike area that bridges the old and the new. The modern additions may be what attracts attention from the street, but for Jones the chance to save something old is what excites him.
East Lawrence, he said, provides a good palette for his company’s work because there are many smaller homes that can support additions but may be in such condition that others would be tempted to tear them down and start over.
Homes in such a state of disrepair have real appeal to Jones because he says he does experience “pretty high guilt” if he changes an old home that is in fine condition. Maybe that’s why he gets excited about projects that others shun.
“What is fun about a house in really bad shape is you get to bring new influences to it,” Jones said. “A lot of people will look at a house and see problems, and I’ll end up looking at it and seeing that it is not that bad.”
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What others in east Lawrence are seeing is an area-wide revitalization at a minimum, and perhaps even the beginnings of an architectural trend.
If so, Robert Krause will get a lot of credit for planting the seed. Krause, the local chef who is part of the ownership group of both Esquina and The Burger Stand, built a modern, Dan Rockhill-designed addition onto his family’s home in the 900 block of Delaware Street several years ago.
“That is my style for sure,” Krause said. “I love the idea of historical structures with a mix of modern accents.”
Krause is the owner of the 925 Del. house under renovation. It is the fourth house that Jones and Jay have done for Krause in the block. Krause said that over the years, his friends have questioned why he’s spent good money investing in the old homes. But Krause said he did so, in part, because he thought he could help set an expectation for the neighborhood.
“Now, I really do think there is a lot interest in restoring these old houses in this style,” Krause said. “There are a lot of people interested now, a lot of people with artistic talents are drawn to this type of living.”
Struct/Restruct has its next project lined up. A couple actually. The company will renovate an old industrial building next to its shop at 920 Del. into a neighborhood coffee shop and display area for art and the company’s furniture creations.
But the company also has its sights set on 1235 N.Y., an 1880s structure that it wants to strip down to its original stone exterior and add a modern addition on the back. Grant Lechtenberg, a longtime east Lawrence property owner, has the house and said he thinks the new style will help make the property more marketable.
“You know, people over here march to their own beat, and that is what I like about it,” Lechtenberg said. “It is definitely not the same five houses repeated over and over.”
And if Jones and Jay’s designs inspire people to get more creative with their own homes, that would be fine too.
“I do wish people would experiment with architecture more,” Lechtenberg said. “I definitely understand that sometimes you have to appeal to the masses to survive, but it is a lot more fun to do it this way.”
At the end of the day, though, Jones says he thinks what he and Jay are doing is more than just fun. If a piece of modernity makes an old structure more livable, it increases the odds that it will remain for generations to come.
The new saves the old.
“I would hate to live in an area that didn’t save anything because then you would always wonder where you’re at,” Jones said.