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Historical homes' 'doctor' says patients are worth saving

It's not a question you'd expect a restoration specialist to ask, but it's early and it's cold, and Scot Walters is especially thorough, so he asks.

"Is it worth it?"

Walters, the restoration project manager and tax-credit administrator for the Kentucky Heritage Council, is by no means trying to talk historical house-owner Bill Johnston out of saving the 110-year-old home on Headley Avenue. But he is absolutely telling him to do "due diligence."

What would it cost, he asks, "to build something equivalent on the site?"

Walters asks because he wants homeowners to trust the restoration process to not be some folly, some way to throw good money after bad when money should be watched more than ever. He, more than anyone, wants them to know what they are getting into.

Earlier this month, The Blue Grass Trust sponsored Walters' visit to six historical homes in Lexington to give free advice to homeowners who had asked for the consultation. The idea was that all sorts of research, education and government assistance are out there — tax credits, too — for those who live in our area's oldest and, in some cases, most endangered buildings.

Zanne Jefferies, director of preservation and education programs for the trust, says the "house doctor visits" are not an annual trust event but could be become one.

On Headley Avenue, Walters is bracing Johnston for the bad news. "You could spend $25,000 on the foundation."

But Johnston has spent just $40,000 to buy the house, and he really likes the property.

"It's the prettiest house on the street," he says and means it.

This house — known as the George J. Goodwin House — sits on a block that is undergoing a house-by-house upgrade. It is slow, but it is an important part of keeping the north side as historical, charming, diverse, accessible and livable as it once was.

This is the sixth house on this block alone that Johnston has taken on. He is not about to give up on it because it has needs. And those needs are, according to Walters, a site regrade below the foundation line, cribbing and blocking of the foundation (this will require house movers to pick up a corner at a time), stabilization from the interior, and basic structural repairs. All before anyone can go inside to put in floors and walls so that potential owners might ooh and ahh over the 10-foot ceilings.

"That's my kind of house," Johnston jokes. "When no one bids, I raise my hand."

"A house theoretically should never get in this kind of shape," Walters says.

He is not a restoration specialist for nothing. He starts to wax poetic about the vertical studs, the defining proportions, the bowstring arch and the wavy glass.

Johnston does not need convincing. He already has called the house-moving company about the foundation.

Salt: limestone's enemy

Historical-home maintenance, just like new-home maintenance, is relentless. The difference is that historical-home maintenance poses more-interesting dilemmas.

For instance, the Hampton Place Council of Co-owners Inc. wants to know what's eating its balustraded limestone landing.

The French Renaissance and Georgian Revival apartment building probably was the first of its kind in the city when it was built in 1907. It is as elegant today as ever, living up to its place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Maria Fitzpatrick is getting a lesson that a lot of owners of historical properties could heed about the amazing absorbency of limestone.

"So it's slurping the salt up like soup," she says.

"Yes," says Walters, "and it's moving up the stone. It's a bit of a process to get it out. First you have to soak it down over and over to wash it out, then you have to apply a mud compact."

"Like a facial?"

"Like a facial. And that's before you repair it."

Walters makes sure Fitzpatrick has the information she needs to contact people who have the correct products for her purposes. Nobody said this would be easy.

But Fitzpatrick and her co- owners knew the unique burden of the property when they bought it.

"When you live in an historic property, you have a sense of doing your part to keep it going," she says.

Then she says, less philo sophically, "I just can't believe the salt is eating out there as we speak. It's going to bother me."

Can't hide the sturdiness

Skip and Cindy Olson's house, a grand and rare Chateauesque style, probably dating from 1876, has yielded a few secrets since Skip's parents bought it in 1964. Tile that was hidden under layers of paint. The fact that the house was once owned by Charles Chilton Moore, a father of American atheism.

What it doesn't hide is its well-built sturdiness. The windows can be opened to direct cool breezes in the summer, and they still close properly more than 125 years later.

Walters starts on a topic that is ever-present during discussions of historical renovations: that few builders build to the standards that were employed in even middle-class homes 75 years ago or more. And that few fixtures and materials installed in today's homes have a warranty that extends beyond seven years.

Old homes, for all their needs, usually don't have basic flaws, he says. Careful research, long-term enthusiasm and, yes, some money (think tax credits, says Walters, the tax-credit expert) can fix that.

The Olsons have a lot of plans for their very big house with its monstrous back yard and carriage house.

They say they probably will become "long-term clients" of the tax-credit program.

"When," asked an eager Cindy, who has asked a hundred questions, "can we get started?"