A Fernway duplex gets a 10-month DIY makeover.
By Rory O’Connor
Not long ago, Evelyn and Dave Greene, an energetic and industrious 60-something couple, pondered the day both of them would retire. Dave had already retired from sales in the machine tools industry. Evelyn, a market research analyst, has a few years to go. But in thinking ahead, they wondered what it would be like to leave Shaker Heights and live in, say, Spain.
They decided the heck with it. They’re staying put in their three-story Fernway duplex, where they’ve been since 1985 – a perfectly beautiful home of a manageable size in a city they had grown to love and participate in, being long-time active members of the Friends of the Shaker Library.
So instead of blowing six figures on a Mediterranean fishing hut in Barcelona or Tarragona, they used that money to make the most of a small space, completely gutting and reconfiguring one side of their unusual two-family home over 10 months during 2012. They did most of the time-consuming and difficult physical labor themselves, but it was a labor of love that has assured them of comfort and a degree of elegance for their reclining years.
The home is unusual because it’s one of only a dozen or so duplexes in town that was built side-by-side rather than under-and-over. It was designed, mock-Tudor, by Alfred A. Drescher, who designed more than 100 homes in Shaker during the 1920s, and was built in 1928 – ’29.
One half of the duplex has an Ingleside Road address, the other faces Kenmore Road. Given that there is just over 2,000 square feet of living space (on either side), the Greenes have made their half remarkably spacious-seeming with four bedrooms, including the third floor – inhabited by their daughter Margaret – and two-and-a-half baths.
In their 30s and fresh from out of town, the Greenes bought the house from Jim and Sylvia Ullman, Sylvia being well-known in town in those years as the owner of American Crafts Gallery on Larchmere Boulevard. The Greenes bought the duplex because of the financial advantages inherent in having a renter on one side. They loved Shaker but couldn’t afford the sort of home they wanted in a neighborhood they liked, which included Fernway.
But, Evelyn says, “the duplex gave us a beautifully designed, well-built home with a big yard in a great neighborhood, all the room we needed, and the rental income eventually paid our mortgage. We’ve had only three tenants since 1985.”
And when it became time to fish or cut bait regarding their retirement decision, the Greenes chose to cast their line on the Kenmore side. They had been living in the Ingleside half for 26 years and had to wait until their Kenmore tenants left in February to begin work.
And work they did.
First, the Interior
As befitting its pedigree, the house’s bones are rock-solid, a fact confirmed when Dave and Evelyn – along with daughter Margaret, her boyfriend Elliott Konicki, and some of their more able-bodied friends – began a room-by-room, floor-by-floor demolition in February 2012.
“We did it ourselves,” Evelyn says, “all swinging sledgehammers, shovels, hammers, and tire irons. We completely gutted every wall and ceiling in the house, down to the studs. It was still 1928 behind the walls: the original knob-and-tube wiring, virtually no insulation, cracked plaster.”
One wall that came down completely was the one that separated the tiny 1920s-era kitchen from the original dining room. “We designed and built a new kitchen and walk-in pantry, and we turned the old dining room into a family room separated from the kitchen not by a wall but by a large granite peninsula,” Evelyn says. The home’s original library – an alcove off the living room – was to become the new dining room.
In the spring it was time to start bringing in the electricians (who installed new everything), plumbers (again, new 2014everything), insulators, drywall finishers, and, as the year progressed, the carpenters. Desborough Construction, of Perry, Ohio, did the carpentry in the kitchen and three new bathrooms. Desborough was on the job seven months, longer than any other contractor.
Central Heating & Air Conditioning also had its job cut out for it. The company disassembled and hauled up from the basement the home’s original – and massive – 1928 cast iron boiler and replaced it with a modern, fuel-efficient gas furnace.
In another Herculean feat, Dave – bear in mind that the Greenes are 60-something – managed to cut the second floor bathroom’s original 500-pound iron bathtub into five parts and then throw the parts out the window, clearing the way for the bathroom’s update.
Then the painters came in. But true to form, Dave himself spent three weeks on a ladder “stripping 85 years of paint from the living room’s original and intricate crown molding.”
For her part, Evelyn “focused on the finesse work.” She sanded spackling, wallpapered two bathrooms, painted the woodwork around the home’s original mullioned wood windows, and supervised the nightly clean-up duties – establishing a first-name basis with the junk haulers along the way.
The last contractor refinished the original oak floors throughout the house. Before that happened, Dave and Evelyn went shopping, every night for two weeks, for the home’s 45 new light fixtures.
“We scheduled these for installation two days prior to the floor refinisher coming in because he needed light in all the rooms,” Evelyn says.
The Greenes did more than just the bulk of the heavy lifting. “We designed every room in the house ourselves,” Evelyn says. “We bought – in person or online – all the new appliances, cabinets, tile, fixtures, paint, and whatever supplies our contractors didn’t normally carry around.”
For virtually every purchase, the Greenes used home center gift cards that they bought at Giant Eagle. They bought so many gift cards that they got free gasoline for eight months, for both cars, at Giant Eagle’s GetGo service station.
That was just the interior action. Outside, when the weather was right, two huge projects unfolded back-to-back. The first was waterproofing the basements on both sides of the house. While Dave and Evelyn were adroit at swinging sledgehammers at walls, even their boundless energy was insufficient to deal with the physical task of waterproofing, which required earthmovers to dig trenches to the bottom of the home’s foundation.
The second exterior project also required outside help. The Greenes hired Cleveland Heights landscaper Leslie Scott to design a small patio and garden that faces Kenmore. To access the patio from the new kitchen-family room, the Greenes installed a sliding glass door in place of an old window, thus making the kitchen-family room-patio essentially a single open, airy space.
“While we did talk about moving somewhere else when we retire, we’ve decided to stay and enjoy our old/new Shaker Heights home,” Evelyn says. “The rental income will more than pay our taxes and insurance after we’re both retired. This means we’ll retire debt-free.”
“Now that the renovation is finished, we truly enjoy living in this house. We designed it for our current taste, our current lifestyle. This house is not an accumulation of our past, which it was before. It now reflects our present and future. With that, our good health, a wonderful daughter, and Dave’s new titanium knees, who wouldn’t be optimistic?”