Renovatin’ with the Oldies
The trials and triumphs of historic rehabs
May 23, 2018
An advertisement in an 1885 edition of the Deseret News, used as insulation in an old miner's shack, advised readers to "Look Well After Your Horse's Feet." One from 1921 promised "the secret of corset satisfaction" for just $8.50. Contractor Ed Orschel, who's been renovating Park City homes for over 25 years, says discovering history's leftovers is one of the thrills of the job. His crew has turned up Ty Cobb and Satchel Paige baseball cards sealed in a wall and untold vintage bottles in overgrown yards — the latter from bottles of elixir tossed into outhouse pits.
Renovating Park City's historic homes is rewarding — even beyond the occasional baseball card — but Orschel admits it's not for the faint of heart.
"People come to Park City, and they look at an old house and think, 'how cute — it's painted nicely.' But it's really like lipstick on a pig," he says. "Once you take that lipstick off and start uncovering things, you discover you have a house with no insulation or foundation."
And yet, these old structures impress the contractor. "What's really amazing is that these old miners' homes have withstood the time that they have, because they were so gingerly built."
If you're tempted to take on an historic renovation, start with a reality check. We've got advice from homeowners who've been there, done that, and survived.
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Step One: Paperwork
Anya Grahn, Park City Municipal's historic preservation planner, says the best thing potential historic home renovators can do is get a historic district design pre-application.
"You can bring in your sketch-on-the-bar-napkin or simply a list of questions, and we'll assign a planner to meet with you one-on-one to brainstorm, answer your questions, and help walk you through the process," Grahn says, adding that the application steps are listed on the city's website.
Each renovator receives individual advice from the planners, but it's helpful to know the big-picture rules: Homes are only allowed to be elevated 2 feet; garages are not always appropriate for the historic lots and sometimes not allowed; and most importantly, the city requires a physical transition between the original part of the historic home and any addition.
"We want the old part of the home to remain visually separate from the new part so that any additions don't overshadow the historic style," Grahn says.
Home renovators must also pay a financial guarantee to ensure they don't abandon a project halfway through, or, that if they do, funds are available to restore damaged historic materials.
Grahn's guidance to those about to embark on historic renovation?
"Be open-minded. Don't fall in love with your designs before the planning department is able to weigh in, because as we work through it, the design changes," she says. "So be flexible. Second, you have to be prepared for unexpected work. These are old miner shacks, with single-wall construction. They weren't built to last beyond the mining boom."
The Land Before Code
Letitia Lawson, an engineer, her husband Mike, an airline pilot, and their two teenagers changed their life when they moved from Silver Springs to an 1899 miner's cottage at 1063 Norfolk Ave.
"We like the challenge of fixing something already existing and making it better," says Letitia. "Our house hadn't changed hands since 1940. Jim Wilson, a miner's son, was born in the house and raised 10 kids in 700 square feet. The house had several bad additions on it. You could see daylight through the walls, and your feet fell through holes in the floor. There was no foundation. It was sitting on dirt."
Going through the design process with the city took about a year and a half. Three years later the family moved in.
"We had to lift the house, dig under it, almost rip it down and then put it back up. The walls were 2X3; nothing met code," she says.
Letitia served as architect. Her priorities for the small lot included four bedrooms, three baths, an open living plan, and a two-car garage. Her favorite element of the finished home: light.
"I care a lot about natural light," she says. "We sat here for hours during the shortest days of the year when we were designing the house. We put a lot of windows in."
The Lawsons used as much of the original home siding as possible, but, "We had to have some lumber milled to match the salvaged wood. A hundred years worth of different paint layers on cedar … you can't go to Home Depot and buy that."
A Good Turn
Casey Crawford, owner of Prospect and Park City Mercantile, and her husband Corey, a real estate agent, fashioned a new, cozy home for their three kids, ages 10, 9 and 5, at 1102 Norfolk Ave. The family took its time planning a space that suited their needs, abided by the city's strict guidelines, and would be appreciated by the community. Working with architect Steve Swanson, they spent about three and a half years designing the home.
"I grew up in Utah, and it was really important to me to appreciate Park City the way it was," Casey Crawford says. “I really wanted to make the house work for us as a family, but also make sure it kept its historic qualities."
Since some of Park City's original roads had closed after the home was built, the Crawfords' biggest challenge was literally turning the property: picking it up and rotating it so the historic portion faced Norfolk Avenue.
"We wanted to make that line separating the old and new portions of the house really distinct," she says. "We [used] two different siding colors and adjusted the roofline to be the original, steeply pitched roofline. We spent a lot of time at the Park City museum looking at old pictures of the house from 1901. We tried to make it look as much like that as possible."
They maintained the appearance of the original porch, and kept the off-centered window placement. They also kept most of the historic wood, salvageable due to years of deep oiling.
Inside the walls, they found old Park Record newspapers advertising Pop Jenks' grocery store, where oranges cost 2 cents. They also unearthed a metal sign for chewing tobacco, a kids' toy handgun, and bottles from Park City Bottling Company.
Casey Crawford's favorite element of the 3,000-square-foot renovation is the cozy hearth room.
"When we opened up the house, we found an old chimney made of antique bricks. We restored all of the brick and used it to pave the floor and a new chimney in our little fireplace room," she says. "My husband laid the brick himself, and he's not a stone mason.
He wanted to do something in the house himself. We enjoy that room every single night."
Karri Dell Hays grew up at 145 Park Avenue, in a house originally built by the Ivers family.
Before they made their fortune, the Ivers owned a livery stable, which supplied horses to haul ore in the mines. Eventually they bought shares in Silver King Mine, using change that Mrs. Ivers took out of her husband's pockets after he came home from the bars. The mine hit a big vein, and the family became instant millionaires.
A bronze statue of Jim Ivers III, "The Miner," sits on Main Street.
As an adult, Hays moved back into her childhood home with her husband, Jack, and three kids. They found morphine and liquor bottles buried in the backyard and, in the walls newspapers from 1939 blasting Hitler, along with "a little tin box of razor blades, all perfectly wrapped in paper, like it was brand-new.
"As a kid, it just felt like an old house to me, but it always had a warm blanket feel to it. People said that all the time. There was something cozy about it. Maybe because there had been so much life in there."
Hays, who served on the planning commission from 1996 to 2000, guides local history tours and is also a real estate agent.
"Having a historic home, especially once that's not extremely well built to begin with, is a challenge, because you're constantly fixing things. It takes a special type of person to buy a historic Old Town home. Your garage will be small—if you have one at all—and you'll need to hike stairs and be willing to deal with snow shed off steep roofs. When you have your windows open in the summer, it is noisy. There is a constant flow of people. But it's mountain city living at its best. You get to walk to the bars and the restaurants and Sundance films and the Silly Market. Multiple trailheads are right out your back door."
People like Ed Orschel relish the challenge.
"The reward for me is helping to preserve history and not always building a giant home that has all the bells and whistles," Orschel says. "It's a nice compromise to modern living. You get to feel that you're in a home that has generations behind you in it. We improve it into modern-day comfort while honoring the past."