Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 22 September 2009 13:49
They stand in juxtaposition—two stately old houses with many connections, yet with stark differences.
On the northwest corner of the intersection of Grand Avenue and Jefferson Street is the widely admired house built a century ago by Hillsboro’s leading businessman, William F. Schaeffler.
Elegant in its Queen Anne Victorian style, the house stands today as city-owned museum, a widely researched and publicized monument to Hillsboro’s cultural past.
Directly east, across Jefferson Street, stands an equally substantial house, this one built less than a decade later by Schaeffler’s longtime business partner and confidant, Peter H. Schroeder.
In contrast to the attention cast upon the Schaeffler House, the “Schroeder House” has occupied a subordinate place in the local consciousness—a big house draped in mystery regarding its origins, architectural style and shrouded past.
If owners Steve and Virginia Stafford have something to say about it, that secondary status will change. At least it ought to. Together, these two houses stand at an important intersection in American architectural history.
“It’s historically important—there just aren’t that many around,” Steve said of the house, which is an Arts and Crafts Tudor built in 1916-17. “This was a short, very significant time period. It’s all forgotten, but it was the beginning of a new America.” Historical context
In 19th century England, the Arts and Crafts movement was an outraged response to the industrial Revolution, which was threatening time-honored manual crafts with extinction.
“It was a reaction to the Victorian era and to ‘soul-less’ machine-made production,” said Steve, who has acquired almost encyclopedic knowledge of the era.
“The movement arrives in America in the mid-1890s and by 1900 it has taken off,” he added. “While the European movement tried to recreate the virtuous world of craft labor that was being destroyed by industrialization, Americans, on the other hand, enjoyed their industrialization.”
Steve said Arts and Crafts became a philosophy of life in this country—and it was anti-Victorian at its core.
“You look at that (Schaeffler) house and you see the ornamentation, the small windows, the pillars, the gaudy wallpaper, tiny rooms,” he said. “This (Schroeder house) is the opposite because, ‘We’re anti that.’ Americans wanted to break from European ways.”
According to the Staffords, the Victorian architectural era in the United States ended around 1910. Arts and Craft began in 1905 and continued to maybe 1925 or 1929 at the latest.
The Arts and Crafts that Schroeder built stands in stark contrast to the house his business partner had built across the street a few years earlier.
The simple geometric patterns and interior lighting of the ceiling supports are classic Arts and Crafts style.
“We’re going to make it totally different,” Steve said of the stylistic approach. “We’re going to have walls with paint on them, and even canvas. The rooms are becoming bigger, which means bigger windows and more light. No longer will we have closets that you have to carry upstairs. We’re actually going to have closets built into the walls.
“It really was the start of the modern American home.”
Steve said the death knell to the Arts and Crafts movement sounded in 1917, the year the Schroeder house was completed: World War I had killed a generation of men in Europe.
“We lost a bunch of men, too,” Steve said. “So it’s hard to sit there and commune with nature when you’re just happy to be alive.”
Instead, Americans wanted to enjoy life—thus the birth of the Roaring 20s.
“People said, ‘I’m not going to sit around and read poetry—I’m alive and I’m going to celebrate,” Steve said. “That kills the Arts and Crafts movement, but the philosophy continued: ‘We like quality, we like cleanliness, we like that someone is looking after our food, we like our national parks.’
“America forgets the Arts and Crafts movement, but takes from it, and continues with that (philosophy).”
Search for a new home
How the Staffords found Hillsboro and the Schroeder House is a story in itself. The couple had restored a bungalow in Tucson, Ariz., but said they became disenchanted with the increase of crime, illegal aliens and drug use in the city.
Steve had already retired from a career in the Army, and Virginia was about to retire from her professional career with the state of Arizona.
“We started researching,” Steve said. “We chose two states—Iowa and Kansas—and after tons and tons of research, we determined that conservative communities have the best schools. So we wanted a rural, conservative place.”
The Staffords came to Kansas first in 2007 for a whirlwind tour of about 20 potential communities.
“We just fell in love with Kansas,” Steve said. “The people were so genuine. They weren’t phony; they were nice.”
When the Staffords drove into Hillsboro, they liked some of the old houses they saw, but were initially disappointed because they somehow missed the downtown business district.
“We said, ‘We can’t live here—they don’t even have a Main Street,’” Steve said with a laugh.
The couple liked the Schroeder House the moment they spotted it.
“We didn’t even see the Schaeffler House,” Steve said. “We looked, and there was this Arts and Crafts Tudor. It looked like it was in really good condition—but we had already rejected Hillsboro because it didn’t have a Main Street.”
After 10 days, the couple flew back to Tucson and bought a little house in Burlington to establish some Kansas roots.
Meanwhile, Steve was on the Internet again and to his surprise saw that the Schroeder House was for sale. The couple had it checked out by a Newton real estate agent. When they got the report, they quickly agreed: “We said we’ll buy it.”
Since arriving in summer 2007 with their children, the Staffords have been restoring the Arts and Crafts heritage of their new old house.
“We know we can’t make it the Schroeder House; all we’re doing is making it the Stafford House, 1920,” Steve said.
The couple have finished restoring the living room and stairway, and have brought the old tiger wood floors back to full luster. Of late, Steve has been replacing the exterior stucco.
That part of the project illustrates the challenge of restoring a house long after it was first in style. The original stucco formula was called kella stone, which included calcimine magnesium.
“I’ve searched the Internet for over a year now and cannot find the formula,” Steve said. “It was a flash in the pan. Kella stone lasted maybe 10 to 15 years, then it wasn’t cost effective anymore.”
By necessity, Steve is using a modified formula. But in many other ways, Steve said they’ve been fortunate because the house has many of the original features of an Arts and Crafts home within reasonable reach of restoration.
It started with the owner, P.H. Schroeder himself, whom the Staffords learned more about when they discovered original blueprints and a building manual for the house stored in an upstairs cubbyhole.
“Schroeder was an advocate for Arts and Crafts,” Steve said. “When they were building this house, we have it in the files where he’s telling the workmen, ‘You don’t understand.’
“Of course, the workmen were saying, ‘We know how to build homes.’”
But when the house’s prefabricated windows arrived from Chicago, they didn’t fit the framed space because the workmen had sized them according to their experience, not the house plans. Likewise, they built the ceilings too high.
“He (Schroeder) writes nasty notes in the log about ‘what good are blueprints and specifications if they workmen don’t read them?’” Steve said. “Then he’s demanding that the contractor make the builders read books about California bungalows, because that’s part of the Arts and Crafts movement.
“He wanted them to understand what he was trying to do.”
The second thing that has aided restoration is that after Schroeder moved into a local nursing home in the early 1970s, the house briefly became a rental, but remained largely uninhabited after that for 20-plus years.
“It’s a good thing, really,” Steve said, “because it could have been redone as a 1970s house.”
Then, in 1997, the house was purchased from the Schroeder Family by Kevin and Morene Fisher, who, with great appreciation from the Staffords, turned the house from a “ghost house to a living house.”
“Thank God for the Fishers, because they could have really destroyed (the historic features), but they didn’t.”
Added Virginia: “Because of the work they did, we were able to move right in.”
The work continues
The restored stairway near the front door looks close to what it was in the Schroeder days, including carpet pads on each step.
The Staffords have carried on the restoration ever since, and believe it will be a five-year project before it is completed. The entire second story of the house still awaits their loving attention.
But both readily admit they already love the house and the community they now call home.
“We can’t wait to share it with others,” Steve said. “We want them to love this house as much as we do, and to understand what a treasurer they have in this town.”