Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 26 July 2011 18:26
And it happened just in time to mark the house’s 100th birthday.
The two-story Victorian-style house at 313 S. Birch, unique for the five-sided turret on the southeast corner of the structure, was on the auction block and headed for possible demolition in 2008 when Jon and Ellynne Wiebe decided to buy it.
The structure’s exterior was in disrepair and fading fast, but the couple could not pass up the house Jon’s great-grandfather had commissioned in 1911.
“I got caught up in the romance at the auction,” Jon admitted with a smile. “Ellynne and I had been thinking about that house, and the heritage, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the next owner.’
“Some people were looking at it to actually destroy it, and I didn’t like that idea,” he added. “Literally, during the auction, Ellynne kept saying, ‘why don’t you do it, why don’t you do it—we’ll figure it out.’
“And so I bought it.”
“My mom cried because of joy and what she perceived to be a desire to keep the heritage, to restore the home,” Jon said. “My dad thought I was silly. He would have cried because, ‘Do you really need this hanging over your head and weighing you down?’
“He’s more practical.”
The back story
John Frantz, a Mennonite immigrant from Poland, had been farming with brother Peter along the North Cottonwood River near Durham when he and wife Elizabeth decided to move to Hillsboro so their three youngest children could attend high school and college.
The couple hired Henry S. Goertz to build them a house on a 40-acre open parcel of land along Birch Street, which at the time marked the west boundary of the town.
Goertz, who went on to build the first Salem Hospital building in town (now used by Main Street Ministries) in 1916 and the Mary J. Regier Building on the Tabor College campus in 1919 before moving to Texas in 1921, sold the house to the Frantzes in 1912.
The couple owned the house until 1928, when they sold it to the William Kopper family. Thirteen years later, David V. Wiebe and wife Martha, daughter of the Frantzes, purchased it and lived their 13 years before selling it to Jona and Bena Stelting in 1954.
David F. Wiebe, son of David V. and Martha, and an uncle of Jon, brought the house back into the family when he purchased it in 1983. He put a full unfinished basement beneath it and added a new cedar-shingle roof, front porch, heating system and second bathroom.
He and brother Raymond lived in the house until moving to the Salem Apartments in recent years.
“I was toying with entering the real estate business with an investment property, whether that be to rent or to flip,” he said. “I was not really clear on my objectives.”
Part of his motivation was to have a project to work on in partnership with his two teenage sons, Matthew and Josh.
“I grew up not on a farm, but related to the farming community and worked on the farm on the weekend,” Jon said. “You learn how to put stuff together, how to handle tools. I’m not a skilled craftsman, but I kind of knew my way around.
“Earlier, I had done remodeling in our home when (the boys) were hanging on my back and going ‘Daddy, Daddy, what are you doing?’” he added. “They didn’t learning anything, but it was a family project—them watching me. We really hadn’t done anything since then.
“For me, it was like I’ve only got so many years left to do a house together with them, and this would give us an excuse to do some work and to teach them some things.”
Jon decided he would compensate the boys for their labor.
“I committed to paying them an hourly wage,” he said. “It gave them a summer job for three summers that was flexible with our family schedule. It worked well in that way.”
Choosing an approach
One of the biggest questions the family had to settle about the project was how extensive the remodel should be.
“Do we remodel it like we would if we were going to live here, or do we remodel it at a value we think can sell?” Jon said.
For a time, the family considered using the 1,586-square-foot house (plus basement) as a bed and breakfast, or a rental. The latter idea was soon dismissed.
“We decided pretty quickly this wasn’t the type of house you rent out, because of the historical value,” Jon said. “Someone needs to love the home. Once we got away from a bed and breakfast, it became OK, we’re going to sell it.”
Job 1 was to revitalize the exterior. The Wiebes scraped and repainted the outside walls, and redid the ribbon of decorative teardrop wood at the base of the house.
In addition, they had the roof reshingled and replaced 24 of the house’s 26 windows with modern, energy-efficient ones.
Inside, the family redid the natural oak floors, some of which had been covered by carpet. They also gutted and rebuilt the kitchen—including all new cabinets—and the two bathrooms, as well as completing minor repairs, redoing the electrical and insulating the attic.
Taking their design cues from Ellynne, the family repainted the walls with neutral colors and replaced much of the interior window molding.
“We worked together and there was a lot of pride in accomplishment,” Jon said. “When we showed people the house, I could tell the boys were happy with what they did.”
Success over time
One of the biggest challenges of the project was to find time to work on it, given the parents’ job responsibilities and the boys’ school and activity schedules.
“At times I walked away and said I’m not going to get back to this for six to eight weeks,” said Jon, who works in town as president of MB Foundation. “There were big chunks of time when I was away from it.”
Spring break, Christmas break and summers became prime work periods.
The project was officially completed earlier this month—on Independence Day, appropriately enough. Extended family gathered at the house a few days later for a celebratory barbecue.
With the house now on the market, Jon said he’ll consider the project a complete success if he can at least break even financially when it sells. But he’s already feeling pretty good about the way it turned out.
“It brought me and my boys together,” he said. “I mean, we were always together, but it just gave us a really strong reason to be at work together over a long period of time. It taught them hard work and values and just some practical things.
“I definitely accomplished that goal, if nothing else.”