Part I: Stevens Point landmark home saved
At the southwest corner of Main and Division streets – that is, at the central, most conspicuous residential intersection of Stevens Point – stands a splendid old house. At least, it once was splendid, and it can be again. Outside, it looks fine: most of its architectural features are intact, though it is 141 years old.
But inside, it is a wreck. And the roof leaks. For some months, the fate of the house hung in the balance. If someone had not bought the house and begun repairs right away, it might have been condemned and destroyed. But someone did buy it – for $39,900 – and rescued a large piece of Stevens Point architecture and history. A city landmark has been saved.
The house – numbered 1665 (old number: 839) Main Street – is an excellent example of Italianate architecture. That is, the style was inspired by country villas in Italy, and in central Wisconsin was built between 1870 and 1890. In architectural terms, it has a basic geometric structure – here a rectangle with an addition on its west side, and a deck (a flat area) on the roof. It has the requisite wide eaves with ornate brackets under them, and once had symmetrically arranged exterior windows and doors. It also has a bay window on its east wall.
Inside, it has a spectacular mid-19th Century staircase between the first and second floors, a staircase that not only appears original but is intact and in very good condition for its age. It appears to be made of walnut wood, and all of its fluted spindles are in place. (A second stairway, narrower and steeper and plainer than the front one, connects the rear first and second floors.)
The house was built in 1875. So far, only one newspaper report has surfaced about its construction, and that was in the July 10, 1875, Stevens Point Journal: “P.C. Claflin has his new residence, corner of Main and Division streets, enclosed, and expects to have it completed by November. It will rank among the best in the city.”
The tax rolls for the property (Lots 1 and 2, Block 14, Smith, Briggs & Phillips Addition to the City, 1st Ward) provide further evidence that the house was built in 1875. In 1872, the taxes on the two lots totaled only $275, suggesting that they were bare lots, with no buildings on them. In 1873, the total valuation decreased to $225, more proof that no buildings stood on them. (The well-known national Financial Panic of 1873 was probably responsible for the drop in the value of the two lots, which was matched by decreases in valuation of other properties in the neighborhood.) In 1874, the valuation remained at $225.
But in 1875, it began to rise, showing that construction had begun on Price Claflin’s new house: $450. In 1876, after the house was presumably completed, the valuation rose to $1,000, and, finally, in 1877, it rose once again, to $1,200, probably reflecting landscaping and other finishing work done on the property. The valuation remained at $1,200, occasionally alternating with $1,100, for many years, even after a sizable addition was put onto the house in 1883.
Other than the structural evidence, the only documentation for that 1883 addition to the house is a brief report in the Aug. 18 edition of the Journal: “P.C. Claflin is building quite a large addition to his already commodious and handsome residence. The addition (includes) a large kitchen, a bedroom, etc.”
Apparently the house retained its 1883 appearance for 30 years. At least no evidence of major changes to either its interior or exterior has come to light until 1913. In that year, it was extensively remodeled by John Martini, according to at least one article in the Stevens Point Daily Journal.
That article, in the issue of Aug. 26, 1913, only hints at major remodeling, and provides no details: “Mr. and Mrs. John Martini removed their household goods today from 607 Main street to their handsome new residence at 839 Main street, which will be completed in a couple of weeks. In the mean time Mrs. Martini and children will be at their cottage on Martin’s island.”
Now, the Daily Journal reporter or editor was indulging in more than a little hyperbole here. First of all, the Martinis did not build a new house; they remodeled an existing one. We know this, first, because the architecture of the house is still clearly Italianate, which means that it is still virtually the same house. And many of those exterior 1875-era details remain. Also, a walk through the house now (in 2016) tells us that the Martinis did not change everything inside, either. Most notably, they kept the 1875 staircase intact, and they also retained some of the original windows and doors, especially on the second floor, where there are elaborate Greek Revival door- and window-casings, and two doors with lovely round-headed window in them.
In the absence of contemporary (1913) documentation, we can surmise some of the changes that the Martinis did make. We can be relatively sure that the veranda running across the front (north end) of the house, and around to the west side, is not original. Because the original house was a simple rectangle – in the shape of a capital letter “I” – any front porch it might have had would have been simple, too, probably confined strictly to the front of the house, and not going around either corner, east or west. Also, its supporting posts were probably square with, perhaps, beveled corners – i.e., Italianate posts.
But when the 1883 addition was put on, the front porch was probably expanded around to the west side to become a veranda. And the extra posts required may have been more Italianate posts (one hopes), or the original posts may have been replaced by round ones turned on a lathe, along with some rows of small turned spindles and perhaps some scrollwork that was cut out on a jigsaw or a band saw, because 1883 was on the cusp of the Queen Anne architectural period, which was the heyday of fancy “gingerbread” made from wood in an infinite variety of patterns.
For their part, when the Martinis bought the house, they probably replaced this ornately detailed veranda with a simple one composed of only a few large structural pieces or members. Its centerpiece is a full pediment or triangle – wide and low-pitched in this case – which is not only ornamental but functional: it keeps rain off the front steps of the house. Two square columns hold the pediment up, and two more, along the west side of the house, support the rest of the veranda roof.
The pediment and columns, because of their design, are part of the Neo-Classical Revival style, which appeared in central Wisconsin in the late 1890s, and continued until about 1920. So it was very much in vogue in 1913, when John Martini commissioned the remodeling of this house.
The Martinis also probably replaced the original front (north) windows on the first story. There once were probably two of them, and, along with the front door, they matched the size and symmetry of the three windows on the second story. Now, however, to the left or east of the front door, there is only one much larger window, though it has sidelights (narrow vertical panes) and an equally narrow horizontal pane along its top edge. These narrow windows unify the newer, bigger window somewhat with the front doorway, which has Greek Revival sidelights of its own – and which may be part of the original house.
One can infer some of the changes that the Martinis made to the interior of the house, too. The living room is large, and is probably the result of the removal of a partition between the front and rear parlors of the original house. Also, a large brick fireplace dominates the living room, but it almost surely was not part of the original house, but was probably added during the 1913 remodeling. (Houses built in 1875 were almost always heated with wood – or (after the railroads came to town) coal-burning stoves, because open fireplaces were inefficient sources of heat, however pleasing they were and are aesthetically.) One bit of evidence to support this supposition is contained in Peter Kelly’s Gazette obituary, in the January 18, 1905, issue: “At about 7 o’clock on Monday morning Mr. Kelly arose and started fires in the kitchen and dining room stoves …” In other words, there was no fireplace in the house in 1905—nor at any other time earlier than that – and the house was heated by woodburning stoves (space-heaters).
Likewise, the woodwork in the living room is oak, and in the dining room are pilasters (false columns) with scrolled capitals, also of oak.
That oak was probably added during the Martinis’ 1913 remodeling; the house’s original woodwork would probably have been a less expensive wood, because it likely would have been painted white, to imitate the marble of ancient Greek temples. (Again, much of the surviving woodwork on the second floor is also in the original Greek Revival style, and is painted white.)
The siding on the house is no doubt original. It is narrow (six inches wide) clapboard (overlapping to four inches wide), and is in remarkably good condition for its 141 years. But while the roof and the interior have been neglected for several years, the siding has been kept painted and thus preserved from the elements.
As was stated in the introduction to this article, the house sold for $39,900. The price was so low because the house is in great need of repair. The most obvious repair needed is a new roof; the present one leaks. In one room on the second floor, under a hole in the roof, the flooring has gotten wet, and as a result the boards have swelled and the floor has buckled.
But two other causes have put this old house into the sad state it is in now. Beginning in about 1960 or 1961, according to the city directories, the house was made into seven apartments. Partitions, kitchens and bathrooms were added, and other changes were made. Roman Lukasavicz was the owner of the house at the time, again according to the city directories.
And not only the remodeling of the house to convert it to apartments was destructive, but the very fact that seven different parties lived in those apartments, and that they were renters, not owners, had negative effects on the house. More people in the house equals more wear and tear, and renters tend not to take as good a care of a building as do owners.
And, finally, for the past 10 years, according to Ward Wolff, a realtor for First Weber Realty, the house has sat empty, which is even more destructive to any building than being used as apartments. The city directories reveal the slow decline of the house.
In 1962, soon after it was remodeled into apartments, all seven units were occupied. It continued to be mostly filled until 1980, the last year it was fully occupied. But in 1981, only four apartments were occupied, and over the next 20 years, the occupancy fluctuated between one and six vacancies. Finally, from 2001 to 2003, only one apartment was occupied, and from 2004 on, the house’s entry in the directories was “not listed” or “no current listing.” In other words, it was standing empty for those 11 years.
Now, at last, however, the house will be saved. William Schierl and his wife, Sarena Melotte, have bought it, and they intend to restore it. They say they have no illusions about the large cost of, first, repairs like a new roof and, later, removing some of the kitchens, bathrooms, and partitions of the apartments that were put into the house. (According to Ward Wolff, city zoning and building codes now forbid more than two apartments in the house because of the small size of the lot it stands on.) Other work includes repairing the eaves, where gaps in the boards have allowed small trees to take root, and pigeons to roost inside.
(One mystery about the house is: how many rooms did it have originally? Because it was remodeled into seven apartments, that question is very difficult to answer. But Bill Schierl said he has hired a man with a high-technology system that can go through the house and determine which walls or partitions are original and which were added later.
That way, it may be possible to learn just how many rooms the house originally had, what they were, and what their layout was.)
So, at last, another severely endangered old Stevens Point house is in the process of being rescued from destruction and oblivion. Because of its location at the corner of Main and Division streets, and because of its fine architecture, it is an especially crucial house to be saved. So briefly, at least, lovers of Stevens Point’s heritage can breathe a little more easily – but not too long. Other old buildings need saving, too; the campaign to save our past never ends.