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Discover Mid-America — June 2008

Two former frontier river towns replete with historic homes

by Mary Rupert

Historic homes attract those who want to safeguard the past. To those who own, decorate or market and sell such homes, the connection of history to their lives today is an ongoing nurturing experience.

“I love Missouri, and I love Missouri history,” antique dealer and interior designer Bruce Burstert told Home Design magazine. “I somehow wanted to be a part of preserving that.”

Burstert, whose home was built in 1938 in Lexington, MO, has a passion shared by others who embrace the grandeur of historic homes.

A challenge in Atchison

Sharon Locke of Colonial Listings is marketing this restored 1876 Colonial Revival home in Atchison. (photo by Mary Rupert)

Gretchen and Neil Sullivan say the most challenging part of refurbishing their 1876 Colonial Revival home in Atchison, KS was the staircase.

The Sullivans have lived in the home at 613 Laramie for eight years while redoing nearly every inch of it. The home had been remodeled several times, including its most recent use as a state home for people who were not able to live on their own.

The Sullivans made extensive changes to the home, restoring a sense of its history. While it's thought to be a Colonial Revival style, it also had elements of Arts and Crafts inside, said Gretchen, who studied interior design at the University of Kansas.

"We did the bedroom and television room first, so we had two rooms to live in," Gretchen said.

When the Sullivans moved in, the main staircase led to a side door. At one time, the house had been split into a duplex. The Sullivans repositioned the staircase, took part of the staircase out and found a match for the post from Neodesha, KS. The balusters were taken out and cut at an angle, Neil said. Now the retrofitted staircase leads to the home's main door.

The bathrooms were another challenging area and were all redone, as the tile floors and walls had been damaged over the years, he said. Some bathrooms were enlarged, adding former closet space.

A sunroom on one side of the home includes the original tile floor, Gretchen said, with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Windows were added in this room, as well as in other rooms.

In 1911-12, the family of R.W. Ramsay, a prominent Atchison merchant, who was instrumental in building the community's hospital, remodeled the home, said Gretchen. With that the roof was removed, a story was added and the porch was removed, according to Neil. Also at some time, the brick home was stuccoed, a common practice in the early 1900s.

After she made her restoration plans, Gretchen found a 1912 postcard featuring a picture of the home and its construction crew, which confirmed Gretchen's ideas of what the house probably looked like almost a century ago.

The Sullivans were given this 1912 postcard showing the workers who remodeled the home. The contractor was Martin Braun, according to information on the postcard. (photo by Mary Rupert)

"Gretchen has the vision," said Sharon Locke, owner of Colonial Listings in Atchison. "She can see what 98 percent of the people cannot see."

Gretchen also added a garden area on the side of the home, complete with an antique brick patio and statuary.

The project was a lot of work, she said, the first, and probably the last, major remodeling of a historic home that she will do.

While restoring the home, the Sullivans experienced some finds: a pair of "granny glasses," 1911-era wallpaper in a third-floor room, cases of empty ginger ale bottles dating back to the early days of bottling, old books and magazines from Glasgow, Scotland, and a map of Europe under the home's eaves.

The map had pins in it. Neil speculates the map was a way for the family to keep track of a son serving in the Army in Europe.

Marketing historic homes

The Sullivan home is only one in blocks of historic houses still standing in Atchison, KS, and Lexington, MO, two frontier towns along the Missouri River.

This Victorian brick home was built in 1885 in Atchison. (photo courtesy of Colonial Listings)

According to the Kansas State Historical Society, Atchison has 39 listings on the national and state registers of historic places, and one of those listings includes another 38 properties in the Amelia Earhart historic district.

Locke of Colonial Listings is listing two other remodeled historic homes in Atchison, a Victorian brick home built in 1885 at 1120 Kansas Ave., and "The Chateau," a turreted Victorian residence built in 1897 at 930 Kansas Ave.

The Sullivans' 4,535-square-foot home, with four bedrooms and three bathrooms, lists at $345,000, while the other two listings are more than $200,000.

Historic homes in the Midwest are holding their value in a market where homes on the coasts have declined in value, Locke said. In this market, the Midwest may still appeal to a homebuyer from the coasts who likes a slower-paced life and wants to retain the home's value.

"I'm seeing the younger generation come in and appreciate the craftsmanship," Locke said. "And they're starting to raise families in historic homes."

With some historic homebuyers coming from out of state, Locke tries to include more history and information about the homes on her website, she said. It can be a challenge to inform people about Atchison, its location and what it has to offer, she added.

"We have some of the best-kept secrets here," she said. Besides its river port and frontier history, including a site mentioned by Lewis and Clark, Atchison is known as the eastern starting point of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, as an industry town where grain is processed into alcohol, and as the home of Benedictine College, which traces its history to 1858.

The O'Malley-Kelley House, built around 1850 in Lexington's Irish Town Hill, is on the National Register of Historic Places. (photo courtesy Welcome Home Realty)

Like Atchison, Lexington has a large number of historic homes.

"We have around 115 pre-Civil War homes and buildings in Lexington, and over 600 sites nominated for the National Register," said Michelle Neer of Welcome Home Realty in Lexington.

Lexington was a steamboat port on the Missouri River, plus an important frontier town on the Santa Fe Trail. Many homes survived the Civil War Battle of Lexington.

Marketing historic homes is different, she agreed.

"It's marketing the property, the home, the community and the history," Neer said. "Most of the people are not familiar with Lexington at all. We help them plug into the community. When they move here, they feel a greater sense of community than where they lived the past 20 or 30 years."

Buyers of historic homes share a love of history and appreciation for historic architecture, she said. The historic home market is more stable because it is such a limited resource, she said.

Neer said she's listing a $129,000 restored antebellum two-story brick home built about 1850. On the National Register of Historic Places, it's known as the O'Malley-Kelley House, built in Lexington's Irish Town Hill, she said.

The Greek Revival home with three fireplaces includes modern heating and cooling, as well as plumbing. It also includes modern appliances, wood floors and a deck off the dining room.

While restoration work was being done about 15 years ago, workers uncovered a winter kitchen fireplace, and a gun barrel spanned the inside opening. Also found was an 1855 quarter, she said.

"A whiskey flask was found during the electrical renovation," Neer said. "It appears to be identical to the flasks that were found on the Steamboat Arabia."

Another Lexington listing, also on the National Register, is a restored vintage home that dates to 1864, when it first appeared in auction records, according to Neer. Edward Winsor and his son Upton put the home up for auction. The highest bidder was Arnold Winsor, according to records. Edward and Upton Winsor fought for the Confederacy in the Missouri State Guard during the Civil War, Neer said.

She said the interior trim and staircase shows it could be pre-Civil War, because similar trim is found in Lexington in homes built in the 1840s and 1850s, but she has not found documentation.

Brant and Michelle Neer in their restored commercial space on Lexington's historic Main Street. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Neer said owning a historic home is mostly a matter of doing routine maintenance.

"It's not as scary as you might think," she said. "These homes were built to last."

Neer and her husband bought an 1843 Lexington home more than 15 years ago that was originally built by a Union surgeon who served in the Battle of Lexington.

Her home for a time was the residence of Dr. B. Clark Hyde, who was charged and acquitted on appeal in the death of Col. Thomas Swope, she said. Swope had died after a sudden illness and Hyde, who was married to Swope's niece, was accused of poisoning him in 1909. After a sensational trial, Hyde moved in with his sister, who owned the Neers' Lexington home.

Interior design for historic homes

In Lexington, interior designer and antiques dealer Bruce Burstert said he likes to approach the design for a historic home by first making the structure as authentic as possible.

"It's very important to get the structure put back as correctly as possible so we can save the architecture," he said.

The furnishings then can complement the homes.

"I like to support the houses," he said. "You can come in and add contemporary things, not to the structure, but to the interior, to make it up to date. For me, if you listen to the house, and if you acknowledge the structure and the color to a certain extent, and part of the furnishings, you can then break away if you want to.

“I end up using period furniture most of the time. It's good to keep that thread going of the style or the flavor."

"When I come into an old house, I like to peel away the modern additions," Bruce Burstert said. "I like to see as much of the original fabric of the house and the original structure, adn preserve that as much as we can." (photo by Ron Johnson)

More than 100 historic homes are located near one another, Burstert said, many in Lexington’s Old Neighborhoods National Historic Register District.

"We have a tremendous amount of 19th century architecture that is still here and it's rare to have groupings of buildings," he said. "That's what Missouri really has to offer right now. Lexington has that to offer."

If historic homes are acknowledged and restored, they preserve the particular flavor of Lexington's own cultural history, he said. Burstert said he's constantly looking for antiques that reflect that history.

"When I come into an old house, I like to peel away the modern additions," Burstert said. "I like to see as much of the original fabric of the house and the original structure, and preserve that as much as we can. I work on an architectural sense and design sense. I use color a lot to support those issues, too."

He said he likes to use 18th and 19th century furniture in those settings because it really works. He goes throughout the Midwest, looking in shops and at auctions for antiques that can be used in specific projects.

Burstert’s antique shop is in the lower level of River Reader bookstore on Main Street in Lexington. Attracted to antiques since the seventh grade, Burstert is considered a leading Midwest antique dealer.

"What I try to search for, no matter what price level, is the appropriateness of the quality," he said. "Antiques are very undervalued. They are not only beautiful but have time-worn surfaces and beautiful patinas that really reflect the styles and tastes of whoever made those pieces."

Clients seem to want cleaner designs, better quality and fewer items, he said. One good quality piece is enough in a room.

"I work with two different kinds of people, either they are a collector or they like traditional design," he said. "Making an old house new and changing it into something it's not — you just don't need to modernize, you need to restore and preserve. My design has a strong sense of history."

One of the bedrooms in the Sullivan home in Atchison includes a new closet constructed from old wood. (photo by Mary Rupert)

Clients need to think about how to use the space and where to live. Burstert said he gives definition to spaces so that rooms will be used, rather than being the best room that isn't used.

He recently completed a bedroom restoration in Lexington for a client who has a home built in the late 1860s. Everything in the room and the colors are not period, but a 19th century style was chosen for the windows. First he acknowledges the style of the house, especially by retaining the architecture, then he feels that he can start breaking away and be freer with the accessories.

Burstert also bought and restored the Waddell House in Lexington, the oldest frame house in Lafayette County. William Waddell's firm, Russell, Majors and Waddell, started the Pony Express.

According to Burstert, when Union troops took over a college during the Civil War, the girls in the Lexington school moved to the eight-room Waddell home. He originally bought the home because he liked its fireplaces.

In Atchison, Mary Carol Garrity of Nell Hill's specialized home decor store has been the interior decorator for several historic homes. In November, she opened another store in the Briarcliff development in North Kansas City, MO.

"I live in a house that's over 135 years, and you do approach things differently," she said. "It's built to protect against the weather. A lot of the times these homes are much darker than homes being built today."

Darker colors are often used in newer homes to make them feel warmer because there is a lot of natural light coming in, she said. Designers have to be more careful of light-dark contrast in older homes, as they don't have as much natural light flooding into them.

It is, however, easier for her to decorate a historic home than a new home because the older one is already "warmed up," she said.

The most common mistake is giving up comfort for period-type pieces, according to Garrity.

"I think you have to be true to your home, but you can also do it in an updated and comfortable way," she said.

Historic homes typically have small bathrooms and small bedrooms without much closet space, she said. Sometimes, a small bedroom is turned into a large bathroom.

"We stayed fairly true to the original layout of our house," Garrity said. "All homes present their own set of pluses and minuses."

When she bought her home in Atchison, almost 20 years ago, she said she thought it was a dream. At one time, the home was used as a hospital.

"I remember a woman coming into my shop and started talking to me, 'I understand you bought that white elephant,'" she said. "And I remember at the time being a little insulted. And then about a year later my husband and I were working on our project, and we said, 'Boy, she got that right.'"

There are times she still thinks of it that way. She said she also realizes that it doesn't matter if it's an old or new house, there will always be issues and costs.

"They're all money pits," she said. "It's always three times more than what you think it's going to be."

Garrity said it really comes down to whether a person likes historic homes.

"I definitely love where I live," she said.

Historic homebuyers now are mixing their period antiques and pulling them together with colors and fabrics, she said. They're not buying as much antique furniture, they're using accent pieces and accessories, she said.

What she liked best about her historic design projects were the people, she said.

"I love the families that were so passionate about buying them," she said.

Mary Rupert is a Kansas City, KS-based freelance journalist.

Contact Info

Sharon Locke, broker, Colonial Listings, Atchison, KS

Michelle Neer, broker, Welcome Home Realty, Lexington, MO

Bruce Burstert Antiques, lower level River Reader bookstore,
1010 Main, Lexington, MO 660-259-4996

Nell Hill’s (
4101 N Mulberry Dr., KCMO 816-746-4320
501 Commercial, Atchison, KS 913-367-1086

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