Preserving the past in Olde Towne East

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Period dining - The formal dining room in this Olde Towne East home is well preserved with quarter-sawn oak woodwork, an original fireplace and Tiffany-style light fixtures.

A mansion's new owners appreciate their home's ?history in Olde Towne East.

Olde Towne East reminds LeAnne Absalom of Brooklyn.

Absalom lived in Brooklyn for four years before moving to Columbus and purchasing a 115-year-old home on Miami Avenue.

"It was built in almost the same era as Brooklyn, by the same type of people-the bankers, the energy people, the middle management," she says. "There's a sense of community. Everybody looks out for each other. Everybody here is just so invested in the neighborhood and their homes … There are still families that have lived here for generations on the block. There's just a lot of history."

The 4,100-square-foot home she shares with her husband, Dave, and their teen daughters, AnnaMary and Elizabeth, was also a bargain for its size.

"This neighborhood, I think even today, is still undervalued for what it is," she says. "For the same money we paid, in Clintonville we would have gotten something half this size. And we wanted the girls to grow up in an urban neighborhood. The diversity is actually a benefit."

So is the friendliness of their neighbors.

"Everybody waves," Dave says. "It makes my day to see this old guy on the corner who, anytime he's out there on his porch, will wave. He'll knock something down trying to wave to you. It's just refreshing."

Reclaimed Glory

When the Absaloms bought the home in October 2007, the first and second floors had already been restored to their turn-of-the-century splendor.

This was no small task, since a long-ago owner had cordoned off the downstairs as her own living space, and made the upstairs, rented rooms, accessible only from a rear door and small back stairway.

"That was one of the generations of the neighborhood," LeAnne says. "A lot of these old houses got pieced up because the families couldn't afford to maintain them. The heating bills were absolutely astronomical."

Today, the reunified, three-level home features two large front parlors, six fireplaces, four bedrooms, a butler's pantry between the dining room and kitchen, an elevated sun porch overlooking the backyard and the original, curved staircase with an enormous six-paneled, stained-glass window at the turn.

"The woman who had rented it out had boarded up the main steps because she wasn't using them," Dave says. "The guys we bought the house from tore that board out and were pleasantly surprised to see the stained glass and the steps were all intact. It needed some TLC, but it was all there."

LeAnne says the stained-glass window was designed by an artist who studied under Louis Tiffany. "It was the same studio that did all the stained glass for the Broad Street Presbyterian Church," she says.

Another distinctive feature in the house is the dark, quarter-sawn oak woodwork that adds richness to the fireplaces, parlors, main entry hall and dining room. "There are pieces of oak in the house that you couldn't get today because the trees aren't big enough," LeAnne says, indicating the pair of massive wood pillars flanking the entrance to the main parlor. "I've never seen anything like those columns in any of the other Olde Towne homes."

While much of the home was already renovated when the family bought it, the couple was able to make their mark by renovating the third-floor attic, which measures more than 760 square feet. "We did this renovation about five years ago," LeAnne says. "This was our contribution to the house. We built in all the countertops, all the storage, the window seat. We kept all the solid oak doors. Everything is still original. It just gives the house a really solid feel."

The Absaloms initially used the restored attic space as a launch pad for LeAnne's jewelry business, Peace Love Bling. "The third floor was the original world headquarters," she says. "It was a real, official girl cave then."

Nearly a dozen carefully arranged throw pillows, a fluffy white blanket and a trio of tall, colorful pillar candles hint at the previous decor. LeAnne eventually moved her business to the Franklinton Arts District, but she still uses the attic for a home office, as well as a yoga and exercise space. The wall cubbies now conceal her colorful shoe collection.

"We figure at some point in the next couple years, this will become the girls' suite," she says.

Quips Dave: "They've already been up to measure."

Outdoor Living

The attic isn't the only space the couple has renovated.

"Three or four years ago we did the exterior restoration," LeAnne says. "Part of that was turning the porch into a living area."

Round, tapered columns and billowy white curtains surround the expansive front porch. Black and white, scroll-patterned rugs under thick-cushioned furniture and a glass-top coffee table evoke a chic feel.

"On a summer evening, the porch is one of the best features of the house," LeAnne says. "We can sit out there and neighbors will stop by and chat. They'll sit down and have a glass of wine. It's really, really nice."

Finding the right paint colors to accent the porch and exterior trim against the weathered brick façade was a project LeAnne embraced. "We've seen folks in the neighborhood try to do those old colors, which sometimes have a contrasting color in there like yellow with pink or that sort of thing," Dave says. "It's hard to do."

Even the painter was initially skeptical at the creamy shade of yellow and dark green LeAnne selected. "But he was pleasantly surprised," Dave says. "It looks very close to the original."

Clues to the Past

Part of the mystique of living in a home that's more than a century old is piecing together its history. For the Absaloms, that's been an ongoing adventure. "We get little snippets of things and guesses, but we don't have anything real concrete," LeAnne says.

For instance, a small design quirk has led the Absaloms-and others familiar with similar houses- to speculate that the original homeowner was quite wealthy.

"This house is unique in that it doesn't have pocket doors in the main parlor," LeAnne explains. "They usually would've put pocket doors in so they could close them to keep the heat in certain rooms. Whoever owned this house had a lot of money because they could afford to keep these large open areas heated."

A neighbor once gave the Absaloms a profile of someone named Sanford Hallock, whom the neighbor thought might have been the original homeowner. "They guessed it because he came from a timber family in upstate New York, which would fit," she says.

An Internet search of Hallock reveals he was a businessman born in 1880. "And if he was the Sanford Hallock, and if it was built for him, I think he must've been the father of the man who founded COSI," says LeAnne, who has researched the family.

According to the COSI website and various newspaper reports, Sanford "Sandy" Hallock II had the idea to start COSI and served as its executive director from 1963 until his death at the age of 61. During his tenure, the original COSI building was located at 260 E. Broad St., about a mile west of the Absalom's house.

Preserve and Protect

One of the advantages of living in a neighborhood that's been around for multiple generations is that most residents are preservationists at heart.

"One of the guys who lives across the street has lived in his upstairs for as long as I have known him because he's working on certain pieces of the house," Dave says. "He's had to drastically change how he lives to be able to restore it the way he wants."

Dave notes that many neighborhood residents treat the homes with respect, and strive to maintain original details like the woodwork. "They don't paint the wood," Dave says. "They don't tear the wood out and replace it with something else. It seems like the folks who are doing the restorations here, unless they had to gut it because they were in such bad shape, are taking meticulous care to spend the extra dollar to restore the wood that was there instead of taking the easy way out and replacing it. What you end up with are houses that still look like they did 100 years ago."

And that, they say, is worth the investment.

"We've tried to preserve the plaster where we can," LeAnne says. "When we painted rooms, we brought in people who are specialists in repairing plaster instead of doing drywall. The plaster takes some maintaining, but everything is manageable if it's not let go for too long."

Similarly, rather than simply upgrading the entire house to central heating, the Absaloms rely on built-in vintage steam radiators to warm the rooms on the first and second floors.

"When we moved in, we turned the steam on and got a bill for that month that was unbelievable," Dave says. "It was like $600 or $700. So we turned the steam off and just used the forced air, which wasn't that great for this big of a house. LeAnne finally had a guy come out and he found a leak, fixed it, and now all of a sudden we have the most wonderful heat in the world and it's very, very reasonable."

"I think this house has actually been easier to maintain than new construction," LeAnne says. "It's already stood for 100 years. It's got a solid foundation. It's got good bones."

"There's not a bunch of unknowns," Dave adds. "It's been here so long, there are certain things you know must be fine at this point."

That goes for the neighborhood, too.

"I think there's still a stigma over Olde Towne East," LeAnne says. "I'd love people to know how neighborly and friendly it is. It's one of the neatest things about living here."