One day, you run a nice little neighborhood tavern and own some rental properties.
The next day, you own the biggest fixer-upper in Racine, arguably an imposing historic mansion but one that some who have seen it say is just one push from falling over, a candidate for demolition.
Meet Peg and Lou Larson, the new owners -- since Monday -- of the Miller House, a 5,000 sq. ft. landmark at 1110 South Main Street across from Gateway Technical College. It dates from 1899 and went into foreclosure one year ago, its owners defaulting on a $672,948 mortgage. We told you all about the house on Dec. 30, 2008.
Peg and Lou -- each of the bars they've owned has gone by that name, including their current one at 3113 Douglas Ave. -- first saw the house in 2004. Preservation Racine described it this way: "It is undoubtedly the most sophisticated example of Classical Revival Style in the city. Two columned porticos are deftly interwoven at the entryway: the lower one bows out from the middle of a pillared porch across the front to support a semicircular balcony above it, while the taller one forms a two-story columned canopy with a classical pediment that hovers over the balcony below it." And so on...
The Miller House had been listed at the time for $400,000 and sold for $360,000, and was the star of a Preservation Racine tour. "It was beautiful," said Lou, but too expensive for them.
Nobody would call it beautiful today. Outside, one of the porch pillars is missing; there's a hole in the floor and another one in the concrete steps, the paint is peeling; that lovely second-floor balcony is not someplace I wanted to stand. Inside there are walls with the plaster totally removed, just the lath remaining; some of the house's bathrooms have no fixtures... or walls; the chimney was damaged by lightning; much of the woodwork is in various stages of restoration ... or is it decay? I could go on, but you get the idea.
And yet -- Peg and Lou see the house's beauty. It was supposed to be auctioned off at a Sheriff's sale on Dec. 17. "We saw the auction sign, called up and negotiated with the bank, and closed on Monday." said Lou. After turning over a check for $147,000 -- that's not a misprint -- the house was theirs.
Did they get a bargain? Did they get taken? There are arguments on both sides. When I heard they'd bought the house, I told Lou it was a "gutsy" move. "That isn't what I was thinking," he wrote back, "but I like that better."
As they took me through the house, it was clear that they see its potential more than its defects. Lou knelt down to show off one of the bedroom's floors, right, with beautiful parquet around the perimeter. It's an original SC Johnson floor, and it needs little more than a light sanding and some of that famous wax. "It's going to be gorgeous," Lou says. There are four big bedrooms on the second floor.
The sweeping oak stairway at the front of the house looks a little dicey -- one step is missing, actually, and different parts of the woodwork are in various stages of restoration. The paint's been stripped from most of it; one section's been restained, but it's clear that many, many hours of work remain. For now, it seemed prudent to use the servants' back stairway to reach the upper floors.
But there are beveled glass windows and doors, gas and electric lighting fixtures, a sleeping porch, fireplaces (some still with their mantels, some not), a carriage house out back, 10-ft. ceilings, even an elevator (well, part of one). The less said about the kitchen, the better. "The house needs a whole lot of cosmetics," Peg says. "A modern functioning kitchen," says Lou. "But one that complements the time of the house," adds Peg.
Peg and Lou are going into this with their eyes open. They've been married for 10 years (They got married on 9/9/99 in the back of their bar, dressed up in Roaring '20s get-up. "That was a hoot," Lou says.) but have been buying and rehabbing houses since 1997. The couple are hands-on, doing much of the work themselves. "Trial and error," is how they've learned, says Lou, adding that his Dad taught him, "You try something until you can't, and then you call in a professional."
"We're collectors," says Peg. "We collect everything. We collect antiques...really big ones." They also own lots of stuff they'll need for the Miller House. Take that missing porch pillar, for example. "I bet I own 20 pillars," Lou said. He's got them stored at the Uptown Theatre, built in 1929, which the couple bought three years ago -- mostly for its eight apartments, but also for its storage space. What else might he have in there? Well, there's 5,000 sq. ft. of gymnasium floor, bought for $200 when a Milwaukee High School was being torn down; it took Lou two weeks to tear up that flooring. And then there's the tin ceiling from the old National Liquor Bar in Milwaukee; "We took it down piece by piece." What else? Double doors, bubble glass, huge cabinetry...
Peg and Lou know how much they've bitten off because they've done this before -- although not on this scale. They live in an 1870 cream city brick house they restored. Many of their rental properties "were brought back from the brink," one step away from condemnation when they were purchased. And yet -- the two said they've been hearing rumblings from those who care about preservation that maybe someone else should have bought the Miller House.
Doorway to second-floor porch
"We have been hearing some rumors that Peg and I may not be 'the right people' because of the fact that we are landlords of some 'inner-city' properties," says Lou. Or maybe it's that they're bar owners. Or that Lou has a long, grey ponytail. It's hard to argue with anonymous rumblings, but they hurt nonetheless. Lou says his properties "look better inside than outside; I want to satisfy my tenants. We pride ourselves on being caretakers of over 12 buildings in Racine." He notes that he doesn't re-side his houses; he paints them. Well, Peg is the painter; she worked on a scissor lift and cherry picker for two weeks on one of their houses.
People worried about the future of the Miller House need to hear Peg and Lou talk passionately about it. "This one, we want to save," says Lou. "It's in the right hands," adds Peg. "It's not going to be torn down, or turned into apartments." Lou says, "We plan to live in it. Of course, we won't know until we get it done. But we're going to restore it to the best of our ability."
And when will that be, and for how much money? Ah, both of those are moving targets. In the course of an hour-long tour, Lou started out saying the house might be done in about two years, for perhaps another $100,000-$150,000. He's looking forward to sitting on the porch to watch the Fourth of July Parade. As we kept talking, the two estimates started stretching. Peg said, "It'll probably be $300,000. Lou said, "I say two years; it'll probably be five." "Send money," he jokes.
"People may not like my timeline, but they'll love my results," Lou says. He invites skeptics to come to an open house this Sunday at 1400 Erie Street, to see a house that they've just finished putting together.
And if you still think he and Peg are the wrong people to save and restore the Miller House -- well, feel free to make an offer for it before their work begins. "The bidding starts at $148,000," Lou says.