Thursday, July 31, 2008

Poison Pill

The House of 42 Doors was built in 1921 by a financially successful, first-generation Dutch American. Bill (not his real name) made his fortune as a farmer, a banker and a small businessman. He ran a greenhouse adjacent to the House of 42 Doors and at one point had 27,000 square feet of greenhouses. By the time Bill built the House of 42 Doors, he was 57. He died sometime in the 1940's.

Upon his death, the house went to his oldest son, Eddie. I'm not clear what Eddie did for a living. He may have run the greenhouse business, or he may just have lived off of his dad's wealth. I know that he remained a bachelor and lived in the house with his youngest sister Marge. He was also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. From the 1940's up until the death of Eddie and Marge in the 1970's, the house and the grounds slid into serious decline.

Once Eddie and Marge died, the land that held the greenhouses was divided up into eight lots, varying in size from one quarter to three quarters of an acre. The greenhouses were bulldozed and the lots were placed up for sale. The House of 42 Doors was in such bad disrepair that the family talked about bulldozing it along with the greenhouses and just selling the land.

A nephew of Eddie, Dave, stepped forward and offered to buy the house. Dave is an architect and saw value in preserving the House of 42 Doors, not only because of its family history, but also for its architectural form. I don't know exactly how much work he put into the house. Based on one photo and close observation it looks like he completely rebuilt the porte cochiere, remodeled the sunroom, replaced the gutters, replaced the majority of the plumbing with copper pipes, removed the old coal boiler, installed a new natural gas boiler, built a new three car garage and put cement sidewalks around three quarters of the house to try and manage some of the water issues. He focused on keeping the house original as much as possible. And for all that he did do, he left a lot of things undone, like all the things we are having to deal with.

There is a factory that sits only a block and a half away from the house. The oldest part of it predates the house, having been built in 1889. It's been added on to several times and now covers an area of at least fifteen city blocks. It employs around 600 people. The entire town population is only 6500. The factory is a major contributor to the town economy. It is noisy, generating a constant hum and when the wind blows from the wrong direction, it smells unpleasant. The odor can vary from sauerkraut to sewage. Because of where we are located, we get an unpleasant smell a few times a month, but the steady hum is always present, day and night, except for Sundays when it lessens.

The factory has kept real estate prices in the area low. When the land around the House of 42 Doors was subdivided after Eddie's death, it created an opportunity to build new houses just north of Main Street on large, wooded lots within a stone's throw of a river. The factory was too close though to allow this land to be upper end real estate. The houses that were built on the new lots were nicer than the houses already in place though. They are currently appraised at about 30% to 50% more than the standard houses in town. The House of 42 Doors is appraised at the top end of the neighborhood.

Sometime in the early 90's the factory decided that they needed to expand again. To stay profitable, they needed cheaper energy and they needed to add facilities for further processing of raw materials. They worked together with a large local energy company to devise a plan that included additional facilities and a power co-generation plant for both the factory and the greater community. All they needed was a location.

Casting their eyes to the west, they saw a small neighborhood sandwiched between a river to the north, the factory to the east and a waste water treatment plant to the west. It seemed perfect. They bought up most of the houses, offering the people who lived there the "right to salvage" before their houses were knocked flat. Some people took out everything - light fixtures, doors, plants, trim and, in at least one case, even the topsoil.

Everybody sold out to the factory, except for one homeowner, Dave. I don't know all the tricks he used to hold off the big companies, but he did apply to have the house listed on the National and State Historical Registries. He succeeded, arguing that the house is architecturally distinct from all other houses in the town. One person I talked to said he won the fight against the companies only because the energy company and the factory didn't file a crucial document in time. The project died. The factory chose to do without additional facilities and instead relied on additional energy from a new natural gas pipeline. They put the houses back on the market and the neighborhood resettled. The House of 42 Doors narrowly missed the bulldozer for the second time.

David lived in the house until about 2005, when he and his wife moved to Australia. Eerily similar to our own experiences while we were in Ireland, David rented out the house for the first year that he and his wife were overseas. The renters were not good for the house and they did not rent for another year. I'm not sure if the lease was not renewed or if the renters opted to leave. In any case, the house sat empty for part of 2006 and 2007. We bought the House of 42 Doors on August 30th, 2007.

Why all the back story? Because yesterday the factory released a statement that as of the end of August, they are going to shut down. They cited a glut of product in the market, high energy costs (natural gas prices have gone through the roof) and insufficient facilities to process raw materials. Shipping in semi-processed materials is too expensive. This ties back to the desire of David to save the House of 42 Doors. I'm torn. On the one hand I love the House of 42 Doors. On the other hand, it's existence is caught up in the loss of jobs for around 500 people. And in a town of 6500, that is substantial. I feel like I've been fed a sugar-coated poison pill.


Allknowingjen said...

*Oof* about all those jobs. :(
But I have to say that all this backstory is so interesting! Did it all come with the house or did you have to research some of it? Where did you start?

Mr. Kluges said...

When David applied to the Historic registries he had to do a lot of paperwork, including histories of the house, the town and the family. We were able to obtain copies of that paperwork. Because the house was always in the same family, he was able to get really good primary source information for some of it. There's also information online , and I know that if I went down to the city hall I could get even more information.

For everything that occurred in the last fifteen years though, we just talked to the neighbors. David really didn't fit in very well here. He's an architect married to an Australian in a neighborhood of welders, teachers, and blue collar families. It was easy to get information from the neighbors. I think they see Ms. Huis and I as a bit easier to relate too.

Mugsy said...


Wow wow.

DiploWhat said...

Interesting history!
I'm guessing the factory would close or greatly reduce staff even if they had expanded way back when. That's just the way of things and with energy and labor and material costs high now, sometimes there's nothing you can do. Besides, you aren't the only people living in the neighborhood. It's been my experience that if a major employer in an area really wants something, they can get it.