Home & Design December 22, 2008

Romantic Victorians

The excitement of rescuing a romantic old home from the wrecking ball, or from obscurity, can make the necessary restoration work look easy—or at least tolerable—at the outset.

The enthusiasm with which most people jump into such a project is sorely tested, however, by the reality of living for weeks without plumbing, with endless dust, and with noisy sheets of visquine flapping in the wind. What begins as a project schedule with a seemingly realistic deadline almost inevitably stretches into a dreary and nebulous future, while unexpected problems pop up one after another.

In spite of the difficulties, dreamers do continue to seek such restoration projects. And for them, the town of Hailey is a lucky pocket.

When Chris and Phoebe Pilaro bought a 120-year-old Victorian house in old Hailey in the spring of 2001, they immediately began an environmentally friendly restoration. With a completion date that coincided with their early November wedding, the couple returned from their honeymoon expecting to move into their new home.

It wasn’t ready, but they moved in anyway—the day before Thanksgiving. “Our whole family came,” remembers Phoebe. “We just barely had toilets. We had no interior doors, but the builders put a door on the bathroom for Thanksgiving.”

Eighteen months later, the couple laughs about it. “We spent six months remodeling, which carried over to nine months,” says Phoebe.

“And,” adds Chris, “it’s still carrying over.”

Across Main Street, in west Hailey, Sam and Terrie Davis spent 23 years on the restoration of their 1893 home. “It took us five years to make the house basically livable,” says Terrie. “It was another five years before all the finish work and trim were done.”

Thanks to the Davises, their world-renowned bed and breakfast inn, Povey Pensione, is one of the best- documented homes in the Valley. Its salvaged architectural details and rich history earned it a segment on HGTV’s If Walls Could Talk.

Local caterer Judith McQueen just moved into what was at one time Hailey’s jailhouse. Although former owners had undertaken major restoration of the 1883 East Carbonate Street home, the energetic chef faces the unique challenge of integrating the needs of a modern business—cleanliness, simplicity of use, and lots of storage space—with the strong character of an old house.

For Eltiena Campbell, who with husband Bill bought an 1880s Croy Street home five years ago, it was love at first sight. “The first time we walked in, the kitchen was so warm and inviting,” remembers Eltiena. “Bill said, ‘No way, nothing’s to code.’ But, in the airport as we were leaving to return to Seattle, we called the owners and made an offer.”

The Campbells’ home typifies many of Hailey’s Victorians, which are known as “folk” or “rural” in the genre. Built when local silver mines were booming, these homes were comparatively plain in comparison to the over-the-top, multicolored style of earlier Queen Annes—the so-called “Painted Ladies” of Victorian architecture. Still, with America’s new middle class eager to display its prosperity, sophistication and taste, Hailey’s grand ladies gazed out at the town’s wide streets through tall, multi-paned windows. Advancements in glassmaking had popularized leaded panes that were etched, frosted, or colored. Steep gables rose high behind porches busy with gingerbread and spindlework. Wide lawns manicured with newly invented hand-push lawnmowers boasted of their inhabitants’ status, for a well-kept lawn had formerly been the sole province of wealthy homeowners, who could hire dozens of workers to labor with hand trimmers.

Inside, hardwood floors met wide baseboards, which protected the walls during mopping. Wainscoting, chair rails, and a painted or wallpapered frieze rose to deep moldings under high ceilings. Steep, narrow staircases with spindle balustrades led to small bedrooms with slanted ceilings.

Like little old ladies gossiping over tea, the Victorian homes of Hailey tell tales of the city’s past. The process of caring for these rickety senior citizens coaxes them to share their secrets, brings out their personalities, and encourages their modern-day inhabitants to express themselves. Whether the goal is environmental soundness, a perfected workspace, the re-creation of an era, or simply crafting a comfortable family home, when attention, time, and money (often more than planned) are given to these grand ladies, they give something back—often much more than expected. >>>


Comfort and Quirks

Bill and Eltiena Campbell’s inviting kitchen rubbed elbows with fame in the 1930s. The matriarch of the house was known for her cinnamon buns, and baked them for get-togethers at the Episcopal Church, where a gregarious priest regularly entertained Sun Valley’s visiting film stars. Thus it was that Mrs. Walker’s delicacies were sampled by such icons of the screen as Gary Cooper.

The house itself wasn’t anything fancy back then. Margaret Walker Hamilton, who was born there, on the corner of Fourth and Croy, in 1931, describes her childhood home as a farmhouse: “We had chicken coops and a big barn. Mom milked a cow. We had rabbit hutches, and quite a few fruit trees. There was nothing between us and the depot.”

The railroad reached Hailey in 1883, bringing factory-made materials to a surging population. Much woodwork continued to be done by hand, though, and a nationally recognized building standard was decades in the future. While restoration is almost always a labor of love, the charming individuality of Victorian homes can translate into a wealth of frustrations for the do-it-yourselfer. Bill Campbell can attest to this: “When you go to install a custom piece, nothing is square—so you have to change that.”

Previous owners of the Campbell home had performed major structural renovations, even going so far as replacing a wavy roof they feared was rotting but which turned out simply to be fabricated of uneven, hand-hewn timbers. The remodeling the current owners have overseen has been mostly cosmetic—replacing the tattered Victorian-style wallpaper with paint, for instance, in a range of pale, warm hues that wouldn’t compete with the comfortable, more current furniture transplanted from their Seattle home.

Like little old ladies gossiping over tea, the Victorian homes of Hailey tell tales of the city’s past.

The cellar’s earthen floors and low ceilings captivated Bill as readily as the kitchen charmed his wife. Lying at the bottom of a steep, narrow staircase (“Watch your head,” warns Bill), the tiny room—no more than eight feet square—was once used to store eggs and canned fruit. Now an intimate wine cellar furnished with a petite café table and chairs, this is not the first incarnation in which the cellar has been used for a tipple. Mrs. Hamilton’s brother told the Campbells that their mother and a neighbor used to descend the stairs every afternoon at three o’clock for a little drink.

Among the oddities on the main floor are numerous wainscoted cabinets looming high on the walls and wedged under the stairs. They offer an unusual amount of storage for a Victorian (wardrobes were considerably smaller back then). Seemingly random posts and beams tell more stories. In the guestroom, an odd support and beam, painted to blend with the wall and ceiling, were added to prop up a sagging floor in the room above. A low beam in the kitchen marks an original exterior wall.

The Campbells’ appreciation of character and quirkiness, even at the expense of perfection, extends through the house. A wonderful old-fashioned scale that Eltiena found at the Hailey Antique Fair stands in the bathroom. “It’s remarkably accurate,” she says with admiration. “And if you want to lose a couple of pounds,” quips Bill, “just lean a little forward and to the right.” >>>


Eco-friendly Victorian

The site of Chris and Phoebe Pilaro’s memorable Thanksgiving Day feast is a double-gabled white house with forest-green trim, located behind a picket fence on Second Avenue. The house has undergone many remodels since 1883, when a local judge built a two-room abode using true-cut timber and cut nails.

The Pilaros were able to date each addition from the building materials and techniques. Demolition revealed some not-so-welcome discoveries, such as the fact that all of the pipes coming into the house were eroded. But, along with lots of insulating newspapers from the late 1800s, it also yielded a silver cup in the walls and—when a worker knocked out a panel of wheat board one day—a large, intricately etched and frosted glass pane that now overlooks the living room, imparting grace and character.

According to Chris, they “basically took the house down to the studs.” The process included knocking out the downstairs ceilings to eliminate two feet of empty space under the upstairs floorboards, and returning to their original size several tall, wide windows that had previously been walled in. The removal of low, flat ceilings in the upstairs guest room not only created more living space by opening up the gabled roofline but exposed a series of original oak beams that add a striking decorative element.

Books guided the Pilaros to wide, curving moldings, old-fashioned-looking cast-iron radiators,
and new brass light fixtures cast from original period molds.

The Pilaros’ main goal was to restore the house in an ecologically sound manner while remaining true to its Victorian roots—and while creating a comfortable space that would express their own tastes. Super-efficient appliances keep energy costs low. Materials such as Marmoleum—a linoleum substitute of linseed oil and natural fibers—and mineral-wool insulation produced no toxins during manufacture. In an ironic return to the Victorian era, cast-iron pipes were used instead of PVC. Solid wood cabinetry supplanted veneered plywood, which contains formaldehyde. Wood salvaged from the demolition was used to build a set of closet doors that complement floors made from trestle wood that was dredged out of the Great Salt Lake.

Books of period architectural details guided the Pilaros to wide, curving moldings, old-fashioned-looking cast-iron radiators, and new brass light fixtures cast from original period molds. “We wanted all the trim and baseboard and details to be true to the era,” explains Chris.

White woodwork throughout the house ties together the wonderfully different color schemes in each room. The ample use of tile would have been applauded by the Victorians, for its hygienic qualities as well as its beauty.

In furnishing their home, the Pilaros tried to balance a “blend of old and new,” keeping original furnishings such as the white clawfoot cast-iron tubs. “This is all original hardware,” Chris points out as I turn a beautiful, decorative brass knob on a carved white door. Furnishings range from a pair of minimalist, twenties-style chairs to a many-drawered oak desk the couple found at the Hailey Antique Fair.

And what about ghosts? Previous owners actually held an exorcism, believing the house harbored the spirits of three little girls. “They weren’t scary or creepy,” says Chris. “They were just comfortable here.” The Pilaros hope that the carting away of old wood, wallpaper, and rubble has given the ghosts freedom to go—but they understand why they might want to stay. “The house has a really good energy and spirit,” they agree. “A lot of good times were had here.” >>>


From Lumberyard to B&B

When English carpenter John Povey built a two-room house in 1893 with a mortgage of one hundred dollars, he chose west Hailey (in spite of its brothels, laundries, and bars) for its proximity to the mines out Croy Canyon, where wood from his adjoining lumberyard was in demand. One hundred years later, a city park and quiet neighborhood had replaced the laundries and brothels, and carpenter Sam Davis and his wife, Terrie, opened Povey Pensione—one of Hailey’s best-documented Victorians.

The Davises’ decades-long restoration involved not only rebuilding from the ground up on the original footprint, but piecing together the home’s history in a process that unearthed a century of photographs, business ledgers, children’s toys, and other clues to the past. It also built a lifelong friendship between the two families.

Intriguing coincidences bind the house’s first and present owners. For example, Terrie Davis discovered that she had gone to high school with John Povey’s granddaughter in southern California. In the house, the Davises unknowingly returned many items to their original places. After Sam installed a stained-glass window found in a back wall across the house in the entryway, a visiting Povey relative exclaimed, “Oh, you put the window back!”

The Davises were adamant about salvaging as much of John Povey’s woodwork as possible. It survives in trim throughout the entryway and sitting room and in the original front door, which features decorative leaded and frosted glass panes. Sam reproduced other details from old photographs, such as the striking handrail and gingerbread details on the porch.

Victorians adored trompe l’oeil techniques that could lend inexpensive softwoods the rich appearance of anything from mahogany to malachite. In the spirit of the age, the Davises hired local artist Mary Kenneally to faux-finish the original pine mantle as marble and to paint wide vertical stripes in the entryway that would look like wallpaper. Kenneally also created two floral prints that, when examined closely, turn out to be painted directly on the wall—frames, shadows, and all. Other artwork was taken from the walls—literally. Framed copies of the Ladies’ Home Journal, once used as insulation, now hang in the halls. On the cherry-red cover of the “Romance Number” from 1907, a risqué couple engages in a passionate kiss. Suddenly, 1907 doesn’t seem so very long ago. >>>


Working Within the Walls

Concerned that health regulations might force her to eliminate some of the things she most loved about her newly acquired 1883 home, caterer Judith McQueen was overjoyed to learn that simply sealing and clear-coating her 120-year-old fir floors would bring the house to code. She is now in the process of meeting another challenge—melding her contemporary tastes with the home’s strong Victorian personality, which includes wide, unpainted window moldings and wainscoted cabinets.

“I’ll have to adjust my style within the lines of the house,” she says. She’s considering a copper hood in her professional kitchen to match an existing copper backsplash. The vent for the hood will be hidden under a cupola on the roof. The cabinetry will be burnished in a rich, bold burgundy, and warm, creamy-yellow paint will top the crown molding.

McQueen is lucky that previous owners Jonathan and Becky Stokes put thirteen years’ worth of creative energy into restoring the house. When they moved in, raspberry bushes were growing through the floors—which sloped about four inches from one end of the kitchen to the other. Stokes compares the effort to “an archeological dig. We found 1883 newspapers in the walls. We read about the cavalry fighting the Apache.”

Although the Stokeses made the house airtight and ditched unwanted “improvements” such as the sixties shag carpeting, they left some quirks and a list of future caretaking projects for McQueen. She plans to add a second bathroom next year; and although her staff’s short list includes having the ancient laundry chute revamped as a dumbwaiter, that will have to wait. “Not this year,” McQueen laughs. “For now, they’re going to have to schlep up the stairs.”

For more images of Hailey’s victorian homes, click here.


Betsy Andrews has a degree in art history and English. She lives at Galena, just north of Ketchum, where she waitresses and skies daily.



This article appears in the Fall 2004 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.