St. Elmo Restoration: One Growing Community’s Labor of Love
CHATTANOOGA. No one likes to hear or mention the word gentrification, yet most have observed its unintended consequences on many older neighborhoods of choice. Too often vulnerable members of a community, such as widows, are displaced by rapid change.
We came across a restoration project in Chattanooga, where leaders found a creative way to embrace balance with a new generation of homeowners. The neighborhood seeks to keep its diversity and to care for its elderly neighbors.
The house is located in St. Elmo, a neighborhood of architectural significance, at the foot of Lookout Mountain.
Named for a 19th century novel, St. Elmo still has its architecture and its soul. Recently the neighborhood was connected to the latest addition of the lovely Tennessee Riverwalk and is only minutes by car or bicycle from downtown. This positive development is also creating new demand for its charm and opportunities for neighborliness. It seems there are many ways that neighborhoods and parks are connected.
For more than a year, a group of home build industry partners, several who live in St. Elmo, have volunteered their time and networks to restore a white elephant of a foreclosure. Wells Fargo Bank donated the structure as part of its nation-wide program, with the stipulation that the home becomes a catalyst for broad community investment.
The eyesore was approaching condemnation by the local government, and offered only a view of disrepair, a sagging roof, overgrown yard, and rusty chain link borders. Inside, crumbling plaster exposed large swathes of wooden lath.
The two-story, 2,757 square-foot home has been painstakingly restored and has attracted a steady stream of potential buyers seeking out realtor Jim Lea with Keller Williams Realty.
The build team restored the original pocket doors off the entry, and a new period mantel was located for the living room fireplace. The bay window footprint of the dining room and upstairs master bedroom was restored, giving both rooms an architecturally significant detail. Historic guidelines also required they keep the distinct circular front concrete entry steps and all other exterior features.
At closing, the project will be celebrated not only by a new family of homeowners, but also by a group of high-spirited elderly widows from the neighborhood. For many years, these ladies have been meeting weekly in St. Elmo for lunch, and to share prayer, fellowship, and community needs.
All proceeds from the sale of this restored home goes to Widows Harvest Ministries, a faith-based group that repairs and maintains widow’s homes.
Widows Harvest has been recognized locally and nationally over the years for its work on behalf of widows across Chattanooga. This mission draws from the Biblical mandate to help widows and orphans. The nonprofit organization puts in motion hundreds of volunteer teams each year, some who travel from across the country to assist widows with plumbing, gutters, roof repair, and accessibility issues. The ministry’s board of directors and volunteer commitment make this work possible, explains founder Andy Mendonsa.
Stuart Bickley stepped up to serve as general contractor on this largest Widows Harvest project to date.
Stuart and his wife, Leslie Huffaker Bickley, also call St. Elmo home. They live down the street, in fact, from Andy and Gloria Mendonsa, and have found this Widow’s Harvest project to be a tangible way to love their neighbor and their neighborhood. His company, Raindance Property Solutions, offered a team of experts that logged the most hours, and the most difficult hands-on hours.
“Without Stuart’s willingness to work with each supplier to reduce prices, and openly share his vision for the property, this project would not have come to fruition in any reasonable amount of time,” said Andy Mendonsa. “He shared our story with his entire network and also put his team’s expertise to work.”
Stuart’s cabinet maker, Steve Erickson with Mid America Cabinets, has created a showcase befitting the historic landmark property. The cabinetry looks authentic while offering significant functionality.
“The project was a labor of love for Stuart and everyone involved,” said Arch Willingham, a Widow’s Harvest board member who led the steering committee for the project. “The best design needs someone who can fully implement the project,” said Arch. As president of a construction company himself, Arch knew the challenges of such a sprawling historic restoration.
The original heart pine floors had to be replaced entirely in three of the rooms. The team located reclaimed lumber that was then milled by Architectural Surfaces to create the seamless and timeless look of the home.
Arch Willingham invited Chattanooga-based designer Laney Carter to the project and without hesitation she connected with the vision and volunteered her expertise. Laney’s signature aesthetics were applied to finishes and furnishings, giving this historic home its particularly fresh, modern sensibilities.
A light color palette makes the home a relaxing retreat. The open floor plan of the downstairs entertainment space includes a showcase kitchen featuring Calacatta marble countertops, and a Soho Baroque Floret tile backsplash.
‘Exquisite’ is the best word to describe the results. The marvels of efficiencies, coupled with a spacious footprint, make this an ideal family home and perfect for entertaining. A flood of natural light from tall windows makes the floors gleam and offers an overall positive vibe.
Two master suites are included, one downstairs and one upstairs. Laney selected vibrant linens from Yves Delorme for the spring open house. Lighting choices, cabinetry, countertops, and hardware were selected to easily adapt to any décor preference, and each room easily accommodates multiple options for furniture placement.
The original stairs feature a pine banister and draw the eye to a diamond shaped window above the first landing. The diamond window is a good metaphor for this home that has long been a diamond in the rough.
“The home’s exterior of clean, classic lines is echoed throughout the interiors,” said Laney. Indeed, there’s nothing ostentatious about the landmark home’s details, and the restoration will ensure the home endures into the next century.
The low-maintenance postage stamp corner lot was professionally landscaped by Tim English. Tim operated a landscape company for more than 20 years before joining Widows Harvest’s full-time. He typically cares for the lawns of thirty to forty widows on an ongoing basis. The lawn features original limestone outcroppings, perennials, and a round fire pit with a seating area.
“Our steering committee had to work closely together to use materials in such a way that each room is distinct, while keeping the price within range of current market rates,” said Laney.
“This great project didn’t just take over our lives for the past year,” said Laney, “but the mission of the project gave back a sense of what is important in life and community. At many turns, conversations brought us the most generous people from our neighborhood and larger community. There were many times we each felt God winked at our efforts.”
At the spring ribbon cutting, Andy Mendonsa invited 90-year old Mildred Protho, to do the honors with an oversize pair of scissors. Mildred’s late husband was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II and she serves as a Widows Harvest Board Member Emeritus. Stepping back from doing the honors at the ceremony was the city’s mayor, the bankers, and board members.
“This project exists to plead [the widow’s] case,” said Andy from a pulpit on the porch. The comments that followed underscore that whoever buys this historic landmark will not just become a St. Elmo resident, but also a hero in the community.
View images from the March 25, 2017 ribbon cutting from our Nashville Interiors STORY.
View ‘before’ pictures of the house during restoration from our July 2016 story.
Pictured: The widows of Widows Harvest Ministry and the project steering committee at the ribbon cutting ceremony and dedication March 25, 2017.
Laney Carter Interior Design
Raindance Property Solutions: Irrigation, Lighting, Drainage, Construction
Stone Source: Chattanooga
Ferguson: Showrooms in Chattanooga & Nashville
Lytestyles: Lighting Fixtures, Accessories & Design: Chattanooga & Middle Tennessee
PPG Architectural Coating: PPG Paints™ stores in Chattanooga & Nashville
Chattanooga Closet Company
Architectural Surfaces: Custom Casework, Millwork, Counters: Chattanooga
Praters Hardwood Flooring: Chattanooga
Chambers Welding and Fabricating: Chattanooga
Yves DeLorme Paris Outlet at Warehouse Row: Chattanooga
Photography by Jaya Todai