August 26, 2015 Highland Park, Macalester-Groveland, Summit Hill
In his 1934 novel “Tender Is the Night,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “In any case you mustn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.” The oft quoted utterance could be the mantra of the man who purchased and restored 593 Summit Avenue, one of Fitzgerald’s residences, to its earlier grandeur. Dick Tollefson bought 593 Summit, one of eight units in the brownstone, in late 1981. Tollefson’s tale of his time in 593 Summit has almost as many twists and turns as an Agatha Christie mystery.
It was 1981; Dick was living on Grand Avenue, looking to buy rental property to, as he put it, “make my fortune in real estate.” His plan was to purchase something with four or five rental units. Dick made offers on five places but each deal fell through. Meanwhile, he and a friend carpooled to their jobs at 3M and occasionally drove past Summit Terrace. When they did, Dick marveled at Clarence Johnston’s brilliant design and construction, “I’d always look at this building and think, “What is this place? Who lives there?”
Dick had run out of patience with house hunting and with his realtor, and told him so. The realtor wanted to show one more place – a Summit Avenue row house, as it turned out, and Dick reluctantly agreed. “He pulls up to this place,” Dick told me. “I couldn’t believe it. It had just come into his office that day. There wasn’t even a sign up yet. It had just come on the market.”
As you’d expect, Dick jumped at the opportunity to go inside. “It was a mess. I mean it was a disaster. It needed a new roof. It had a lot of water damage.”
He thought the place was cool, even with the leaky roof, the painted woodwork, and many other issues. The realtor wouldn’t say how much the owners were asking for 593 Summit. Instead he asked Dick what he thought, which was a clue. “’Just the way he phrased that, it must be really low, so I’m going to guess low.’ So I said $150,000. One twenty-nine nine! We probably wrote it up that night.”
Dick inspected the roof which confirmed it needed replacement. “So we offered $120,000 and he (the realtor) was like, ‘No, no! You’re gonna blow it.’
“’Ahh, let’s just see what happens.’ So they came back at $123,500. So that was it! I got it for $123,500.” He closed on the unit in late December 1981. Then the fun began.
The three story condo had been divided into three rental units – one per floor – by a previous owner. All three units had tenants so Dick moved into the basement. A couple weeks after he bought 593, the temperature plummeted. The second floor tenant called to say she had water coming into her bathroom. “I came in the back staircase and it was like it was raining. Water was pouring down!” Dick said he thought, “‘What did I get myself into?”
Dick climbed onto the roof where several inches of water pooled because the drain had frozen. The problem was caused by the second floor tenant, who had the thermostat for all three stories in her apartment. According to Dick, she didn’t want the other tenants to get cold so she turned off all her radiators and turned up the heat, so it was roasting on the first and third floors. There was little insulation between the third floor ceiling and roof so the snow on the roof melted.
“So I’m up there shoveling snow, with a hatchet busting up ice, throwing it down into the courtyard thinking, ‘What does my neighbor that I share the courtyard with think?’ But I had to do something to drain that water out.”
In the spring of 1982, just months after he moved in, Dick faced an overzealous city building inspector. “She comes in and the first thing she says is, ‘This is an illegal triplex. This has to be inspected. This is a non-conforming building. This is not zoned for rental.’”
The inspector found many code violations, starting with doors she claimed were not fire rated. She told him, “’You’ve got to put sheet metal on these wood doors. You have to put pneumatic closers on all the doors.’”
Dick’s response: “I know that, but I need a new boiler. I need new electrical service.”
Dick went on, “Then I get a six page book from her of all the things I’m supposed to fix. I’m trying to fix this place up and she’s telling me I have to take care of this stained wallpaper.
“I just freaked out when I saw that (the six page book of things to fix). It said you have to have all this fixed in 60 days or something like that.” (Dick learned that the doors and hinges did meet code after all, and thus didn’t need sheet metal covering or pneumatic closers.)
Dick quickly contacted the inspector’s boss who was infinitely more amenable to his situation and agreed to work with him, as long as he made steady progress on the code violations.
The building inspector offered Dick some hope regarding the certificate of occupancy. By proving 593 Summit was converted to a rental before zoning rules were tightened, he would be issued the certificate. But the burden of proof was on him. Dick talked to his renters and others until he tracked down a woman who lived at 593 when it was turned into a triplex. He got a notarized letter from her, and presented it to the inspector, which secured the precious certificate of occupancy.
The improvements Dick undertook caused more dominoes to fall. Dick encountered was what he called a “significant” property tax increase, which forced him to raise rents. “The third floor tenant got really upset with me because she had all the water damage and she had painted her apartment; she was the one tenant who had really fixed things up.”
That renter left so Dick moved from the basement to the third floor. Then his first floor renters gave notice and left. Meanwhile, Dick had a new roof put on, had the house rewired and replaced the boiler.
When Dick purchased 593 Summit he planned sell the house within about five years – after making necessary repairs and adding a bedroom to each rental unit. However, one evening, as he sat in what was then his living room, Dick had an epiphany of sorts. “I was sitting there watching TV thinking, ‘I’m kinda wasting my time here. I should be doing something.’ I looked at the buffet which has these flat drawers and I just said, ‘If I just did one drawer a night I could have all these drawers stripped in a couple weeks.’ So I just looked at it a little bit at a time and that’s what I learned doing this whole thing is you’re overwhelmed if you look at everything at once.”
Dick eventually changed his mind and decided to convert 593 back to a single family residence. He looked at other units in the row house to uncover details about the original size, shape and location of rooms, the materials and design of the woodwork, floors, and other elements. “One of the other units has this exact same archway so I was able to go in and take measurements and pictures and have the columns made.”
Nearly all the woodwork that remained in Dick’s triplex was painted white, so he began the tedious undertaking of stripping baseboards, cabinets, crown molding, stair balusters, even doors. In some places Dick took pieces of woodwork apart to strip the paint. “I’m sure I’ve taken some years off my life stripping the lead paint – with heat is what I did. I used the heat first to take the majority of it and clean it up with the chemicals,” he told me nonchalantly.
Still, he enjoyed the detailed work. “Stripping the woodwork gave me the most satisfaction. This was just getting it back to where it should be.”
Pieces of woodwork – big and small – were long gone, removed during the conversion to the triplex, so, said Dick, the Internet proved invaluable in finding crafts people to customize woodwork to the styles of the late 1880s. Other pieces Dick made in his basement wood shop.
The most challenging restoration project? “I think that people are the most impressed with was when I tore the staircase apart because it was all saggy. I had to rip the plaster off underneath; lath and plaster, which was a huge mess. I was shoveling stuff off the carpet after I ripped that all out.
“I had to rip it all out and jack it up. I went to a junkyard and got a bunch of scissors jacks out of cars, and made posts with 2x4s screwed together.
“I put brackets; reinforced every step with a 2×2 underneath, glued and screwed. Then I put plywood over that to give it rigidity, and Sheetrock over that. “And it still sags a little bit!”
Dick chose dramatic paint colors for many of the rooms, but it wasn’t easy. “I agonized over picking colors!” He mixed and blended multiple paint colors to get the right look. “I’d buy a couple gallons, then I started buying quarts and I started experimenting. I know I went through 10, maybe 12 different colors and finally said, ‘close enough!’ Because the colors look so different in incandescent light.”
Renovating old structures invariably result in the discovery of long lost artifacts and such was the case for Dick. “The neatest thing I found were some letters. All these letters I found when I tore that wall out that ran up to the railing. These letters were all in there and it was like someone had maybe set them on the banister and they slipped down and went between the wall and the staircase.”
The long misplaced mail included a birthday card and inside, a 1935 Silver Certificate, letters, Christmas cards, post cards, and bills, including one from 1949 from Northwestern Bell Telephone Company. “I felt guilty reading the letters and I tried to find the people who they were addressed to but I didn’t.”
With all the years, the improvements, the expense, the hassles, I thought Dick might have some regrets about selling. “I don’t think so because I’ve been here so long, I’m kind of done with the place and I’m starting to redo things and it’s no fun doing it again.”
Happily, Dick followed Fitzgerald’s advice and did not confuse a single failure with a final defeat. Rather, he turned it into an emphatic victory, much to the delight of preservationists, historians and F. Scott Fitzgerald fans.
I asked Dick how much renovating he would do in his new place and was clear it was not going to be anything like what he did at 593 Summit. “Painting and maybe stripping a little wallpaper is fine but I’m not going to do anything too major. I want to fish and golf, ride my bike and have fun!”
Epilogue: In June 2016, some 10 months after Dick and I talked and toured, he sold 593 Summit Avenue and moved.
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