Thursday, November 5, 2009


One year ago TODAY, we officially began the Odyssey of the Knox Hill Cottage. We closed on the house in what I can describe as a "grueling process". Freddie Mac wanted every piece of paper faxed on legal sized paper!

We began looking early in 2008 for a house in Cincinnati. along the way we had three false starts. One on McMicken that we lost out on thanks to our first realtor who couldn't manage to get offers in on time, A half townhouse on Dayton Street that we loved but didn't want to share with a dysfunctional section 8 tenant right next door, and a mixed-use Commercial building on Colerain that we put an offer on but got beat out on.

In fact the Knox Hill cottage almost didn't happen. The house popped up on the MLS and It was on my "to see' list ( I always wanted a Second Empire house) then quickly went pending. So we decided to look at a property on Neave in lower Price Hill, a mixed use retail/residential structure. Just before we were ready to come down to look at it. Knox Hill went off pending status so we added it back to our "to see" list.

The Neave property in lower Price Hill was well, "The deal' from an old house person perspective. An Italianate brick mixed use with some great features for 7 grand. It was a total mess of course and if I was sure I could get the vacant lot next door it might have been my dream house, reminding me of my days in Charleston SC and the federal style house I once lived in, I could see it with a grand walled courtyard. BUT, the neighborhood was literally a warzone, full of crackheads, hookers and drug dealers. Had I been 20 years younger I actually might have moved there. In fact on our way to the Knox Hill Cottage I remarked to Greg that if I was willing to empty out my retirement account, buy the entire neighborhood, I could create a little "Georgetown enclave" of high end houses. Sanity, and my love of my 401K, prevailed.

We approached Knox Hill from Beekman, and for those of you who are not familiar, it's like climbing a mountain. It reminded me of my days living in San Francisco. Here we were in a major city and we were headed into what appeared to be a wilderness, up, up,up a hill that seemed to go on forever. Into a valley then back up another hill. I have never calculated our exact elevation but it has to be substantial. We finally emerged into a neighborhood of mostly 1860-70s era home and on the corner of Knox and McBrayer sat the Knox Hill cottage., well it sat there but you couldn't hardly see it from the street. The lot was covered with trees and Honeysuckle.
I am sure Cathy Frank our realtor thought we were crazy, after all NOBODY,except slumlords, buys a house in Fairmount, plus this house had been stripped of its plumbing, furnace, even the claw foot tub! But we saw a once grand Second Empire cottage, an "old Victorian dowager", down on her luck, wanting desperately to go to the cotillion but lacking the means to pull herself up, put her makeup back on and make her grand entrance back to proper society.
And then there was our neighbor Mark who appeared out of nowhere ( a hippie era looking guy wearing what looked like a "cat in the hat", hat) wanting to know who we were and just what we were doing poking around that house. For those of you who have ever restored a house and tried to bring back a neighborhood the ONE THING you want is a nosy concerned neighbor. The neighborhood, unlike lower Price Hill was remarkably quiet, it was like being in the middle of nowhere yet as we gazed down the hill from the end of McBrayer,through the trees, we could see the city in the distance.

Greg and I looked at each other and knew we had to buy this house, it, "as they say' spoke to us. They were asking 6000.00 for it, less than I've paid for a good Victorian chair. We offered 4250.00 for it and as it turned out they paid the back taxes and it actually wound up costing us 3725.00 out of pocket.

The last year has been interesting to say the least, just a few months after we closed we got a notice from the city "ORDERING" us to pay a 900 VBML fee because they had declared the house unfit for human habitation (because of a broken window in 2005) and must be kept vacant. I quickly read the city municipal code (Ii may the only person in Cincinnati to actually read the damn thing) and I determined the VBML law wasn't worth the paper it was written on and I told the city if they wanted 900 bucks take me to court and I would be more than happy to file a federal lawsuit against the city for violation of about a dozen consumer and real estate laws and I might just go ahead and do a class action while I was at it, I was way too busy restoring the house to be bothered with them and their "stupid little VBML" law.

In the end they figured out that 1.) While I may be a crazy Historic Preservationist, I was also a retired attorney with years of practice in the Federal Appellate court and I would wind up costing the city millions of dollars, and 2.) I was actually crazy enough to throw a hundred grand at this house. A house that no one wanted, in a neighborhood no one wanted and certainly a neighborhood the city had long ago written off. I still remember the email from the city inspector when I told him our plans and he replied "you are spending money in THAT neighborhood"? No one other than slumlords actually bought in that neighborhood much less did a period restoration of a cottage to Federal Historic Preservation standards.

In the last year it has been one good thing after another. We started a neighborhood association, others came in and started restoring too. The house had been a treasure trove of discoveries, from the old photos provided by the heirs of the owner(Antone Nagele) from the late 1800's to the original stenciling we found under layers of paint. We have great neighbors and have made many great friends.

While we could have dropped two mill on a house in Indian Hills we decided on a small cottage on a Hill. Maybe we are crazy but I bet by the time we celebrate the 5th anniversary of this house, the neighborhood is on the National registry, we have restored a couple of other houses on the block, prices have gone through the roof and everyone is talking about how Knox Hill is the next Mt Adams, people will think we are crazy, "crazy like a fox"! To all the naysayers, I have done this before ask people what Meridian Park, Chatham Arch or Holy Cross in Indianapolis "used" to look like before I came along.

And the Knox Hill Cottage, that tired old Victorian dowager will once again take her rightfull place back in "High Victorian Society" where she so rightly belongs!


fordmw said...

Good for you, Paul. Well done.

Am watching closely as it seems I have a 'preservationist' streak that I never fully realized I had.

Thx for sharing your thoughts.


Sara Leah said...

Congratulations! I love reading this blog. Can't wait to see what's to come.

Karen Anne said...

Beautiful, and I am sure the house is happy and grateful.

Paul Wilham said...

Thanks everyone, things have gone remarkably well (so far) with this house with no majorly unpleasant surprises. Each restoration is different but this has been one of the more rewarding. I think in the coming months we will be making great progress and who knows what other interesting "finds' we will come across!

Suzie said...

Once again, you are working your magic, Paul!

I know what you can do, from past projects, but I continue to be in awe, and totally enchanted with how you bring your homes back to life!

A VERY Happy Anniversary!