Homestead history winners share their stories

Homestead history winners share their stories

Last year, we shared the story of the Angie's List campus - and launched the Homestead History Contest, asking you to write an essay describing what makes your home unique. The contest was so popular we decided to bring it back this year, and the results are in. From a former church on the Mississippi coast to a houseboat on Oregon's Columbia River, five prize-winning Angie's List members describe the details of their unusual abodes.

Weathering the storm

Carol Vaughn, of Long Beach, Miss., knew her house was strong, but would it survive Hurricane Katrina? This former church had stood the test of time, and measured up to Carol's expectations, but little did she know the refuge it would provide her family and neighbors during this difficult time.

"Before I bought my home in 1986, I looked at a total of 47 homes. But I never envisioned myself living in a church. I was a recently divorced, mother of two boys looking to downsize from my former life. I had a large home with a pool and a guest house, but I knew I couldn't afford to maintain that. I was excited to start house hunting, but I was also frustrated because I felt like I was seeing the same house over and over again.

"The only thing I knew I wanted was a home with character located in a safe neighborhood with good public schools. I wanted it to be a good place for the boys and to suit my new life as a single mom. My real estate agent was ready to give up on me, and I couldn't blame her. Thank goodness this very special home came on the market when it did.

"The house is the oldest in our town and was the first church building, a Methodist church with an interesting history dating back to the 1870s. Its founder, Douglas Donovan, organized an interdenominational Sunday School for blacks and whites, and held worship meetings outside before converting an abandoned boxcar - once used to transport goats - into a church on a side rail. In 1879, the congregation paid $502 to erect the building that is now my home. Originally located at the corner of Pine Street and St. Charles Avenue, the congregation outgrew the building in 1904, moved it 100 yards down Pine Street and turned it into a residence. The moment I walked through the front door I said, 'I'll take it!' It had so much character. It just has a wonderful feeling about it. I paid $80,000 for it, and it appraised for $289,000 in 2005.

"Although the 1,975-square-foot house no longer resembles a church, the bones of the structure are solid and simple. It is so strong, in fact, I can't even drive a nail through the petrified wood walls. With the combination of high ceilings, hardwood floors, two lights with original glasswork, a brick fireplace and a wrought iron spiral staircase leading to a loft bedroom, it was my dream home come true.

"Living just two and a half blocks from the Gulf of Mexico has provided my new husband, Paul, and me with unforgettable memories. We had considered leaving for Hurricane Katrina, but we were getting 'storm fatigued' from evacuating for three other storms, so we decided to stay. We secured everything and made sure we were prepared with supplies. Our son, Austin, and my mother, Libby, were with us as well. I had no idea how bad the storm was. We were very fortunate. The house is still standing proud, even though everything around her was destroyed.

"This home has been my refuge, a happy place to raise my children and a fortress for us during the worst national disaster to hit our country. I don't know if her being built as a place of worship has anything to do with it, but she's most definitely special!"

Old man river

Your children are grown, you've recently retired and the house you've lived in for the past 27 years just sold - now what? Esther Wright hit the road and discovered the house and community of her dreams floating on the Columbia River in Portland, Ore.

"Three years ago, I sold my home in San Francisco and had to make a decision about where I was going to live. I consider myself adventurous and young. Life is full of possibilities. So I packed up my car with enough clothes to last two weeks and drove north. My criteria for a new home were simple: I wanted to be near the water but also near an airport so I could indulge in my passion for travel. I've always imagined living on or near water and wondered if I could find a home where I could sit on a deck and watch boats and waterfowl go by.

"After visiting several coastal towns in Northern California, I arrived in Oregon and was surprised to discover that the Oregon coast was every bit as beautiful as the California coast. I explored a few small towns but decided that if I wanted to live near an international airport, I'd need to check out Portland.

"I recalled a visit to a houseboat community in Sausalito, Calif., and wondered if one of Portland's major rivers might have a similar one. As fate would have it, the moorages on the Columbia River's Hayden Island, located in the northernmost part of Portland just 20 minutes from the airport, were having garage sales the very day I arrived. Amazingly, on this day - and only this day - they opened their security gates to welcome garage sale attendees.

"The very first house at the end of the ramp had a 'For Sale' sign that caught my eye. The owner was out watering flowers and invited me in. It took me two minutes to know this was the home I'd live in for the rest of my life.

"I made an offer on the house that very evening, and 30 days later, I moved into my floating abode. The two-story house is located on an outside slip, which I consider a prime location for viewing the constant river traffic. It's bright and cheerful, with windows on every side. It had been completely remodeled and had everything I could want. This was my dream house.

"I didn't realize that in addition to waking up every morning with a view of the river, I'd be surrounded by wonderful people who also love living on the water. They're always there to support me. And although the average age of the residents is 55, there are constant celebrations and social gatherings. We have parties and dinners. I'm a single woman, and I came here without family or friends. Now my neighbors have become my new family. It's lovely.

"I love my neighbors, I love the river, and most of all, I love the surprises. The colors and textures of the water change throughout the day and seasons. The sunsets are indescribable. I watch the harbor seals, otters and herons nesting in the lagoon. At any moment I may see a noisy flock of geese flying overhead or baby ducks munching the algae that grows under the floating homes.

"My California friends and family have been to visit and they all leave salivating with envy. It's been so much fun and indeed a unique way to enjoy my 'senior years.'"

The house that dad built

Being a city boy from Brooklyn didn't stop Andrew Solomito from building his wife, Mary, a house of her very own. He spent nights learning all he could about construction, and with the help of a few family members, he completed his house in December 1955. Their daughter, Jo Solomito Haslam, remembers the day they moved into their new Bethpage, N.Y., home.

"I was only 5 years old, but I remember thinking how big the new house was and how excited I was to have a room of my own - no more sharing with my cousin. Dad took such pride in the house. As the years passed, he added a garage, a patio, enclosed the breezeway and finished the basement. He meticulously painted the rooms every three years, as well as the cedar shingles on the house's façade. After he retired he had vinyl siding added to the house in my mom's favorite color, blue.

Some of my most vivid memories revolve around Christmas and Easter. Long tables were set up in the basement and throughout the morning relatives would drop in for homemade cookies and coffee or, in the case of the men, a shot of whiskey. Dad and my uncle would pack my cousins and I up and we'd visit our great aunts while the 'women stayed home and cooked.'

My dad died in 2007, but my mom still lives in the house that he built. It's a monument to a kid from Brooklyn who had a dream and fulfilled it."

An unexpected treasure

The year was 1973 and Rosemary Peterson was ready to move her expanding family into a new house in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. However, her husband, Robert, had other ideas. He grew up in a neighborhood of older homes, and thought he might win his wife over if he could find the perfect one.

"My husband put an ad in our local shopper inquiring if anyone was interested in selling a large, older home to a young couple with a growing family. I'll never forget the day we got a call from a polite old gentleman who told us he had a home in the area that he wanted to sell. He was a widower and needed to move to a smaller place. Were we the couple who might be interested?

His voice quivered, and he spoke very slowly and deliberately. I listened politely, only semi-interested because I was already picturing in my mind a run-down, drafty old people's home. But, my husband and I decided to go take a look. It was located on a prominent street, lined with large and imposing homes. When the homeowner, Mr. Loebe, answered the door. I loved him immediately. He was thin and quite frail but so courtly and charming.

As we entered the hall and climbed to the first level we were awed by the beautifully stained oak woodwork surrounding us. The living room was huge with large picture windows looking out onto the spacious front lawn. There were solid oak sliding doors closing off the dining room. It was gorgeous.

We walked slowly from room to room and gawked in awe at the entry lined in wainscoting, the library and the large bedrooms. Then we climbed to the third story, where he showed us a room running the length of the house which he said used to be the ballroom! I was hooked. The only problem was could we afford it? Bless his heart, he priced it reasonably, and we became the proud owners of a 1912 Arts and Crafts style house. We felt humbled, honored and truly grateful."

Work in regress

Judy Anderson has a long to-do list. But unlike most checklists, this Columbus, Ohio, homeowner is focused on scaling back, not adding items, to her repertoire. She's downsizing and making a concerted effort to use less.

"I bought my three-bedroom, one-bath Cape Cod on a street where every single house is exactly the same. Our homes were built around 1950, when the average family bought local and recycled. Today we're figuring out that maybe all our consuming and tossing out wasn't such a great idea.

For me, it all started with the push mower. I'd barely cut one swatch of lawn before the question came from my next-door neighbor: 'Does that thing really cut grass?' My rehearsed response was ready, 'Yes! And I save money on gas and going to the gym!'

Gradually, I'm adding more 'green' to my house as my budget and time allow. Some of the changes are quick and cheap: compact fluorescent bulbs, solar lights by the front stoop and the compost heap. For my little vegetable plot, I use organic soil and eschew pesticides. For irrigation, I bought a rain barrel. The next item on my agenda is hanging an outdoor clothesline. And although my daughter complains, my rule is open windows - ­no air conditioning - until the temperature hits 90 degrees.

I have 'fantasy green' to-do list, too. I envision remodels for the kitchen and bathroom that include installing linoleum - a natural substance - and an energy-efficient fridge. The bathroom will get a low-flow potty, eco-cuddly faucets, and energy-efficient showerheads and light fixtures. But if those never take shape, I'm still happy to stand at my kitchen sink and feel a puff of wind from the open window as I peel peaches I picked from my own tree.

You know you've reached middle age when you first utter the phrase, 'Things were simpler back then.' Maybe my green house - my work in regress - is an attempt to recapture the look, smell, sound, taste, and feel of those days."

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