Making an old home new again

Making an old home new again

The first time Cori Brown noticed the house on West Madison Street in the heart of Franklin, its landscaping consisted of trash and junk strewn across the front yard.

After entering foreclosure for the third time in its 136-year history, raccoons, pigeons and the occasional squatter remained the structure’s only inhabitants. 

Still, every time she and her husband, Scott Brown, passed the dilapidated structure, with its rotted wraparound porch and pieced-together rear additions, they saw past the home’s hard times and noticed vestiges of its grandeur. The arched two-over-two windows and elaborate eave brackets hinted at its Italianate heritage and beckoned the family.

“We weren’t looking to buy another home, but all the pieces fell in place,” Scott says. It helps that they own and operate highly rated Brown Remodeling Co., a Franklin-based firm that specializes in historic renovations in Indianapolis and surrounding areas. “The more dilapidated they are, the more we want to get our hands on them,” Cori jokes. 

Less than a year after noticing the home — built in 1876 by William LaGrange, then president of First Franklin National Bank — the couple bought it from the bank for $24,000. Scott estimates he and his crew put nearly $400,000 into the one-year restoration project, which included a top-to-bottom makeover from the crumbling foundation to the animal-infested attic. “This project, in general, was the most challenging project we’ve ever done,” he says.

For their work, Indiana Landmarks presented the Browns with this year’s Angie’s List Old House Rehab Award, one of five Central Indiana Preservation Awards handed out on May 31. Mark Dollase, vice president of preservation services, says the Browns’ careful attention to historic detail and architectural style stood out. 

“The Browns are obviously very committed,” Dollase says. “They preserved the historic windows. Two-over-two windows are distinctly Italianate. There were so many [period] features like that in this home.”

One of those features included the central staircase, which a previous occupant replaced with a wide, straight set dividing the home. A few pieces of the original staircase, discovered in the attic, hinted at its curves and design.

While exploring options to recreate those stairs, the Browns found a similar set removed from another Victorian home of the same period in Edinburgh. Rob Shilts, the executive director of Franklin Heritage, a local nonprofit that helps rehabilitate historic properties, found them for sale online and alerted the Browns. “You don’t get those very often,” Shilts says. “Fortunately, we were able to put them back into use.” 

Scott says fitting and installing the stairs, which were not only oversized for the space but also came in about 500 pieces, proved the most challenging and rewarding aspect of the restoration. “A new staircase would have cost about $10,000, which when you factor in my time is probably at least what it cost, but I wouldn’t have had old wood and the history,” Scott says. 

Though the home’s architectural details remained true to the period, the Browns made concessions to contemporary life, including bathrooms with modern amenities as well as spray foam insulation throughout to make the home as energy efficient as possible. “We didn’t want to make a historic home that was not comfortable to live in,” Scott says.

About 80 percent of the Browns’ professional remodeling work focuses on old-home restorations. “More than anything else, I’m attracted to the craftsmanship of old homes,” Scott says. “When you see the support and underlying structure, you understand why the home is still standing 100 years later. You learn a respect for the craftsmen who put this together.”

The Browns, who live in the restored home with their sons, Aiden, 7, and Gage, 9, hope their renovation inspires other homeowners in the city brimming with old homes to preserve their own or take on a new dilapidated challenge — something they haven’t ruled out for the future. 

Shilts says he’s noticed a resurgence in similar restoration projects in Franklin in the past decade. “Scott’s been active in a number of different properties, besides his house,” Shilts says. “The Browns, like me, look at a building in really poor shape and can already envision what it can look like restored. They have that vision of what things could be.”

Franklin Heritage’s biennial historic home tour takes place in mid-September and will include the Browns’ home on West Madison Street. For more details about the tour, call 317-736-6823.

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