Building on the Past
Historic preservation, meet Habitat for Humanity.
Stories of Preservation
- 1 Houses with history Cripple Creek, Colorado
- 2 Partnering in preservation Neighborhood and community revitalization
- 3 Making preservation about people Buffalo, New York
- 4 ‘Keep being creative’ Charleston, South Carolina
- 5 ‘An element of mystery’ Hamden, Connecticut
- 6 Renovating a Polish refuge Miechowice, Poland
- 7 Link to the past, light for the future Cincinnati, Ohio
Houses with history
Cripple Creek, Colorado
Sarah Schiller knows that if you’re going to dig a hole to plant a tree in Cripple Creek, you’ll need a pick to break through the granite in these Colorado hills. If you want to plant something green around your house, go with clover. The donkeys roaming around here don’t devour clover like they do grass.
And if you want to see a restored cottage that was originally built by Cripple Creek gold miners back in the 1890s, well, come see Schiller’s Habitat house.
From 2006 to 2010, Habitat for Humanity of Teller County renovated four historic mining cottages inside Cripple Creek’s National Historic District. A pair of nearby companies donated the vacant, deteriorating cottages to Habitat. Using state historical funds, the City of Cripple Creek delicately relocated the four houses to suitable, available land — and provided a $50,000 matching grant toward repairs.
From there, Schiller joined with local Habitat staff and volunteers to bring the old houses back to life. “When we were stripping the inside down to those original wood-hewn walls, we found all sorts of newspapers and magazines in the walls,” she recalls. “Some were original Sears & Roebuck catalogs.”
Treasure finds today, those old periodicals had long provided the houses’ only insulation. Thanks to new lining and modern electrical and heating systems, all four houses are now Energy Star-certified. Each renovated cottage is owned by a Habitat partner family that lives and works in this rural area about 45 miles from Colorado Springs.
Schiller’s home sits about six blocks from her place of employment. Most days, Schiller tacks on visits to the post office, the market and the Elks Lodge. Each evening she returns to her hillside home, with a view of the town she has come to know well.
“You know, Cripple Creek started as a mining town,” Schiller says. “There was lots of gold up here — and lots of money from it. We even had full-service electricity before New York City did. And there’s gold still there. They’re re-gilding the dome at the state capitol and using gold from Cripple Creek to do it.”
She can’t see the mines from her house, but there’s a lot she can see. The valley floor below, a dormant volcanic bowl. Christmas lights in winter. Fourth of July fireworks in the summer. A quiet hillside with Aspen pines. And, soon — in her own yard — clover.
Partnering in preservation
Neighborhood and community revitalization
As Habitat has grown through the years, affiliates and national organizations have found that helping to revitalize entire neighborhoods makes sense. A simple, decent house can mean so much more if the community around it is thriving. In some of the neighborhoods where Habitat increasingly works, aging, foreclosed and abandoned homes abound, but so do walkable streetscapes, access to public transportation — and historic housing stock.
“If we want to truly lift up an entire neighborhood, we need to listen first. We need to understand the hopes and aspirations of the people who live there and tailor our plans to fit that vision,” says Jeff Pope, senior director of Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. “Sometimes, preserving a community’s historic fabric is one of their aspirations. It can be a strength for the neighborhood, and we want as many strengths as possible for our partner families to be successful.”
Historic preservation can create a healthy tension for a ministry focused on creating simple, decent homes with families in need. For Habitat to engage in any preservation project, a balance must be struck. “Affordable housing is key for us,” Pope says. “So of course we want to preserve historic places, prevent demolished materials from going to landfills. But we also have to keep our families’ needs paramount. Is it cost-effective to turn an old house into an energy-efficient home?”
Thanks to partnerships with local preservation groups — and a new host of resources and examples — many Habitat affiliates and national organizations have learned that the answer can often be “yes.”
Making preservation about people
Buffalo, New York
This past fall, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held its annual conference in Buffalo, New York. More than 2,500 leaders in the field of historic preservation visited preservation projects in the region — including Niagara Falls, the Underground Railroad Interpretative Center and one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous homes.
One other tour option might seem a bit more surprising: “Habitat for Humanity Buffalo: A Preservation and Revitalization Partner.”
The National Trust provided Habitat Buffalo the chance to showcase a few of the 150 houses the affiliate has rehabilitated over the past 25 years, many of them historic homes in the city’s urban core. The tour focused on Buffalo’s Hamlin Park district, where Habitat has renovated houses with stain-finished archways, ornate staircase banisters and beamed ceilings — and insisted that any work keep the homes affordable for low-income partner families.
“One of the things that I really admire about Habitat is its emphasis on stabilizing entire neighborhoods where possible.” — Valecia Crisafulli
“First and foremost, we wanted to show the ‘humanity’ side of our mission,” says Kevin Scherf, Habitat Buffalo’s executive director. “We featured people who shared how [these homes] renewed their hope in seeking opportunities to better their lives. It was also an opportunity to open up a discussion regarding our mission and local preservation efforts.”
Similar conversations are taking place in many U.S. communities where Habitat is active. And it’s a discussion the National Trust has been eager to join.
“One of the things that I really admire about Habitat is its emphasis on stabilizing entire neighborhoods where possible,” says Valecia Crisafulli, the National Trust’s vice president for partnerships. “A lot of Habitat affiliates are focusing on rehabbing older homes and preserving the walkable, valuable communities those houses are in.”
Based in Washington, D.C., the National Trust’s mission is to save America’s diverse historic places and revitalize the communities where those historic places reside. It’s at that shared intersection of community revitalization that Crisafulli thought the National Trust could support Habitat affiliates interested in historic preservation.
“In the end, if preservation isn’t about people and their story, then we as preservationists haven’t done a good job,” Crisafulli says. “You haven’t really saved a building if it’s not being used in a productive way. Preserving a house with a family that will help contribute to the rebirth of that community? That counts.”
In 2010, the National Trust received a grant to research how many U.S. Habitat affiliates were already working with local preservation partners on historic renovation projects. “We were amazed at what we turned up,” Crisafulli says. “There were just so many examples. We ended up using seven as case studies and put together a tool kit for other Habitat affiliates to learn about those success stories.”
The National Trust’s Habitat for Humanity Preservation Toolkit, available at www.preservationnation.org/habitat, offers tips on funding sources, partners and a list of frequently asked questions. One of those questions reflects a legitimate concern for an organization dedicated to providing simple, decent, affordable housing: “Isn’t historic preservation too expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic? Why bother?”
“Lots of people think of preservation as a restrictive, complicated thing,” Crisafulli concedes. “But we want people to succeed. That’s why we exist. We want to help people realize it’s not prohibitive to save and reuse buildings that are already part of a genuine community.
“Partnering with Habitat ensures that some of these saved buildings are put to a very meaningful use.”
‘Keep being creative’
Charleston, South Carolina
In South Carolina, “Charleston” and “historic homes” are ideas as intertwined as the most ornamental of wrought-iron designs. With the help of local partners, Charleston Habitat is adding “affordable” to the pattern.
The affiliate’s first step was the renovation of a 101-year-old, two-story, timber-framed house. A couple of years ago, the rundown home’s owner faced a difficult situation. Her family’s house needed major repairs to be a safe place to live, but she couldn’t afford them. Around the same time, the Historic Charleston Foundation received a donation designated specifically for affordable housing in the city’s historic district. In Habitat, the group found a partner that could engage volunteers and bring a positive presence to the neighborhood.
“We’ve done neighborhood-focused rehabs just outside Charleston, but we’ve never been able to get into downtown in a way that made sense financially,” says Jeremy Browning, executive director of Charleston Habitat. “This gave us an entry.”
Under the terms of the partnership, Charleston Habitat contributed $30,000, the Historic Charleston Foundation provided $60,000, and the City of Charleston put in $90,000. With HCF’s technical support, it was up to Habitat to put the money to work.
“When we started, somehow, the house looked like it was leaning in two directions!” Browning says. “That’s how unsteady the structure was at its core.” In the past year, the house’s foundation has been elevated and stabilized. A federal grant was used to address lead abatement. A back room became a handicapped-accessible bathroom for the homeowner. Energy-efficient measures — such as a tankless water heater and increased insulation — earned the home an EarthCraft rating, a benchmark for green building in the Southeast.
“It was a lot of work,” Browning admits. “But it went well, and we learned a lot. And, most importantly, we helped another family. We have to keep being creative and find ways to get families into houses — or help families preserve and improve the homes they already have.”
Currently, the Historic Charleston Foundation has a new project: saving as many of the city’s freedman’s cottages as possible. The first homes built specifically for black families after the Civil War, many of Charleston’s freedman’s cottages have fallen into poor shape. The foundation’s partner on the first cottage renovation? Charleston Habitat.
“Our hope is that we can continue to do this well and show other affordable housing agencies how they can replicate, largely, what we’re doing,” Browning says. “We want to lift up these downtown neighborhoods that need a hand — and make sure low-income residents can afford to stay where they have always lived.”
‘An element of mystery’
Locals say the credit for initially saving an 1892 farmhouse in Hamden, Connecticut, goes to an unlikely source: rampant poison ivy.
“Really, that’s what we think saved it from vandalism,” says Jennifer Rook, Habitat Greater New Haven’s director of development and volunteer services. “It was up to the roof on two sides of the house. Nobody wanted to go through that stuff.”
The poison ivy is gone now, the first sign that hope has arrived for the long-abandoned Queen Anne-style home. Habitat of Greater New Haven is well-versed in historic rehab projects; residential homes in New Haven and the surrounding towns date back to the 1880s. Of the nearly 90 homes completed by Habitat here since 1986, more than 50 percent have involved historic renovations.
“It can be more expensive to do some rehabs, but you just have to find the right partners and make it work,” Rook says. “We’re an urban affiliate, and we can’t simply rely on infill. Empty lots don’t always exist. We have a commitment to the city to revitalize where we are, so that our partner families have strong communities to live in.”
The farmhouse, however, is the affiliate’s first rural renovation. While many interior features have remained intact through the years, there is plenty of exterior preservation and energy-efficient modernization to tackle inside. For that, Habitat Greater New Haven has tapped several local partners.
The town of Hamden sold the house to Habitat for $15,000. The town will also restore a nearby barn and preserve the surrounding 35 acres of farmland as public park space. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation is providing technical expertise on everything from materials to the farmhouse’s original paint job. And Broken Arrow Nursery will restore some of the farm’s original landscaping, including shrubs pictured on the property back in the early 1900s.
Just as with any project, Habitat’s volunteers and donors are still doing the heavy lifting. A community group called the Sleeping Giant Build is raising $50,000 to sponsor the effort. The group will also provide much of the volunteer labor, a particularly appealing part of this build.
“Historic rehabs are just fun. They have an element of mystery to them that new construction doesn’t,” Rook says. “You don’t know what you’re going to find when you get inside the walls of a place like this. And you’re preserving something that’s old, beautiful and special to this community.”
Another plus: Unlike new construction, the walls are already up. “No framing in the snow,” Rook says with a laugh. “So construction begins indoors this winter!”
Renovating a Polish refuge
In 1905, driven by the loss of her own mother when she was just 16, Ewa von Tiele-Winkler opened an orphanage in her hometown of Miechowice, Poland. The towering, red-brick building offered a home for children, as well as elderly adults and other vulnerable people. Locals say “Mother Ewa” helped thousands of people during her lifetime.
“Eva von Tiele-Winkler was a giant woman of faith,” says Adam Krol, executive director of Habitat Gliwice. “She is still alive and well in the memory of the local people here.”
The 106-year-old haven she created, however, had fallen into disrepair. Habitat Poland’s Gliwice affiliate is helping to correct that.
In partnership with a Lutheran church, social aid centers, a historic architecture firm and a nonprofit homeless shelter, Habitat Gliwice is renovating the building. Soon, it will provide transitional housing for homeless women — some who have children — and a fitting legacy to the work of Mother Ewa.
Students from Switzerland’s Franklin College helped get work started during a Global Village volunteer trip in 2010, assisting with concrete flooring, new drainage, repairs on doors and windows, and painting. Local volunteers are now renovating bedrooms and bathrooms, and the entire rehabilitation should be finished by the end of 2012.
Why renovate a building to be used as a transitional shelter? The need exists. There is currently no shelter for homeless women in the nearby city of Gliwice or its neighboring city of Bytom — which have a combined population of more than 400,000.
Once completed, the new shelter will be run by a Habitat partner called INTEGRO. Gliwice’s Office of Family Crisis will refer women in need to the shelter. The ultimate goal is to provide social, financial and legal training in a safe environment that will enable women to reclaim their own lives — and find long-term housing.
“It’s meaningful to us that this historic building will be used for a noble purpose,” Habitat’s Krol says. “Everybody involved in this project is deeply convinced that it will again bring women and their children new quality of life, dignity and self-esteem.”