A historic Urbana home was resurrected after a fire
Story: Bridget Broihahn
Photos: Heather Coit
The house of Mary Ann Bunyan’s dreams is an old brick home on a tree-lined street, with period details such as the original wood-framed windows, plaster walls, hardwood floors and a built-in bookcase in the living room.
The home hardly looked like a dream house when she and husband Jed bought it in 2008 though.
Their home on West Pennsylvania Avenue in Urbana – built in 1922 and known as the Colvin House – had been damaged by a kitchen fire. The fire gutted the kitchen; covered the rest of the house, from basement to attic, with soot; and broke windows.
After the fire, the home sat empty and unrepaired for six years while the former owners dealt with insurance issues.
Mary Ann Bunyan had fallen in love with the house many years before. She’d been to an estate sale there while a graduate student, and she knew the homeowners who had suffered through the fire. The homeowners knew of her interest in the house as well, and when they were ready to sell, the Bunyans put in a successful bid.
Then Mary Ann Bunyan went to work. She served as her own contractor for the reconstruction of the house.
“We just went piece by piece. We figured we bought a shell,” Bunyan said.
The kitchen and dining room were gutted to the studs. The kitchen was small, with a wall separating it from the dining room. Between the two was a butler’s pantry, with a doorway into the dining room. The butler’s pantry had been converted to a half bathroom.
The Bunyans tore out the wall and butler’s pantry area to make the kitchen and dining room one space.
An upstairs bathroom, above the kitchen and dining area, had a floor that was sinking. After the Bunyans removed the wall between the kitchen and dining areas, they needed to add steel beams to support the upper story. Otherwise, the house was structurally sound.
They replaced all the original knob and tube electrical wiring, as well as the plumbing, and they added air conditioning and insulation.
Mary Ann Bunyan pulled all the old radiators out and had planned to sandblast and reuse them, but she found half of them were cracked. Likewise, many of the water pipes in the walls had cracked.
The living room has its original plaster walls. Bunyan found a craftsman in Urbana who fixed the cracks in the plaster and repaired the holes that had to be cut to access wiring and plumbing. The kitchen and dining room walls were replastered.
Bunyan stripped the woodwork throughout the house and restored the windows, which proved to be a massive job, “very, very labor-intensive,” she said.
“All the paint just blistered off” the woodwork, Bunyan said. “It’s not like you were going to sand it down and put another coat over it.”
She disassembled all the windows in the sunroom, which open with a crank inserted in the trim below the windows. Bunyan found a fabricator, Thomson Metalbreaking in Gilman, to fabricate new hardware for the windows, to replace some that was damaged.
“When it was time to put the house back together, this was really woody, and wood really demands your eye,” Bunyan said of the sunroom.
She decided to dedicate that one room to the look of unpainted wood trim, and the sunroom is a sitting area with comfortable chairs. “Now when the sun is in the sky, this is where you want to drink your coffee,” she said.
Elsewhere in the house, she painted the wood trim. The pocket doors on each side of the living room were also taken apart and stained, and broken glass was replaced.
Bunyan’s sister, Bridget Logue of Urbana, is a painter, retired from the University of Illinois. She helped with the painting of the trim and glazing of the windows.
Last year, the windows in a sleeping porch upstairs, above the sunroom, were restored. Bunyan found a woman in Kankakee who specializes in windows to take them apart and repair the nine windows from the sleeping porch, then reassemble them. Bunyan plans to convert the sleeping porch to a master bathroom.
“Mary Ann is very skillful,” said Jed Bunyan. “She’s really good at working with local craftsmen and finding somebody to do the plaster or finding a woodworker.”
The hardwood floors in the home are original. Mary Ann Bunyan took up the floor in the sleeping porch and used it in the kitchen, where some of the flooring was burned too badly to restore.
Bunyan’s goal was to refurbish the house so it would look similar to its original state when it was built.
She worked with Deanna Falls from Luther Falls Custom Kitchens in Champaign to choose cabinets that were long and deep and went all the way to the ceiling. Bunyan – who is a member of the Preservation and Conservation Association, or PACA – salvaged crown molding from the old Tuscola High School and used it at the top of the cabinets.
“The crown molding makes it look like pieces of furniture,” she said. “A lot of people, when they come here, think it’s the original kitchen. That’s the best compliment.”
Bunyan chose granite countertops from Luther Falls in a brick color she felt would be timeless. Instead of a tile backsplash, she used a wall covering called Lincrusta – an embossed heavy wallpaper that can be painted. She chose a copper color.
Bunyan wanted something with an older feel, and she found a roll of Lincrusta at PACA – for considerably cheaper than it would cost to order it.
She described herself as resourceful in finding items for her home to give it the look she wants at a reasonable price. She gets ideas from reading a lot and visiting the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, then finds items at estate sales, auction houses, consignment stores and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
“I look at the best example I can think of and go from there and see if I can pick out” something similar but more moderately priced, she said. “I’m a scavenger. I have a good eye.”
For example, she bought a crystal chandelier and marble-topped table from an auction house in Chicago. She got the Murano chandelier for a fraction of what its original cost would be, because it was missing a couple of the glass flowers sprouting from its center.
With the help of decorator George Sandwell of Decatur, she found a vintage-looking wallpaper for the foyer that complemented the colors of her furniture. Sandwell also helped her choose paint colors that did the same, including yellow walls and a pale green ceiling in the living room.
Bunyan bought a limestone fireplace façade from PACA and stored it in the garage at her former home for five years, all the while picturing it in the house on Pennsylvania Avenue, although she and her husband had not yet purchased the house. During the restoration of the Colvin House, Bunyan replaced the painted brick fireplace with the limestone facade.
The renovation work took nine months, and the Bunyans moved into the home in July 2009.
“It really took a lot more effort to pull all this together than I thought,” Mary Ann Bunyan said of restoring her home. “But we love living here. It’s a great house.”
Historic landmark status
When the renovation of their home was complete, Mary Ann and Jed Bunyan applied to the city of Urbana to recognize the house as a historic home.
The Colvin House, built in 1922, is a mixture of Prairie and American Four Square styles, with Colonial Revival elements, according to documents from the city of Urbana’s Department of Community Development Services that accompany the application for historic landmark designation for the house.
The Prairie style influences include the low-pitched roof with wide, overhanging eaves, the brick exterior with limestone sills and the asymmetrical façade with a raised terrace to one side. The Colonial Revival elements include the horseshoe-shaped hood over the front porch, supported by columns, a similar-shaped decorative crown over the dormer window and a fanlight over the front door.
The home was built by John Colvin, who operated a meat market in downtown Urbana. Subsequent owners included two University of Illinois professors who owned the home for a total of 64 years. The wife of one of the professors was an avid gardener who transformed the landscaping of the property and entertained often.
“Occupants of the home are reflective of the social heritage and local history of the West Urbana neighborhood and the City of Urbana,” states the application for landmark status.
In recommending approval of the historic landmark designation, the city’s planning division stated, “The Colvin House has significant value as part of the architectural heritage of the community,” and it “retains a high degree of architectural integrity.”
Mary Ann Bunyan would like to see other homes in the area designated as historic homes, to preserve the look of the neighborhood.
After receiving the city’s designation, the Bunyans successfully applied to the state of Illinois’ Property Tax Assessment Freeze Program. The program freezes the assessed value of recently rehabilitated historic homes for eight years, followed by a step-up over four years of the assessed value, based on the current market value of the home. The result is 12 years of reduced property taxes, with the goals of rewarding homeowners for their reinvestment in their homes, increasing the value of the property, strengthening neighborhoods and encouraging landmark protection of historic structures.