Lorraine Pearsall, president of the Historic Takoma preservation group, wishes every developer who comes to Takoma Park could be Art McMurdie.
McMurdie received the group's first Restoration Award last year "because he rescues houses," Pearsall gushed. "He's not a developer, he's a rescuer. He brings houses back to their former glory."
With a community that dates to 1883, Pearsall has reason to be concerned about houses falling into disrepair. Takoma Park's tree-lined streets are dotted with Victorian mansions and charming bungalows from the teens and early 1920s. While many have been restored to their classic beauty, others were substantially altered before Montgomery County established a historic district in the town in 1992, and some have fallen on hard times.
About 350 homes are protected by historic district regulations, but owners are not affected until they renovate or paint.
Although McMurdie may not be a household name in other neighborhoods, in Takoma Park he's known for the more than half-dozen bungalows he has purchased and restored in recent years. His latest--and most ambitious--project has drawn particular attention because the three-story Queen Anne house was owned by an early mayor of Takoma Park and may be the oldest in North Takoma. It sits prominently on Takoma Avenue amid other gingerbread marvels and had been deteriorating for years.
Neighbors, including Pearsall, whose house faces the property, had feared the worst until McMurdie bought the Platt house (named for Mayor Wilmer Platt) last year. Although the structure now is protected by historic preservation restrictions, many exterior changes had been made during its 100 years.
A second-floor "pocket" porch had been removed and the corner turret boxed in. Sections of the fish-scale slate roof had rotted through or been replaced with cheaper shingles. The paint was gone as well. Inside, rainwater had dripped through two floors, drywall covered rotting wood, and few improvements had been made since the 1950s.
During the years when the longtime owner was ailing, neighbors, including McMurdie, watched anxiously as the house aged. When the house went on the market, neighbors really started to worry, Pearsall remembers.
Then McMurdie stepped in. The commercial-photographer-turned-renovator prides himself on a formula for small-scale redevelopment: He buys bungalows for "as close to $100,000 as I can get," invests about $200,000 in historic renovations and modernizations that include a kitchen/family room combination and a luxury master suite, and then sells them for "as close to $350,000 as I can get."
The Platt house clearly didn't fit the mold, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity. "I had been watching that house slide downhill for 25 years. Unfortunately, I think that made me pay more than I should have."
McMurdie's feeling for his neighborhood in this case cost him $260,000.
His concern for the community, particularly the houses next to his own, first drew McMurdie into the restoration business. Now 55, he was 29 and single when he moved into a Takoma Park bungalow. After he began raising a family in the same house, he hired an architect to design an addition. The architect, Paul Treseder, in turn hired McMurdie to photograph his portfolio.
The two, McMurdie said, "realized that there was a lot of opportunity here." They took their first shot at redevelopment in 1989, when the house next door to McMurdie's came up for sale. "I had a self-interest in that house," recalled McMurdie, because it had been divided into two apartments and threatened to stay that way. Instead the partners restored and enhanced the original single-family structure.
The bungalows he has bought since also have been near his Cleveland Avenue home. Since 1995, McMurdie has been working on two houses a year, planning one while the other is under construction. He also will soon begin building his first new 1920s-style home in Takoma Park near Jequie Park.
In the case of the Platt house, his motivation also came from a 1915 photo of the house in its grand old days, with not only the turret and pocket porch but a rooftop windmill. "I could always see the potential in this house," McMurdie said.
The house exceeded his formula for a $100,000 purchase price, but more than met his other criteria. "I have to be very careful with my formula," he said. Not only does the house have to be bought at the right price, but "the neighborhood has to be able to take the improvements. . . . What works for me is a house in extreme distress. If they're livable, then I'm competing with a lot of people."
A bungalow McMurdie sold this spring at 217 Park Ave. was "in absolutely terrible shape. One of those hold-your-nose-and-walk-in houses," he said. He completely redid it from rafters to electrical system. The house sold for $330,000.
Though he and Treseder are asking $600,000 for the finished Platt house, McMurdie doubts he'll turn much profit because of his usual slavishness to historical detail and because of additions and replacement of basic systems. The house will have two air-conditioning and heating systems, a feature that costs more than one system but will be more energy-efficient and more suitable for the large three-story structure, cutting down on ductwork that would eat up space.
The kitchen/family room was added onto the back of the house. On the second floor, two bedrooms were combined into a master suite. The staircase to the third floor's two bedrooms and turret is being restored, and the turret itself could be used now as a reading nook. The off-center turret "was a drywaller's nightmare," McMurdie said.
Though the house's original bathroom still exists in the unfinished basement, McMurdie won't be reinstalling anything close to its rather Spartan fixtures. Instead he is replicating the design of bathrooms installed in the 1920s and adding a powder room on the first floor.
His investment in historical accuracy, though, is costly. For example, he paid nearly $30,000 for a new custom slate roof. "I could have put a roof on like that for $6,000," he said, pointing to a traditional composite asphalt shingled version across the street. To do less than duplicate the original roof, he suggests, would dishonor the house.
The quaint pocket porch on the second floor was also reconstructed. Using Treseder's plans, master carpenter Peter Niles tucked the porch back into the room, replaced the metal roof that serves as the porch floor and matched the window frame to others nearby.
Niles earns major praise from McMurdie and Treseder because he attends to such historic detail. He was hired to redo the roof--cutting the fish-scale slate pieces took almost three months--but now he supervises all carpentry work, including rebuilding the gallery railing over the wraparound front porch and re-creating newel posts that had disappeared or disintegrated.
McMurdie acknowledges how costly his historical bent can be. He often tracks down remilled heart pine wood to match original flooring and searches local warehouses and catalogues for period hardware and moldings. He insists on "real wood doors"--buying hollow doors "is tempting," he said, "but I can't quite get myself to do it."
He's particularly pleased that his historical treasure hunt turned up parts in Indiana to restore the two Platt house lightning rods, with their whimsical glass balls, and that he found period hardware for the 1890s "pocket" doors--doors that slide into the wall--that divide the living room and dining room.
McMurdie also applauds the tilework of Ed Hume, who is notching his 51st year in the trade. "Mister Ed Hume is the best tile man in the world," said McMurdie, as the white-haired tradesman arrived in his cement-dusted overalls to replicate patterns in the bathrooms from the 1920s.
McMurdie's wife, Ellen, once called what he does "subsidized housing for the rich." What she meant, he said, is that "sometimes I put a little more into my work than benefits the family."
In fact, McMurdie insists that his margin is so tight that he couldn't make ends meet without his wife's full-time salary and benefits as an English professor at the nearby Montgomery College campus. "Sometimes I make less than the real estate agent makes."