BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Michael Manna has renovated about 10 buildings in or near downtown Bloomington over the last few years but his latest project is his biggest challenge yet.
He's in the midst of restoring the Soper-Burr house at the southwest corner of Chestnut and Prairie streets.
It had been vacant for about two years and was in foreclosure when Manna purchased it for $125,000 in August 2011. It was in such disrepair, Landmark Illinois had placed it on its 2011 Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list a few months earlier.
"It's screaming, 'Save me,'" McLean County Museum of History Executive Director Greg Koos said at the time. "Having it on the list is a wake-up call to the community."
The house is one of the oldest in the Franklin Square Historic District. The original Italianate house was built in the 1859 by land speculator Hudson Burr. In 1871, Burr moved the structure further back on the lot and added a two-story, center hall addition. A Queen Anne-style house was attached on the south side in 1890 for Burr's daughter Emma and her husband, Clinton Soper.
The house was converted to 10 apartments in the mid-1940s.
By the time Manna purchased it, the paint was peeling, the porches were in disrepair, it needed a new roof and the chimney had to be rebuilt. Inside, besides cosmetic work, the top-floor ceilings had to be rebuilt, all the apartments needed new water heaters and it needed plumbing and electrical repairs.
Manna estimates all the work will end up costing more than $600,000.
"These projects aren't for the faint of heart," Manna said. "You have to be able to see the project done before you start."
Because the house is in a historic district, all outside work must be approved by the Bloomington Historic Preservation Commission in addition to meeting the city's building codes.
At one point, Manna thought the outside work was nearly complete and the apartments would be available to rent by summer but a city inspection revealed otherwise. Porch handrails he had installed did not meet code and were not representative of the era the home was built. In addition, Manna had replaced some existing aluminum soffits with new aluminum soffits — a product not used in the original construction.
The city issued a stop work order and Landmark Illinois was called for assistance.
A volunteer preservation architect from Landmark Illinois and Suzanne Germann, director of grants and easements for the agency, met with Manna, some members of the Bloomington Historic Preservation Commission and Mark Huber, director of planning and code enforcement.
"Whenever we put a property on the most endangered list . we focus on trying to help with the property," said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois.
Germann said Manna is doing great work on the interior of the building but most people won't see it.
"When he talks about the property you know he has a love or it," Germann said. "I really think he is a real preservationist."
But Germann and DiChiera are concerned that Manna took some shortcuts — especially when it came to painting the outside of the house. Manna painted over the existing paint rather than scraping off the old.
"He was nervous about getting into lead (paint) exposure," DiChiera said. "Mike was doing something people do all the time. It was an eye opener to us."
Germann said the concern is that the paint won't last and will have to redone in a couple years.
Carson Durham, chairman of the Bloomington Historic Commission, shares that concern. While the commission can't require the owner of a historic property to scrape old paint before adding new, if the city is providing grant money for the project, "we can use it as leverage to say is has to be done a certain way."
Durham said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the Soper-Burr renovation.
"It's not being demolished and someone is investing to keep its longevity," he said.
Manna said he is doing the "best job we can with all we have to be concerned with."
He is in the process of getting drawings for new porch railings and will seek the historic commission's approval. He also is changing the soffits to a material that is historically accurate.
"I'm happy to continue my crusade, knowing I'm doing something good for the area," Manna said.
Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com