The Homer Castle

The Old House Web

Homer Castle

Editor's note: The Michael D. Coffeen Mansion is one of the historic homesof Homer, Illinois, a small town west of Urbana. Also known locally as "TheHomer Castle," the house sat vacant for two years before it was purchasedby Ray and Christine Cunningham on December 31, 1998. 

Ray and Christine Cunningham would face many challenges restoring their 1889Victorian in Homer, Illinois. The biggest: Working up the courage to buy it.

Ray, an historical researcher by profession, and Christine, an artist, foundrealtors reluctant to show the once-grand home. Was the house, abandoned for 18months, a treasure awaiting loving restoration? Or was Ray missing some majorflaw in the house that would propel his family into financial disaster?

The son of a plumber and electrician, Ray had already restored three oldhomes. He was confident that he had the skills to restore houses. Still, he couldn't ignore the fact thatmost of the 120-year-old homes owners were clearly not up to the challenges ofmaintaining an ornate, 4,000-square-foot mansion. A steady stream of people had lost money onthis house, including the original owner, M.D. Coffeen. Coffeen lived in themansion for only five years, losing his $10,000 investment in 1894 for a $400lumberyard lien.

Ray and Christine's initial tour started in an uninspiring dining room withceilings covered in modern acoustic tile. Ray wondered what damage lurkedbeneath that false ceiling. As the tour continued, the house began to sell itself. Walking into theliving room, Ray was struck by the leaded glass and one of the mostbeautiful fireplaces he had ever seen. The room appeared to be without damageand or renovation.  The next room was a parlor and was even moremagnificent. Again, the woodwork was untouched. A painted glass panel over the large beveled glass picture windowwas stunning.

By the time he entered the foyer, Ray says,  "It did not matter whatcondition the home was in, I wanted it."

The foyer was graced by and even more elaborate fireplace, carved panels inthe staircase and painted glass entry panels -- all original condition. 

Main staircase

This ornate carved staircase, all in original pristine condition, helped Ray and Christine Cunningham fall in love with their 1889 Victorian.

"I ran my hands over the wood because the last time I saw anything likethis I was in a museum and unable to touch it," he recalls.

But purchasing a home based on emotional appeal alone was not a risk theCunninghams could afford to take. Still recovering from a $16,000 loss on a200-year-old farmhouse in Vermont, Ray and Christine knew that their next house had to be bargain.In central Illinois, thebest housing bargains are often older buildings. The Cunninghams weren't afraidto tackle walls, ceiling, roofs, plumbing and electricity. But could they affordto rehabilitate a mansion as large and ornate as this?

"I was staring at the opportunity of a lifetime but was frustrated thatthere was not much we could do about it," says Ray.

wood detail
Detail from wood carving
stained glass detail
Detail from stained glass panel
One of the home's fireplaces
1999 house
Such fanciful features for "an odd-looking Queen Anne plastered in stucco." 1999 house photo.
1896 light
This light, circa 1896, original used gas.
upstairs stained glass
Stained glass panel in upstairs of house.


The Cunninghams' first outdoor project: restoring this back porch.
porch before
The same porch before restoration.
porch detail
Detail of porch trim.


(For a larger view, click on any picture)

And so the house sat on the market for six months more, as the Cunninghamslook at other homes. Periodically, they would re-visit the mansion, looking forsome defect, some sign that would tell them "forget, it!" A houseinspection revealed flaws typical of 100-year-old homes -- a dangerouslyantiquated electrical system and a bow in the basement wall. These were notproblems Ray and Christine hadn't seen or handled before. 

Finally, on Dec. 31, 1998, the Cunninghams purchased for the mansion for$71,000. They would have to carefully budget their expenses. While interiorwoodwork and architectural features were in remarkably good shape, this wouldnot be an inexpensive house to repair and maintain.

It lacked a central heating system. The electrical system was a jumble ofinadequate and frayed wires; the plumbing system had supply lines of lead pipe.The roof was leaking in places and the porches sagged badly. So many windowswere broken that for the first winter, the Cunninghams resorted to simplystapling up plastic. Stucco had been applied to the entire exterior in 1917, andthis, too, needed repair.

So why did the Cunninghams think they could succeed where so many others hadfailed? "One central fact," says Ray. "We are motivated andtotally committed to restoration. We will spend hours and hours on a project andwe do not give up."

Consider that the Cunninghams have spent $41,000 in repairs so far -- afigure that would be considerably higher if they did not do the bulk of the workthemselves. And they've endured physical hardships. They spent a winter living in two rooms, huddled around a wood stovefor heat. Within a few days of closing on the house, water pipes burst, ruiningthe one room the family had intended to occupy. Then the toilet backed up, andRay found himself elbow deep in sewage and silt. In January.

This kind of stress, says Ray, can turn high hopes into nightmares andmarriages into bitter divorces. "The work is hard and the rewards aresometimes few," he says. "But, a specific type of person that willsucceed in house restoration. If you enjoy long golfing weekends, this sort ofthing is not for you. If you wake up and are thinking about what you desire totackle first at 6 AM, well you have found your calling."

Clearly, Ray and Christine have found their calling.

Other parts of this story:  ~~ Restoring the turret ~~ Advice on tacklingrestoration projects ~~

All photos are courtesy of Ray and Christine Cunningham. For more detailson this project, visit the Cunningham'sWeb site.

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