Man uses salvaged parts from Victorian house for own home
Ken Schmillen has always loved Victorian architecture.
"I've loved Victorian homes since I was a kid," he says. "I cannot tell you why, except my grandparents had a Victorian home, and I always thought it was interesting."
Schmillen, of Metamora, Ill., never knew his grandparents on his father's side. He didn't set foot in their house until he was about 13, and that was only for a moment. By 1999, when Schmillen finally got a chance to explore the old house in detail, it was ready for demolition after 40 years as a rental property.
Though he never knew his grandparents or their home, Schmillen's nostalgia for things unknown overtook him. He loved everything he saw - the trim, the high ceilings, the doors, the transom windows, the light fixtures, the stained-glass window, the door knobs, and the walnut staircase, black from years of shellacking.
"Everything was very ornate, like a Victorian house would be," he says.
His grandparents bought the old house in Toluca in 1932, after the original owners, the Ball family, went bankrupt.
Schmillen's father, Gaylord, helped him salvage parts for the dream house he and his wife, Regina, planned on owning one day. But first he had to convince Regina to like Victorian as much as he did.
"I wanted something new," she says. "Ken was always about the old look but that seemed like too much work."
The compromise was a new house with an old look - a combination of contemporary, retro and authentically old parts Schmillen salvaged from his grandparents' house.
Schmillen calls the new house a Victorian cottage but he's heard others say it looks like a Victorian ranch. As unlikely as a Victorian ranch might sound, Schmillen came up with a truly unlikely combination to mesh an ornate banister and staircase from the 1880s into a modern one-story house in the 2000s.
"If I had had my way we would have had a two-story house," he says. Instead, they have a one-story with a fancy antique banister and staircase leading to the basement.
Schmillen worked with the builder to design the house around major salvaged parts, such as the staircase, the beveled glass living room window and the arched 9-feet-tall doors that once opened into the music room of his grandparents' home.
He had the dining room window of his new home cut to fit the original stained glass and beveled-glass picture window from the living room of the old house. He also had handles attached to the picture window so it can be removed for easy cleaning. Or, Schmillen says, "if we move, we can take it with us."
He stripped decades of paint off the arched doors to discover, in their original state, the doors had been painted a faux finish imitating bird's eye maple.
"It wasn't until we got really close that we could tell somebody had painted all the little circles," he says. "It wasn't just somebody off the street, it was an artisan who knew what he was doing."
He painted the doors, made of yellow pine, a dark, almost black, green to match the trim in the dining room.
The dining room floor is the work of technological artisanship that makes vinyl look like light pine slabs with a decorative inlay, reminiscent of the Victorian era. A plaque on the wall is made of oak parquet from the floors of the old house.
Schmillen refers to the "old house" often as he walks through his new home, pointing out light fixtures, brick in the fireplace hearth, pictures frames (made of wood from the old barn), and decorative floor registers (turned into cooling vents) saved from his grandparents' home.
Even rooms that don't contain pieces of the old house carry its spirit, either in furnishings from Schmillens' ancestors or the Victorian style of his grandparents' home. For instance, he and his father built transom windows above each door of the house, including bedroom doors. They built the transom frames from the wood of a locust tree that once grew in the yard of the old house.
"Hardest wood I ever worked with," he says.
The kitchen is the one room in the house without the Victorian touch.
"The only thing old in here is the kitchen table," Schmillen says of the Heywood-Wakefield set that originally belonged to his maternal grandparents.
The flooring is a stone look-alike, made of linoleum. Custom-made cabinets, of hickory wood, are a simple, linear Shaker style.
The retro pieces not only pleased his wife but having work done by others saved time. Schmillen says it took him two years to strip the staircase.
"I don't think I'd do it again, I don't think I'd go looking for an old house beyond repair and take all the cool stuff out," he says. "But I don't regret it."
How could he when his new home holds so many memories of his past. Schmillen may not have known his grandparents, but his father grew up in the old house.
"He and my aunts and uncles, all nine of them, slid down this thing," he says, caressing the banister of the staircase that now leads to his basement.
Journal Star writer Pam Adams can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.