Ambitious home model gets This Old House recognition

Playing outside their home in Overbrook Farms are (from left) Isabel, Zinash, and Gabriel Wallacavage.
Playing outside their home in Overbrook Farms are (from left) Isabel, Zinash, and Gabriel Wallacavage. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2012

Mark Wallacavage gestured around the tarp-curtained, unfinished room that will one day be his kitchen, the final frontier of an ambitious Overbrook Farms home makeover.

"I want to have Christmas dinner down here. That's completely insane for me to say," he admitted, given the raw state of the space and his unofficial $10,000 budget, "but it was insane for me to buy this house in the first place, so I might as well just be crazy."

It's this kind of positive-verging-on-wishful thinking that has guided Wallacavage, along with his wife and four kids, on a wild and high-risk journey to their dream home by way of restoring a stomach-turning, trash-filled wreck to its turn-of-the-century glory. So it was fitting that — when Wallacavage needed some extra cash to finish his kitchen and buy a minivan for his growing family — his big, revenue-generating idea was: "Maybe I should enter a contest."

He won, taking home the title of Best Whole-House Remodel 2012 in This Old House magazine, along with $5,000 and a GMC Sierra. The contest appears in the July issue.

Of course, "maybe I should enter a contest" may not be recommended financial strategy. But Wallacavage said it's a good thing he's "not a financial guy — because if I were, I would never have done this."

The contest was just the latest in a string of lucky breaks and close calls that landed Wallacavage and his family here in the first place.

When he originally spotted the crumbling 1895 Tudor revival twin on his daily jogs through Overbrook Farms, it had a mulberry tree growing out of the roof, a mere warning flag compared to what was inside. But Wallacavage was drawn to the stone and stucco building, which so clearly bore the fingerprints of architect William Price. Particularly, he envisioned the spacious, shaded porch as the perfect place for summertime family meals.

But the house was abandoned, and Wallacavage didn't even know how to find the owner. Fortunately, though, he has lots of friends, and he turned to one "we call Secret Agent Man." Within a day, he had a name and address. He met the owner in April 2008 and she agreed to a sale; there were liens and back taxes to sort through, but Wallacavage hoped to get the place for around $35,000.

Then, Wallacavage learned the grand old house was destined for sheriff's sale — in just six weeks.

He couldn't let that happen; he'd never outbid a deep-pocketed investor at auction. But as he uncovered utility liens, a second mortgage, and delinquent property taxes, the price tag grew, topping out at $107,000. Because the house, in its current state, could not be appraised, he had to raise that amount in cash. All he and his wife, Katie, had was $7,000, set aside in an adoption fund.

Fortunately, he had another assist. Wallacavage's brothers, Michael and Adam, share his love of old houses — "we now have 300 years of house between the three of us," Wallacavage said — so his brother Michael took out a $60,000 home-equity loan to lend him the money.

"I immediately recognized the value of the building, because of the signature style of the architect," said Michael, a real-estate agent. "I also knew my brother had it in him to do the work."

Wallacavage closed on the house just a week before it was to go to sheriff's sale.

Then, Katie saw the place for the first time. Her initial feeling: "Dread."

Wallacavage said that was typical of newcomers to the house. "I tried to exaggerate as much as I could to prepare people for how bad it was, and it never seemed to prepare them."

Low points included boxes of junk stacked waist high; a hardened paste of cat food and urine that had flooded a bathroom and run down the main staircase and into the basement; and an "Indiana Jones-like" menagerie of dead and living house guests, including cats, mice, and possums. Luckily, Wallacavage, an intensive-care nurse at Main Line Health, had a strong constitution — and a pig-farmer friend who came over with pitchforks in hand to help clear out the mess, which filled three 40-foot Dumpsters.

It was 15 months of hard labor before the family could move in — and that's when friends and relatives really stepped up. It took, practically, a village to raise this house from near demise.

While Wallacavage was wrangling with utility companies, since water and gas laterals were broken and the electricity was shut off, a neighbor, Lucas Hamilton, let him use his own utility hookups. The whole neighborhood, said Hamilton, "was really rooting for him."

A new roof and a stucco job meant the family was able to refinance by July and pay back those rushed cash loans.

Inside the house, there was plenty to do: Once the carpet was stripped from the stairs, Wallacavage's mother came by and spent hours stripping and refinishing them. Wallacavage feared that many of the heart pine floors (once he uncovered them) were so damaged they'd have to be replaced; another friend, a wood-refinishing pro, insisted instead on sanding them down and bringing them back to life.

Out of reverence for the architect, Wallacavage wanted to restore everything he could, or find period-appropriate replacements. "I've found a formula for doing it relatively inexpensively," he said. That involves checking Craigslist three times a day for finds, visiting auctions, trash picking, and doing much of the work himself.

In the dining room, he reglazed the old original windows rather than replace them, repairing and tuning up the weight mechanisms that allow the panes to slide all the way up into the wall, opening the room to lots of fresh air. He found original interior shutters stored in the basement, cleaned them, and reattached them to complete the intricate wood trim running throughout the first floor.

Edward Tabb, a paint and plaster pro and longtime family friend, helped patch up the plaster, which was riddled with hairline fractures and coated with lead paint. "I wanted to maintain the original plaster because if you change the plaster, everything changes: the sound of the house, the look, the curves," Wallacavage said.

By 2009, the couple and their three children had moved in — along with the addition of their first adopted daughter, newly arrived from Ethiopia. But there was more work to be done. Even today, the house is a work in progress; a second bathroom as yet has no fixtures, while an ad hoc, second-story kitchen stands in until Wallacavage can complete the permanent kitchen makeover — perhaps or perhaps not by Christmas.

But the finished rooms are more than livable — they're rich with glamorous, old-fashioned details. "He hasn't always done the expedient thing, he's done the right thing," says Hamilton, Wallacavage's neighbor.

There were setbacks — a contractor disappeared with thousands of dollars, and Wallacavage says the exterior stucco work is riddled with flaws — but the journey has only brought his family closer.

Now, the hubs of the house are the third-floor classroom, where the children are home-schooled, and the backyard, where kids and friends and friends' kids are constantly showing up to hang out.

But most glamorous is the fireplace, surrounded by imported Italian tile laid in a mosaic that caught the eye of tile expert Rocco Bianchi. Bianchi had been giving Wallacavage DIY advice, but when Wallacavage asked how he could restore the old original hearth, Bianchi proclaimed: "You don't restore this. I restore this."

It took a year, but nearly a million people will now be admiring it on their nightstands: It's This Old House's cover shot.

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