Merlin Taylor found out about the house on Valley View Ave. through his wife, Joan, a real estate broker. The owner of the property had recently passed away. The house -- a 3,600-square-foot Craftsman-style bungalow built in 1917 and located on a 1 acre lot in the Holladay section of Salt Lake City -- was about to go on the market.

The man who had built it, William Livingston, had a habit of naming the places where he lived. He called this one "The Pines." Ninety years after he bought the property, the trees he planted tower over the house. But the place might more suitably have been dubbed "The Weeds." Shrubs and hedges, long untrimmed, obscured any view of the house from the street. Taylor stepped inside to find paths winding through the floor-to-ceiling clutter left by its last owner, a reclusive scientist and engineer.

"The curtains hadn't been moved in 25 years," Taylor recalls. "When you touched them, dirt fell off."

What most home buyers would have seen as endless time, trouble, and expense, and what developers would have seen as a lot in an excellent neighborhood subdividable into four quarter-acre properties, Taylor, owner of M.S.T. Builders, saw as the chance to create something striking. "We spent three months talking ourselves into buying it and another three months talking ourselves out of buying it." The first three months won out: On January 28, 2002, they closed.

Courtesy Merlin Taylor

Aims and goals

What made Taylor even consider the possibility of redeeming this house was that, in spite of several unfortunate redecorations, it was structurally solid and retained its original charm. No additions had been grafted on, and 80-plus years of changes were minor. A new staircase had been added, a music room had been converted to a foyer, and, at one point, the entrance changed from the west to the south side of the house, requiring an address change. But the layout -- which featured large, well-lighted bedrooms, walk-in closets with windows, and abundant natural light -- remained intact.

Taylor bought the house with three goals. First, he wanted to restore the house in a way that would qualify it for placement on the National Register of Historic Homes. Second, he wanted to live in the place. And last, he wanted to complete work by August 4th, so he could enter the Parade of Homes sponsored by the Greater Salt Lake Home Builders Association.

Michael Skarsten

Pulling off a nine-to-12 month whole-house restoration/remodel in six months would mean lots of extra hours and require extraordinary cooperation from subs and suppliers. The matter was not made easier by the fact that the company had four custom homes and several remodels going at the same time.

Placement on the National Register was another matter. To qualify, a home has to be "more than a nice old building," according to Cory Jenson, of the Utah Historical Society. In addition to being at least 50 years old, a building must have some kind of historic significance having to do with its use, owner, or architecture. In this case, the house -- originally built as a rural retreat for a Salt Lake City businessman -- had marked the beginnings of suburbanization in Utah's capital. Considerable attention to design details aimed at authenticity was a given. Incorporating modern amenities in a way that harmonized with those details was another challenge.

Threats to schedule

Taylor estimated total job cost -- including landscaping and a new driveway -- at $251,000. It took a month to remove clutter, inside and out, and demo the upstairs bathrooms. Removing the gold carpet that covered the floors throughout the house revealed floors of quarter sawn oak, never sanded.

That wasn't the last pleasant surprise, but removal of the clutter, and closer inspection of the house, revealed new challenges, as well. "Thirty days into demo, we discovered major decay and major structural problems with the roof and second-story subfloor," Taylor says. Roof members needed to be replaced, and the roof was resheathed with OSB and covered with heavy laminated dimensional shingles.

Crews stripped the carpet from the winding fir staircase and stained it to create an oxblood look.
Michael Skarsten Crews stripped the carpet from the winding fir staircase and stained it to create an oxblood look.

The dining room ceiling sagged where four consecutive floor joists had been removed in a previous remodel to allow for the routing of a sewer line.

"There were signs of numerous leaks," recalls plumbing sub Jim Towers, of Towers Murray Plumbing. Water volume in the house was "very low," due to corrosion of the galvanized-pipe water line. Every pipe and fixture needed to be replaced. Sixty days into the project, "I knew we had to rethink our time line," Taylor says. Ultimately, he ended up pulling crews off other jobs and working 14- to 18-hour days himself.

Headscratchers

Taylor, a fan of all things new in building, not only wanted a beautiful and structurally sound house but a comfortable one. His plan called for the installation of central air conditioning, a central vacuum, a sound system, and new heating. In the custom homes where his subcontractors were used to working, locating and installing these items would be a snap. Not here.

Take the new heating system, for instance. Taylor installed a gas boiler but chose to retain the home's original radiators, rather than go to forced air. The old radiators -- some weighing as much as a thousand pounds -- were drained, removed on piano dollies, and sandblasted clean.

But the major challenge, according to HVAC contractor Brent Ursenbach, of Brookwood Mechanical Systems, was central air -- specifically, getting cool air from the attic, where Ursenbach elected to place the condenser, to the ground floor.

Before
Michael Skarsten Before

"People don't want anything added to the home that's going to take away from the original design," Ursenbach says. "So concealing ductwork is the No. 1 challenge."

Removing five layers of paint revealed the dining room's built-in hutch to be red gum, a species favored by local builders almost a century ago.
Michael Skarsten Removing five layers of paint revealed the dining room's built-in hutch to be red gum, a species favored by local builders almost a century ago.

Installing the condenser and building the ductwork through walls and between floors took a month. In a typical custom home, Ursenbach points out, "I'd be out of there in three days."

Figuring out how to route the systems without disturbing sight lines presented endless "headscratchers," Taylor says. "We had to do the Swiss cheese thing. The carpenters were cutting holes in strategic places we could patch."

Master sweet

"Any beautiful home needs a drop-dead kitchen and master suite," Taylor says. Crews gutted the kitchen -- a '60s remodel -- and, working within the original 12 foot, 7 inch-by 14 foot, 3 inch footprint, created a space that harmonized with the exposed wood and soft colors to create period ambiance. Taylor remilled the double-hung windows, installed alder cabinets and Silestone (engineered quartz) countertops, and added stainless steel commercial-grade appliances.

Crews worked weeks to level the floor and save the black and off-white unglazed tile on the floor.
Michael Skarsten Crews worked weeks to level the floor and save the black and off-white unglazed tile on the floor.

But it was upstairs, in the master suite, where the contractor pulled out all the stops. Crews removed the wall dividing two side-by-side second-floor bathrooms to extend the master bath. Great care, and "a solid week of thought," was involved in figuring out how to save the original floor tile -- black and off-white unglazed porcelain -- while locating additional coordinating tile for the wall.

"The hardest part was the upstairs," Towers says. "Everything got rearranged and upgraded. Merlin left the original

Michael Skarsten

Down the hall, crews converted a previous closet into a second upstairs bathroom, complete with a tub. They also installed a stacked washer and dryer in a new closet.

Over budget but ...

In June, a friend of Taylor's dropped by to visit while work was under way. Taylor explained that he was getting the house ready for the Parade of Homes.

"You don't mean this year's Parade?" the friend responded.

Of course he did, and in fact, the contractor not only completed work in time for the Parade of Homes but the William and Annie Livingston House, as it was christened for the National Register, was voted People's Choice among the 37 homes on the tour. Taylor's entry was the only remodel.

The floor of the 8-by-18-foot sunroom -- actually an enclosed balcony -- at the front of the house had gradually descended about 3 inches due to inadequate fastening. Merlin Taylor's crew jacked it back up, attached joist hangers to the 2x10 subfloor structure, replastered the lathe-and-plaster sidewalls, and cleaned, rebuilt, and rehung the banded windows.
Michael Skarsten The floor of the 8-by-18-foot sunroom -- actually an enclosed balcony -- at the front of the house had gradually descended about 3 inches due to inadequate fastening. Merlin Taylor's crew jacked it back up, attached joist hangers to the 2x10 subfloor structure, replastered the lathe-and-plaster sidewalls, and cleaned, rebuilt, and rehung the banded windows.

The downside is the project came in at $330,000, an $80,000 (24%) cost overrun. Part of that Taylor attributes to direct labor and part of it to outside costs, such as rebuilding and remilling 18 window sashes. To help recoup that excess cost, he has a 20% state credit -- just over $51,000 -- resulting from placement on the National Register (see "Historic Bonus," below). In addition, he's selling a small piece of the lot his new, old house sits on.

Regardless, that seems a small price to pay for a home with exactly the look and feel Taylor wanted.

Historic Bonus

Costs for renovating the William and Annie Livingston House exceeded the initial estimate of $251,000 by 24%, coming in at $330,000. Helping defray that excess cost will be a state tax credit for homes placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ten years ago, Utah enacted legislation designed to give people an incentive to restore historic properties by allowing them to deduct 20% of the cost from state income taxes. (Note: Utah state income taxes vary between 2.3% and 7% of income, depending on filing status and taxable income.)

The credit works like this: Those seeking credits must spend a minimum of $10,000 over the course of 36 months, with no cap on expenditures, in order to qualify for the 20% bottom-line write-off. "So if they spent the minimum of $10,000, the credit would be $2,000," says Barbara Murphy, preservation planner for the Utah State Historic Preservation Society.

The credit, Murphy says, is "an incentive to do better work that protects the integrity of the house." Earning that credit starts with submitting a nomination form to the National Register, complete with plans, specifications, and photographs. Historical Preservation Society personnel periodically inspect and sign off on the work as it progresses.

Having succeeded in getting the house on the National Register, Taylor's tax credit came to just over $51,000. He has six years in which to use it.