LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Solid work from trusted community contractors

Mar 29 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Solid work from trusted community contractors

Well, it currently looks like London after the Blitz. It’s a shame we don’t have any friends currently filming a WWII short who need B-roll,” I said.

RENOVATIONS REMAIN: Tim, Mike and Chris of Old School Rebuilders discuss the next steps for Gwenyfar’s family home. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

RENOVATIONS REMAIN: Tim, Mike and Chris of Old School Rebuilders discuss the next steps for Gwenyfar’s family home. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

“So you’re going to leave it like that?”


I took a deep breath and tried not to sound rude. “It’s a historic house, it has to get repaired. The objective is not post-war England but Antebellum and Reconstruction South.”

I have a branch of relatives who live in a very ethereal connection with the rest of the world. Comprehending ideas that make up the building blocks of other people’s lives can be a bit off their radar. This conversation was about the renovation project going on at my parents’ historic home.

One of my Live Local resolutions this year (and last year) was to keep the house from collapsing. Along the way, I would invest in our local economy through tradesmen and suppliers. Here’s the short story of what has been happening:

At over 100 years old, basic maintenance of a home like this becomes pressing. However, during the last few years of my father’s life, it was very difficult to have tradesmen at the house working. My father had two traumatic brain injuries, so addressing the problem was difficult.

The back load-bearing post of the house rotted almost completely through. In addition, I had a week to convert an old servant’s commode on the back porch into a handicap-accessible bathroom in order to bring my dad home from the hospital. My favorite carpenter shook his head when he came over to discuss the project. He went through a list of why the proposal was bad idea.

“You are going to have problems down the road.”

“Jeremy, you have met every moral obligation to inform me of what I need to do—but I have a week to do this and bring Daddy home. We will address down the road later,” I responded with words to that effect.

He was right; every problem he predicted came to pass. Last year, I was confronted with a rotting back corner of the house: beams, joists, floor sections, and walls were literally falling apart when touched. The scale of work and geometry involved was more than one carpenter could handle, so Jeremy informed me I needed to look for outside help in way of a contractor.

The necessary scope of repairs moved the project into the column of “long-term  goals.” I deluded myself into thinking it would be more manageable and lovable than it was turning out to be. I personally consider working with contractors to be a form of punishment reserved for the third ring of Hell. As The Bard noted, “Necessity will make us all forsworn.”

So, here I was again, looking for a contractor to keep the house from falling over. After a couple of discussions and false starts—trying to find someone who could actually look me in the eye, listen to what I wanted and not talk down to me, or interrupt me constantly to correct what I “really need to do”—I finally settled on Chris Yermal of Old School Rebuilders. He materialized in late January with two truly lovely, talented and thoughtful carpenters, Tim and Mike.   

“Let me attempt to explain this: My obsession with this house makes Scarlett O’Hara and Tara look like kindergarten,” I commented. Chris chuckled and nodded, but Tim and Mike cottoned to what I was saying. “So I’m not going away.”

“You’re staying to work with us?” Chris asked in mild disbelief. I nodded. “Uhm, OK, that’s kinda cool, actually.”

That first day was pretty much all the help I could be: finishing up demolition and loading trash. Afterward it was all skilled work, and Tim and Mike’s skills were light years beyond anything I could imagine doing. I went back to work at the bookstore and left efforts in their capable hands.

“Who was the last plumber to work on this?” Chris asked me one day. I confirmed a combination of Bart Duarte and Jock. Past experience with contractors  and conversations like that usually lead to a completely different plumber (or possibly a roulette wheel of three or four) showing up after. Imagine my surprise to walk into the back yard the next day and have Bart Duarte and his helper, Teddy, walk out the basement door, calling greetings in my direction.

OK, I thought. This is a different experience of someone actually listening. 

Though Chris didn’t have much experience with the way my mind works, Bart does. So when we would get, for me, logical pause points, Bart was pretty prepared and took it in stride. “Is this Chris’ first project with you?” he asked one day. I nodded. Bart laughed, assured me that everything would come together and went back to connecting the new sink drain.

Bart was right. He usually is.

Eight weeks in to the project I hit a stopping point. The objective of “the house not collapsing” had been achieved. But we were still a long way from a functional bathroom. Looking around, I realized my desperate decision to go full force with everything Jeremy had warned against really was the only option. I would never have been able to bring Daddy home if we had waited through two or three months. He would have gone to a nursing home in the meantime and probably slid downhill much faster without his dog, Hosanna, and a house that meant so much to him.

At this point, today, the bathroom is as far along as I want to get right now. We are just going to stop and have some calm and normalcy while I think.

When we were going through the bookstore renovation, I had no choice but to continue forward motion. With this project, the crisis has been averted.   

As a result of all of this—and finally painting my VW bus—I have been thinking a lot lately about long-term goals. I started this year with several pretty sizable ones looming over my head. Though I haven’t completely accomplished and finished projects, there have been some pretty big leaps forward. I’ve started wondering if it isn’t really the bigger accomplishment: making progress, keeping all the balls juggled above my head, and in the end, having something I’m really pleased with rather than just rushing to get through it. I am just not ready to think about paint colors, tiles and fixtures. A decision about a paint color can take me months. Picking out a replacement sink can be half a year.

I want to be a good steward of the legacy I have been gifted. I want to be a good community member who supports her local economy and works with people she respects, who do good work and contribute to this part of the world.

So, with those thoughts in mind, it should come as no surprise to readers of Live Local that I am a huge fan of Stevens Hardware and Godwin’s Lumber. Both are family-owned, multi-generational, local businesses that put quality and customer service in the forefront and are part of making this community a lovely place to live. There were some significant differences in dealing with Chris than my past experiences in the land of contractors. One difference (aside from calling Bart) was the lovely itemized invoices, which included notations of purchases from Stevens and Godwin’s. I was so pleased I almost cried.

It can be hard to explain just how emotional I am about the house I grew up in (my comment about Scarlett and Tara is as close as I can put it into words). I want the best for it—good quality materials, as well as lots of care and love in the work. Trusting someone to work on the house and care for her is not easy. Watching Tim and Mike work diligently has been reassuring. Seeing the fruits of their labors and knowing it is solid for the foreseeable future is a huge weight off my shoulders.

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