Renovating History...
The Yellow House and Red Barn Reborn in Chagrin Falls

by Jennifer Atkins

The house has always simply stood out. Invariably it ranks among the top five of any individual’s list of “Homes I Love in Chagrin Falls.” If you have spent any time in town, particularly during the annual Blossom Time parade, you’ve most definitely remarked on it as you went by. It’s the large yellow house set back off East Washington Street with the red barn. Right… that one. In fact, it is referred to by color so often locally, that the new owners inscribed the plaque at the end of their drive simply – “The Yellow House.”

The house certainly made an impression on homeowner Keith DeGreen growing up. “I would always pass by and think ‘What a neat house.’” So, in 2007, when Keith and his wife Lynn returned to Chagrin Falls for his high school reunion and saw it was for sale, they arranged for a tour. They were looking for a summer home to avoid the heat of Arizona. The couple was smitten by the historic home and decided to buy. When they returned in October to check out their purchase, it took only four days before they called to have their two sons put on a plane to Cleveland. The DeGreen’s were making Chagrin Falls their permanent home. “It was the kind of lifestyle we wanted our boys to have…be able to walk to school, walk downtown, have a hamburger with their friends,” explained Lynn. “We [Keith and I] both grew up in the Midwest. So after the desert, the grass, the deer in the yard, the four seasons… well, it felt like home to us. We’ve come full circle.”

So this would be home, but first they were going to need to make a few changes. When they bought the home, the seller had recommended local company Lars Construction. When they contacted the company, the DeGreen’s were pleasantly surprised to discover Owner Larry Polewchak and Keith had known each other growing up. Polewchak, a contractor and carpenter, specializes in historic renovations. “While some contractors shy away from historic homes, I see it as a challenge and an opportunity to use our creativity,” he explained. The Yellow House project has cemented Polewchak’s reputation as the go-to guy for both small and large remodeling projects in the Chagrin Valley. “Larry did a wonderful job. He’s not only a great quarterback for any project, but a world-class carpenter too!” exclaimed Keith. “Our project began with the barn only, and just grew and grew – and all on a simple handshake. You can’t ask for better than that.”

The Yellow House has been a prominent landmark in the town since the turn of the century. Built in 1879 by Joseph O’Malley for the Reverend John Chappel, the home is on the Historic Register. It is also recognized as a Century Home by the Chagrin Falls Historical Society. It’s no wonder the expansive and often times dramatic renovations that the property underwent has been the talk of the town and the concern of area preservationists. “They told us they got more calls of inquiry or concern about our house in the Chagrin office than any other project ever,” laughed Keith. “If they had only known that we planned on doing this right. While we wanted it to work for us as a family, our intent was to return the home to its historic roots.” Over the years, the former owners had made several improvements to the two-story Italianate house, but not all were in keeping with the original period or quality of the home. Some elements, like the east side porch, required structural repairs or were functionally obsolescent, like the kitchen. Additionally, the over one and a half acre lot had serious drainage issues. “We had to keep a set of mud boots in the car to walk back and forth to the house in,” said Keith, shaking his head. Of greatest concern though was the failing condition of the barn. This was the starting point for what would prove to be a massive undertaking that left almost no part of the property untouched.

The Barn

“The barn was literally on the verge of falling down,” explained Keith. However, due to its historic nature, the Architectural Review Board of Chagrin Falls did not want the structure torn down. The painstaking process of preserving the barn began. First, the barn was jacked up, so that the rotting foundation could be removed. Then, each wall was individually removed and rebuilt. To ensure the barn would stay structurally sound, a massive architectural beam was put in place across the length of the roof peak.

The building was too shallow to serve as a garage for anything other than Keith’s sports car. Not to mention, the multiple levels of the structure suggested a more elaborate use. “Originally I had planned to make that my office, but it didn’t take long to see what a neat space it was and I got three ‘No’ votes from Lynn and the boys. I was kicked out,” smiled Keith. They envisioned a place where the boys could hang out with their friends and pursue their hobbies. The family also wanted to incorporate a workout space. The walkout lower floor would be the haven for the sports car, as well as a workbench and tinkering space for Keith.

Lynn wanted the barn to look like the turn of the century structure it was inside and out, but function as an extension of their living space. This meant adding central air-conditioning, replacing the inadequate plumbing with modern fixtures and seriously upgrading the electrical capacity to handle modern teenage demands. Polewchak let his creative side shine through on this project. Rather than purchase costly recovered barn siding, Polewchak “got #2 pine, milled it myself and then used a number of implements of destruction - an adze, hatchets, chains and anything else I could find to stress it.” He carefully framed in the industrial beam with large planks of wood also distressed by his crew, so that it looked like a solid piece. It now stands out as a main rustic feature of the upstairs. Polewchak employed the same technique to the interior walls. In another money saving move, he built the round windows himself. “If I can use my ingenuity and come up with a cheaper way to do something, I do it.”

Lynn worked with the painters to apply layers of Barn Red and Dapple Grey to the walls to achieve a worn, aged look. She also sought out lantern reproduction light fixtures [see sidebar] and mixed them with modern stainless steel fans and lights. Outside, Keith employed brick pavers to create a consistently solid surface on which to drive the car. Dug level with the yard and planted with grass seed, they are nearly indistinguishable from the yard visually. His lower level workshop is smartly outfitted with built-in labeled bins and a wood workbench.

On the first floor, the comfortable lounge boasts a large flat screen TV perfect for gaming or watching a show during a workout on one of several exercise machines. Lynn found an old crossbeam door for Ken’s favorite part of the renovation – an elegant marble steam shower to relax in after a long day or a good workout. She decorated the upper floor in a cowboy bunkhouse motif, complete with the modern conveniences necessary for teenage boys to survive, including another flat screen TV. With four twin beds and a full bath, her sons’ friends can sleep over after a cookout over the fire pit or a late night garage band practice. “It’s wonderful really. We have kids here constantly,” said Lynn. “It’s private for them yet they’re all just in the backyard. And I don’t have to hear the drum and guitars.”

The Garage and The Lot

Since the barn would not hold the family’s vehicles, a two-car garage would need to be added. “I had to sell both the contractor and the review board that it would work, but I wanted the garage to be basically underground,” explained Keith. “We really wanted the impact from the street on the house to be minimal.” So working with a landscaping crew, Polewchak built the garage addition and tunneled through the foundation into the unfinished basement. “Now bringing in the groceries is super convenient – only a short walk from the garage, directly upstairs into the pantry,” said Lynn. A fieldstone wall was built to cover the entire addition and carriage-style garage doors capped off the construction. The carriage style garage doors are actually Keith’s design and where built by Polewchak. “Parades of people would come by as we were working on this, yelling, ‘What have you done to this house?!’” said Polewchak. “I kept saying, ‘just wait till it’s done.’ It looks like something meant to be there.”

Also wanting the impact on the view from inside the house to be minimal, the DeGreen’s started looking into options for a green roof. “The requirements for building were very restrictive, “explained Polewchak. “There could be no penetration through the roof, not even for electrical or HVAC.” The roof, installed by Prince, Inc., was much like a swimming pool filled in with special soil. A lovely garden has now been planted surrounded by a reclaimed rusty iron fence found online by Lynn. “Just like we wanted, it looks like it has been there forever,” said Keith.

This project obviously required a great deal of dramatic earth-moving, which provided the perfect excuse to address the wet state of the yard. Large piles of earth were built up and then put to use to regrade the lot to allow for better drainage. “People would come by all the time and ask if they could have some of the topsoil. I kept telling them, ‘I need all that dirt,’” laughed Keith. Large planted beds were created against the house to eliminate the need for railings on the front and rear porches. A smaller less formal version of the large English garden on the east side of the house was planted. In the rear, the French drains were renovated. Finally, large mature trees were transplanted to replace others that had to be removed near the house.

The House

The renovation of The Yellow House all started with the summer porch. Simply screened in and made of plywood, not to mention ready to fall over in a stiff breeze, it offered little benefit. Needing a practical expansion of their living space, the DeGreen’s decided to tear it off and start over. The two-story addition today provides a cheerful sunny room to watch with family, as well as a spacious guest room and bath upstairs. They planned on making small changes to the other upstairs rooms as well, including paint, lighting and new cabinetry in the master bath.

As they started tearing down walls, it seemed only reasonable to renovate the half bath off the hallway to the porch. “It was the smallest bathroom in the world,” laughed Lynn. With a corner sink and a rare corner toilet, the room was claustrophobic. Removing the hallway that needlessly compartmentalized the first floor provided the perfect excuse to renovate the old galley kitchen. Lynn really wanted to open up the space, so they also decided to demolish the separation between the kitchen and the den, which had been an addition in the 1980s. In fulfilling Lynn’s request that the two rooms blend seamlessly, Polewchak had to figure out a creative way to put in support to replace the now eliminated load-bearing wall. “Larry is the best ever. I would recommend him to anyone. He worked with me to adapt anything I wanted. He is very patient,” Lynn laughs. A support beam was framed into a new ceiling. Then Polewchak used a “found” barn beam Lynn got locally to bolster the wall near the sink. “It looks like it’s been there forever,” he said. The unused portion of beam was then used to create a mantelpiece over the den fireplace. The brick hearth was given a stone façade, while outside the chimney was also faced with stone, keeping it consistent with the garage’s exterior wall.

One thing led to another, until the whole structure was rejuvenated. Polewchak bolstered the foundation of the 1980s addition. He replaced dilapidated siding with custom-milled poplar boards made to match the original ones on the historic portion of the home. New decorative brackets or corbels were all cut from an original. A new stamped concrete patio was wrapped around the addition, featuring a stainless steel grill set into a fieldstone wall. Drafty windows were replaced with custom ones that looked historic, but had modern thermal properties. The balcony was removed from the front porch, returning it to its original 1879 state, as was the door leading to it from the front bedroom. “The way they’ve handled this project – the investment they’ve made in time and money to keep the house historic – it is a real gift to the community,” said Polewchak.

Inside the home, Lynn “wanted to return it to that old farmhouse feel… where I couldn’t find the real thing, I used reproductions or had it made custom.” Skilled cabinetmakers made both the kitchen cabinets and those in the master bath upstairs. They are capped with white and gray marble, as is the dramatic backsplash that serves as the perfect counterpoint for an antique iron shelf displaying her china. The custom-made island was painted white to contrast with the knotty pine cabinets, and, thanks to a couple of stools, it is obviously the main gathering spot in the house. The dishwasher is cunningly tucked inside. Just as the kitchen looks authentic, Lynn made sure the flooring would fool any visitors not in the know. The DeGreen’s bought reclaimed pine flooring to replace the unsalvageable original floor, running it from the addition throughout the first floor. The floor was installed not tongue and groove, but rather with gaps per Lynn’s instructions and set with old iron-headed nails she found. “The key to keeping that historic feel is in the details,” Lynn explains.

However, it is the antique pieces placed with a sense of whimsy that truly adds character to the home. “Lynn really has a knack,” explained Keith. “She just finds these amazing pieces and for a great deal!” Indeed, it seems everything has a wonderful story. Under the corner windows in the kitchen, the apron sink surrounded by white subway tile backsplash, was found on eBay. The silverware chandelier hanging over the sink came with her from Arizona, but the rest of the lighting was all found in shops or on the Internet. A train station chalkboard now holds her family’s schedule instead of the 4:10 from Chicago. The family’s dinner table used to grace the kitchen of a monastery.

When you walk into The Yellow House today, you get a sense of warm welcome and not just from Harry and T-Bone, the family dogs. Lynn designed it specifically this way. “My style is casual comfortable,” she explains. “I want guests to be able to be in any room, sit on any piece of furniture and be comfortable.” The soft curtains, deconstructed casual chairs, or warm yellow walls certainly help to set visitors at ease. But in the end, the home has such a convivial feel because each piece of décor exudes this sense of a cherished background, chosen with passion, and placed to evoke a smile or a sense of drama. It is this juxtaposition of personality and restoration that makes The Yellow House a “living” piece of history, inspiring passerby to pause and think, “What a neat house,” for many a year to come.

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