A magnificent obsession with detail
Phillip Engel and Mark Goff are more than halfway through renovating, restoring and essentially reincarnating the John Marshall House, a Greek Revival home built in Healdsburg in 1870 and allowed to gradually languish until they bought it in June, 2009.
“It was an accident,” said Phillip, about buying the house. “We were renting a house on Fitch Mountain and looking for property up here.”
The couple had sold their home in Los Angeles and were interested in a large, older home in Healdsburg. They wanted to buy the Calderwood Inn, but it was sold to someone else. “We were told about it (the Marshall House). We weren’t interested but wanted to see the inside,” said Phillip. “It was a lot of money and it wasn’t at all what we were looking for.”
The property had become a safety concern and somewhat of an eyesore, decaying on a busy corner in an older neighborhood in Healdsburg, on a street filled with grand homes. The only working bathroom was upstairs and had a horror movie vibe—with faded red walls and fixtures stained from mineral-laden water, it was commonly referred to as “the blood bathroom.”
The family who lived there prior to the sale of the property was essentially camped in a small sitting room off the kitchen, the only source of electricity in the house.
And the foundation—“I think that foundation is the reason we got the house,” said Mark. The imposing home was teetering on a foundation made of crumbling bricks, and those bricks were spilling out. Walking through the house before it was sold, one could imagine the building settling another fraction of an inch on its precarious base.
Mark and Phillip negotiated with the sellers for five months—the deal almost fell apart at the last minute—before coming to an agreement. “We had a deal that included three years of financing, since we couldn‘t get a traditional mortgage,” Phillip said.
They would need all three of those years to get the house into a condition where the plumbing, wiring and foundation would allow them to apply for and receive a conventional loan. After that pause for paper shuffling, they got back to work.
In the beginning, they started with—of course—the foundation, jacking the house up on wooden cribbing so they could dig and pour a solid concrete perimeter foundation.
At about that time, Mark began his blog. From September of 2009 until about a year ago (when he decided to take a break), Mark entertained friends, family and the curious with his photos and tales of the search for the house, the history (and the helpful historian who worked up paperwork that allowed them to move forward with building permits), neighbors, gawkers, gadflies, contractors, helpers, hindrances and the adventure of taking on a house that was so old and infirm, yet held so much promise.
Mark wrote about rain, flooding (before the drought), the care and agony of hand-plastering, and the dozens of happy accidents that resulted in additions, subtractions and detours from their plans.
On the subject of nesting vermin in the house, Mark wrote: “As each wall was opened up to the light we found, to our horror, every pocket between the wall studs had been home to a furry critter at some point. Nice soft little nests, enormous amounts of walnut shells, droppings, miniature grand staircases, tiny crystal chandeliers, fringe, tassels, and floral wallpapers, all abandoned and rotting as if the Yankees had booted them out long ago and looted all of the silver and jewels.”
He wrote about everything: “Redesigning an existing house is a daunting task. Especially a home built 1870 with no plumbing, no electric, no heating or air conditioning, no bathrooms, and no in-house kitchen. I can’t tell you how often I am asked about the location of the old outhouse… ‘you know people threw all kinds of wonderful treasures down into the potty hole, and you should dig them up!’ Yeah, riiiiiiiiiight, I think not! I am not going to dig through one hundred-plus-year-old poop! forget it, no how, no way! No matter what anyone tells me, it is still poop!”
He wrote about the magnificent obsession that he and Phillip applied to every detail of the old house: “When we installed the walnut floors, we made one of those ‘what were we thinking’ decisions, and added hand-driven cut nails to the surface. Two rectangular nails every sixteen inches, on each board. Eleven thousand nails in total, each one requiring a pilot hole to be drilled before the nail was driven in with a hammer. As the boards were also glued to the subfloor, we chose to wait until the glue was cured before we did the counter sinking of the nails. After two unintentional years of curing, who would have thought it would take two years to get to the floors, we are now faced with countersinking nail after nail after nail.”
While they worked on the house, Mark and Phillip got used to people walking by and offering encouragement, criticism, ideas and incredulity. They got involved in the art community, making the house available for art shows called “Art in the Ruins” and “Restoration Art.”
An artist friend, Natasha Landau, created a dramatic swirl of color in the grand dining room. Other artists count the couple as friends, and fill the large porch on the back of the house at parties.
Phillip and Mark are generous about parties. In addition to the art events, they’ve opened up the home for Halloween parties (which are progressively less scary as the house improves), historic home tours and holiday events.
The house isn’t any taller than when they bought it, but it’s more functional. The large walk-up attic is now a proper third floor, with two bedrooms, a bathroom and storage space.
That outside porch is a pleasant place for a midsummer meal or morning coffee, but it had to be built for practical reasons, to provide access to the electrical panel. The handsome railing features period-style balusters. A smaller second floor porch now expands the second floor master bedroom.
And, they did so much of the work themselves. Mark—fresh from installing fiberglass insulation in the third floor bedrooms—muttered and itched during an interview. “I hate insulation,” he said, even after a shower.
Plastering, tile work, wood finishing and refinishing, framing, flooring, trim details, plumbing, wiring—Phillip and Mark hired lots of helpers—but they got into everything too, becoming experts in the trades, in restoration and in the bits of antiquery they were using and reusing on the house. “We saved all the lumber that came out of the house,” Phillip said, “and we reused a lot of it, but we gave some away too.”
The dilapidated garage that used to sit next to the sidewalk in the side yard came down last summer and is now a charming cabin in the otherwise wild backyard. The “summer house,” as they call it, is made mostly from reclaimed wood.
The big house is filled with details that delight and inspire. The handmade, curved newel post at the base of the stairs is similar to other newel posts on that block of North Street, and Phillip speculates that they were all built by the same carpenter.
In fact, a Healdsburg Museum report on the historic house speculates that it may have been built at the same time as other homes on the block, and that details are similar enough to point to a common builder.
That builder was probably Jacob Pimm, a cabinetmaker and wagon-wright who was John Marshall’s father-in-law. Marshall, a successful blacksmith, lived and worked in the house and was well known in the community, serving as a City Trustee and fireman before his death in 1881 at the age of 41.
A parlor in the home has a detailed and ornate Victorian chandelier that once graced the dining room in a Utopian community in Santa Rosa in the 1800s. Once plumbed for gas, it is now wired for electricity.
Not all lights in the home are electric. Modern versions of Victorian gas lamps are mounted on the outside of the house and burn real gas. “That was Mark’s idea,” Phillip said. “I didn’t know at first, but he really wanted them and he was right.”
What sort of treasures did they find when they remodeled the house? Mark and Phillip start a listener out easy when this question is asked, mentioning a cheap, costume jewelry bracelet that they found hanging on a wire inside the walls, which they carefully put back and plastered over.
They also found a cache of old pharmacy bottles from the 1800s, which they’ve kept.
And, there was the porn. When they pulled down the ceiling in a first floor room, “It rained porn!” they say together. “We found a collection of gentleman’s magazines from the 60s and early 70s that someone had stashed under the floorboards in a second floor bedroom,” Mark said.
Phillip and Mark saved the magazines and when a former tenant of the house held a family reunion in Healdsburg, they returned the “literature” to its former owner.
What’s left to do and what’s next for these brave remodelers, who saved a historic home and received a Historic Preservation Award from the Healdsburg Museum?
The third floor rooms need to be finished, and “Then we have a big list of details, painting, plastering, finishing…” Phillip said, as Mark interjected, “And there’s landscaping… and then we have to start thinking about a garage.”
Phillip said: “After that, we might have another adventure, but I wouldn’t mind not having a house project for a while.”
Mark Goff is a graphic designer and Phillip Engel is a technology consultant. They have been hard at work for almost nine years on the restoration of 227 North Street in Healdsburg, the historic John Marshall House. Mark’s blog can be found at 227northstreet.com. SD
Tania Amochaev is a world traveler, entrepreneur and photographer. She is an artist with her camera and enjoys photographing aging places. Using a technique called High Dynamic Range (HDR), Tania captures images that transcend the limits of average photography. By capturing multiple images of the same scene with different exposures, Tania can then combine the images in photo-editing software and create a scene that closely rivals the remarkable range of the human eye. No longer shackled to the limits of a mere camera, her artistry allows us to see deeply into a scene. Before it was purchased by Mark Goff and Phillip Engel, Tania was allowed to visit and create HDR images of the John Marshall House after it had languished for years with little or no upgrades or maintenance.