ASTORIA — “We were young and adventurous when we started,” recalled Judy Atkinson. She and her husband, Ernie, were moving north from California. They had an 18-month old child in tow and another child on the way. They needed an affordable house.
In 1976, the Atkinsons paid $16,000 for a fixer-upper. Nearly 41 years later, they remain in the home.
The Charles and Elizabeth Johnson residence was constructed as early as 1895. Johnson, a local grocer, partnered with Irwin Morrison in a Commercial Street venture. The house may have been constructed in two campaigns. The first floor has square nails and Victorian trim, while the second floor has round nails and Craftsman trim. The Johnsons lived in the home until 1913, when they reportedly constructed another house.
During World War II, the house was used for boarding. Then, it was purchased by Ivan and Gladys Jensen. Ivan ran a dental lab. After he died, Gladys remained in the home, then later used it as a rental. Unable to keep up with the maintenance, Gladys sold the house to the Atkinsons.
The Atkinson’s motivation was simple: they had four months to ready the house before their second child arrived. Their goal was to simply make the house livable. “We just did cosmetic work,” said Judy. But, cosmetics stretched to a new roof, gutters and downspouts, repairing a leaky chimney, and re-wiring and re-plumbing the house.
They also installed a complete bathroom on the first floor. And, they made it: their child arrived after the dust settled.
The following summer, Ernie raised the house, poured a concrete foundation and replaced the posts, sills and lower siding. He also braced the house with plywood panels, then strapped the entire house down with hurricane straps.
As time passed, the Atkinsons installed drywall throughout the house. All the interior walls were originally clad in wide, tongue-and-groove boards. The boards were covered in cheese cloth, held in place by “thousands” of small nails. A thin cardboard covered the cloth and was used as a base for wallpaper.
The new drywall provided a smooth painting surface. It also made the walls thicker. As the Atkinsons stripped, painted and reinstalled wood trim around openings, they added a spacer to accommodate the extra depth.
Eight years ago, they removed dropped ceilings on the first floor. This allowed them to restore windows to their original height and configuration. They removed large picture windows and replaced them with paired double-hungs from Bergerson Wood Windows. “It took three guys to lift the window units in place,” remembered Ernie.
Understandably, Judy thought about the wisdom of compromising their view through mulled windows. “I wondered if, when we put in windows with a division, if I would miss the view,” she said. Now she says, “I don’t even notice it.”
The front door is associated with unique local history. Shortly after Mount St. Helens blew, Ernie and his neighbor, Mark Ludlow, were on the beach looking for salvageable wood. They returned home with fir and cedar logs. Ernie set the wood aside and let it dry completely.
Later, he constructed a beautiful door, hung with hinges recycled from the demolished Central Elementary School. But his work was not over; the door weeped pitch. Ernie repeatedly rubbed the wood with a turpentine moistened rag. After a year, the wood stopped weeping.
Local craftsman, Jim Hannen, designed and constructed a leaded glass window for the door. The carefully made window blends seamlessly with the home’s historic style. Hannen also designed windows for a second door as well as two kitchen windows.
Although the Atkinsons have — over the years — also painted the exterior, remodeled the kitchen, restored a bathroom and laid a new wood floor, there is still work to be done. The front porch, for instance, needs their attention. They will approach it with the same attitude they have had throughout.
“Everything we did, we imagined what it originally was,” said Ernie. “We weren’t obsessive about it,” added Judy. “We kept everything in the mood of the house’s style.”
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.com.