Trial by Fire: How I Became a Historic Preservation (and Community Revitalization) Advocate

It was a crisp, late winter evening. We were just settling in to watch a movie at our condo in Logan when the phone rang.  It was one of those calls that you don’t ever want to receive.  It was the Ogden Fire Department.  The house that we had purchased just 2weeks earlier was on fire.

It was the winter of 2002. The Olympics were in Salt Lake City, and Travis was working as an electrician wiring up the telecommunications on many of the venues.  I was in my last year of the Landscape Architecture program at Utah State.  I would be graduating in the spring, and starting a full-time position with a firm in SLC.  Travis had a job lined up in Brigham City. Somewhat serendipitously, we stopped in Ogden one day, and picked up a real-estate brochure.  That’s when we saw it! 

It was an 1890 Queen-Anne Style Victorian, originally built for John W. McNutt, a 25th Street Drugstore Owner (and rumored liquor dealer).  I’m not going to lie – it was in pretty rough shape.  And when we told our parents that we were considering purchasing the home they thought we were insane (we later confirmed their suspicions).  But we could see the potential hidden behind the dilapidated siding, peeling paint, and boarded up windows.  We were lifelong ”This Old House” fans who had always talked about fixing up an old house – a dream that was fueled by the many beautiful historic homes that we often envied while living in Logan.   We were already somewhat familiar with Ogden because of numerous ski-trips to Snow Basin (and that one-time I got lost after accidentally taking the 24th street exit heading northbound from SLC – lol).  While Ogden was still considered to be a pretty rough town, it was already starting to get some good press about the area’s many outdoor recreation opportunities.  And the downtown had a solid urban structure with lots of great historic buildings and numerous promising signs of urban revitalization already in-progress (like our soon to be favorite brew-pub on Historic 25th Street – Roosters!). 

Anyway, long story (no, seriously, it’s actually a longer story) short, we closed on the house in February of 2002, and began work on the project right away – we were SO EXCITED!  But our hopes were dashed when we received that ill-fated phone call.  We immediately jumped in the car, and a tearful 50-minutes later arrived to see our new old-house completely engulfed in flames.  We watched in horror over the next several hours as the firefighters gradually got the blaze under control.  We were told that it was a total loss.  It turned out that this fire was one of a string of arsons that winter, the work of a group five unsupervised boys between the ages of 10-12.  They were eventually caught after they set fire to the house next to ours a month later.

The day after the fire, while surveying the charred remains of our hopes and dreams in a state of complete shock and denial, but with all the youthful optimism (and insanity) that only young twenty-somethings can muster, we made the fateful decision that would completely and totally alter the course of our lives. We decided, while standing on the second story of the house, looking up through the blackened remains and blue sky of what used to be the attic floor and roof, that maybe there was enough of the original structure left intact to be able to save and rebuild the house!  

This was the beginning of a multi-year restoration process that included a series of victories, defeats, and dozens of misadventures.  In-between fixing up our old house, we skied, we mountain biked, we enjoyed those serene honeymoon years between when the community revitalization process begins, and before your town is offically ‘on the map’ (cue the crowds and the tourists).  We started companies, I went to grad-school (in Architecture this time), and eventually we started a family.

In the process of re-building a historic home, we also became part of a larger community re-building process.  Through blood, sweat, and tears, and a literal baptism by fire, we became old-house restoration experts, and at the same time, grassroots community advocates.  For us, our home restoration and the revitalization of this amazing place have been parallel narratives,  narratives that began with looking past the outer layer of decay and blight and truly believing in the potential of a place; willingness to work hard and apply hours upon hours of sweat equity; and making slow but steady incremental improvements that have an exponential impact over many (so many) years.