The Old North St. Louis home Jessica Payne now lives in was once shell of a building with four brick walls enclosing a pile of rubble that had been the interior floors and the roof.
Payne, who had been living in Old North St. Louis for the past seven years, said: “I always liked the neighborhood and had watched the house being rebuilt as a duplex from the basement up. I knew the owners and even some of the men who were working on it.”
When it was completed, and she had inspected the finished product, Payne not only discovered the upstairs apartment was perfect for her, but she also recruited a friend to rent the bottom-floor apartment.
“The extra-large windows make it bright and cheery all day long,” she says. “I also appreciated the way whatever could be reused from the remains of the original house were repurposed and incorporated into the design.”
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The couple who undertook the renovation of the home, Gloria and Tom Bratkowski, live next door. They also own two other homes on the same block, each purchased as residents aged into retirement homes.
“My grandparents arrived in St. Louis via Ellis Island about 1900 and settled here in what is now Old North St. Louis,” Tom remembers. “My family has lived in our home next to Jessica since 1947.”
Watching the house where Payne now lives slowly fall into disrepair after being neglected by a series of different owners, the Bratkowskis decided to purchase the building, rebuild it and turn it into a rental.
“Two people that were very helpful were Pavel Ivanchuk, the architect with Osnova Architecture, and Ralph Wafer, the senior plan examiner in the building division of the City of St. Louis,” Tom says. “I remember Ralph being very encouraging and saying, ‘You can do this!’”
The Bratkowskis acted as the general contractor, and apart from the major structural work and the electrical and plumbing, they did much of the finish labor themselves including the tile work in the bathrooms, hanging the kitchen cabinets and doors, making the kitchen island and painting. Tom also made a sliding barn door for a bonus room off the master bedroom.
Wherever they could, the Bratkowskis repurposed anything usable they found in the pile of rubble that had been the original home. Door moldings and decorative rosettes were reused, and old pieces of slate became thresholds between rooms.
To make the two 1,000 square foot, one-bed, one-bath apartments energy efficient, foam insulation was pumped into the walls, and the large windows are double pane. Thick Missouri red oak floors were installed in every room.
One item repurposed from a different source are the wooden railings on the stairs leading upstairs. They were made from the parallel bars used by Tom’s father who was an amateur gymnast.
Payne moved into the top-floor apartment in early June, and has quickly turned the pristine space into a comfortable home filled with family heirlooms and art.
When she told her father she was looking at a $1,200 coffee table she liked but could not afford, he made a duplicate as a housewarming gift. Earlier he had made the roll-top desk in her office. A cane chair made by her great grandfather was where her grandmother sat when she was sewing. A cedar blanket chest at the foot of her bed was the toy chest of a neighbor when she was growing up.
Collecting art from neighborhood artists is a hobby. A series of colorful posters over the kitchen cabinets by nonprofit Central Print are complemented by the work of other neighborhood artists. Included are a dried flower arrangement by Gloria Bratkowski, and prints she and her classmates made from linotypes while taking a Central Print class.
Front and center among the artwork on the living room wall is a painting of a country scene. “It was done in 1941 by my grandmother,” she says.
A poster in the bedroom celebrates the origin of the neighborhood with the words “Old North, 1816,” the year the area was founded as a village separate from the City of St. Louis. “It joined the city in 1841, and the home was built in 1886,” Tom says.
“This is a great neighborhood where everyone helps everyone else. We would like to encourage anyone to make the same investment we did in other nearby homes in need of repair.”
Photos: At Home with restoration of Old North St. Louis home