|THE MASTER Gus Thierry's knowledge and love of historic homes have made him the man to call when they need restoring
Reprinted from the March 1999 issue of Cincinnati Magazine
This old house restorer With his eye for the aged, Gus Thierry has crafted a career restoring some of the city's historic homes.
Dressed in well-worn boots and dusty shirts that go several layers deep, Gus Thierry squeezes through the tiny front door of the house that for the last two months has been his workplace. At 24 inches wide, the door is too small to get through unless a person turns sideways. "Not exactly accommodating," he says, as he slides past. But then doors like this aren't made anymore. And neither is the house it's attached to, which is exactly why he's there.
The house was built in 1843 by Robert Buchanan, one of the founders of Clifton and cousin to former President James Buchanan. Near the corner of Lafayette and Clifton Avenues, it was Buchanan's summer cottage and remains the oldest home on the venerable and highly historic Clifton Avenue. It is exactly the kind of house Thierry is frequently called upon to save.
Thierry has made a career of fixing the city's large stock of historic homes, repairing and restoring one old house after another. He restored the Stanley House on Eastern Avenue and the Ayers J. Bramble House on Homer Avenue in Madisonville. His most recent restoration, the John Clermont on Davenport Avenue in Price Hill, drew the attention of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, which gave Thierry its first-ever Preservation Award for Craftsmanship. The massive yellow 1870 Victorian sits atop the hill above the Sixth Street viaduct and commands attention with its expansive and detailed front porch and towering rooftop belvedere.
"He's set the example for others in the field," says Beth Sullebarger, executive director of the Preservation Association. "There’s a great deal of rehab going on, but there aren't that many craftsmen maintaining the high standards of historic preservation. "
"You need to have a particular type of person who has a passion for the past," adds architect Paul Muller, who designed the renovation plans for the Clermont and Buchanan houses. "You need someone who will spend a few days preserving the old molding instead of tearing it out and putting up new molding. Gus has that. He keeps the big picture in mind, which is to create something of value."
Too often these days, Sullebarger says, contractors simply approach old homes as if they were new -which can be a disaster if historic preservation is the goal. "We take a lot of shortcuts today in construction, and you can't do that with an old house," she says. "People just want to slap up drywall with tape and joint compound instead of putting up plaster. We find a lot of original design simply covered up with newer materials. "
And considering Cincinnati's history, says Christopher Cain, a former urban conservator for the city's historic conservation office, the fact that there are so few preservationist contractors is remarkable. Because of the way the city grew - continually pushing outward instead of staying close to its core - it has a huge number of historic homes. But contractors who can combine an interest in preserving history with the concerns of today's economy just aren't there.
"One of the biggest concerns I heard over the years was from people saying they were having a hard time finding somebody they felt was competent to work on older houses," says Cain. "What they generally find is a contractor who knows how to do a kitchen, but isn't as concerned with the historic fabric and character of the older homes. They had a very frustrating experience because the contractor knew how to get something done expeditiously but the owner wanted to maintain a certain character. There isn't a pool of contractors who understand that."
Thierry nods in agreement as he walks down a hallway of 150-year-old hardwood flooring and past the home's main staircase with its hand-carved spindles. It's true, he says, but he's at a loss to explain why. "There's enough work to go around for 100 guys who do what I do, although there are only two or three of us who actually specialize in old homes."
Not that he minds having a comer of the market almost to himself. It's just that he can -or will- only do so much at one time. In the 16 years since he started his company ICS Building Restoration, Thierry has completely restored about 20 historic homes - relatively few compared to the number of homes being restored and the number a typical contractor would pull in over that time. But from Thierry's perspective, that number is fairly large, since he limits himself to one job at a time.
Plus, he says, the demands and attention to detail that properly restoring old homes requires are just too time-consuming to do otherwise.
Sure, there are some basic issues that every job is going to deal with, like antiquated electrical, heating and plumbing systems. But there are a lot of unique challenges that don't typically pop up on newer homes. He continues down the hall and points out the hand carved woodwork that has been painted over so many times in the last 150 years its detail has been all but erased. The paint has to be chemically stripped or someone hired to reproduce the piece. "Instead of trying to repair or preserve a piece of molding," says Muller, "a lot of contractors will simply rip it out an then say it was too damaged to save."
Thierry walks upstairs and points out other little nuances that would be lost to the casual observer, such as the pinless hinges on the back of a door, or the height of the railing that surrounds the stairs, which is several inches shorter than today's building code allows. He walks up to the set of single-pane windows that at one time swung open but are now warped and stuck shut. "This is the kind of stuff I love to do," he says, "making windows like this work right again."
Thierry continues stepping from room to room, offering a tour that's not unlike what Bob Vila did for 10 years as host of This Old House. Thierry points, for instance, at marks on an outside wall that show how the steps leading from the back of the house used to go in the opposite direction, or how the fireplace in the front room probably wasn't part of the original house. The material and style, he says just don’t match the time period when the house was built. He points out construction techniques too, that are different from those used today and building materials from the turn of the century.
"I tell people to take the price of the project and add 20 percent to it because once we start looking behind the walls there's no telling what we are going to find," he says. "There's always a lot of engineering or structural work that needs to be done."
As proof, he steps into what will be the Buchanan House dining room and points up at the ceiling, where a large section of plaster has been cut away to expose the floor joists and plumbing from an upstairs bathroom. The old cast iron pipes were leaking, he says, and about to cause major damage to the downstairs ceiling. And at some point during the last 150 years, someone nailed some cheap pieces of lumber onto the joists as a means of support, a technique he unflatteringly calls "scabbing" joists together. That problem had to be removed and redone properly.
"To me, old homes are more interesting and more challenging" he says. "I'm not the kind of guy who likes to put a new kitchen into a home in Forest Park. There of plenty of guys who do that. Besides, knowing what I know about old homes, newer homes seem so simple."
Thierry doesn't look like your stereotypical contractor. With his slight body frame and large glasses, he looks more the type who would be in the computer trade than construction. Then again, historic preservation is as much about dealing with tiny details as it is throwing around ceiling beams, so maybe it's appropriate. But he's learned what it takes -both the skills and the tricks. On occasion, for instance, Thierry has even been known to tell his workers to disregard what their leveling tool says and simply eyeball whatever they're installing to make sure it's straight.
"They look at me kind of shocked when I tell them to build something out of level," he says, "but then I always tell them we're mot building skyscrapers here. These are old homes, and whatever they're putting up may be straight, but the wall may be crooked." I
Thierry began working on old homes when he was around 16 years old, doing odd jobs, and learning a handful of skills along the way. He already had a knack for carpentry and a love of old houses that came from growing up on Clifton surrounded by some of the city’s most historic residences. So in 1983 he started ICS.
He started on old buildings, rehabbing the Gray and Pape office building in Over- the-Rhine and, in 1993, some of the space in Memorial Hall for the Cincinnati Symphony. However most of his work is on houses, including three that were his own. One of those was a nearly crumbling building on River Road in Riverside that was once part of the Yeatman family estate.
The home dated back to around 1848 and was in such disrepair none of the banks he approached about a loan would even appraise the house. Finally a loan officer with whom he had done some business, and who knew the quality of his work, gave him a loan. He brought the house back to mint condition. "If it wasn't for the neighborhood, I’d still be living there," he says.
Old home, after all, do have their benefits. And rewards. In addition to saving homes, Thierry often digs up historic relics during the rehab. Coins are common. So are bottles
In one home, Thierry pulled up a loose floorboard in the bathroom and found a hole filled in with sawdust. His first thought was that the sawdust was for insulation, but when he dug deeper he discovered several whiskey and wine bottles. The space was actually a hiding spot for booze during Prohibition.
His biggest find was a change purse with 140 in it "We give what ever we find to the owners," he says. "In this case, they donated it to the building fund. It bought donuts and coffee for the crew for a month."