Full House: Shaker Heights couple preparing to restore landmark Asa Upson house

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Full House: Shaker Heights couple preparing to restore landmark Asa Upson house

August 18, 2011 [Julie Washington, cleveland.com]

The Claytons have two babies. One is toddling around the furniture, and one is the place they call home.

The young couple are parents and also stewards of a century home in Shaker Heights. Both roles entail special responsibilities.

The Shaker Heights Landmark Commission recently granted official landmark status to the Claytons’ home, also known as the Asa Upson home. It was built in the mid-1830s by Upson and his wife, Chloe, and it is believed to be the second-oldest house in the city, according to the commission.

Its previous owners donated the vintage house to the Cleveland Restoration Society, which spruced it up and sold it for about $90,000 to Jennifer and Derek Clayton.

“This house is unique, and that’s kinda hard to find these days,” said Derek, 39. He and his wife, Jennifer, let me meet both of their babies recently. “We enjoy old homes,” he added.

The house has undergone two major additions, one between 1870 and 1900, and a second in 1940-41, according to research by the Cleveland Restoration Society. The entryway, living room and kitchen make up the bulk of the original section, explained Jennifer, 37, a former environmental reporter.

The Claytons know they have taken on a special responsibility, and that’s why they have a case of restoration paralysis. They visualize opening up rooms and modernizing the house, but they worry.

“Will it be the same house we bought? Is it the same house after that?” Derek said. “We don’t know.”

That’s a question architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt ponders in the new book he co-wrote with Gordon Bock, “The Vintage House: A Guide to Successful Renovations and Additions.”

Hewitt advocates respecting the past, and he fights against the notion that traditional building materials are inherently inferior. Steam radiators can be efficient and comfortable, Hewitt said in a recent phone conversation with me. Wood surfaces kept painted and dry can last for 100 years.

I shared with him that my pet peeve is seeing older homes with visually jarring modern replacement windows. Not only do vinyl windows lack the character of the originals, “you’re throwing away craftsmanship and old-growth wood that can never be replaced,” Hewitt said.

Owners of old homes should seek out contractors who know how to make traditional materials work, he said.

In “The Vintage House,” Hewitt describes how thoughtful renovations and additions can make older homes comfortable for modern living. Kitchens and even stairs can be moved to improve the floor plan. Attics can be put to everyday use. Former servants’ wings can be converted to a family room, kitchen pantry or powder room, he said.

The Upson house is a successful blend of old and new. The house has central air — and a 1930s-era “knob and tube” electrical system.

When I drove up, the house looked much like its neighbors on Chagrin Boulevard. Only after I stepped inside, and Jennifer pointed to the mechanical doorbell– four bells mounted inside the front door — did I have an inkling of how special it is.

We roamed. As a fan of old houses, I admired the original windows, five-panel front door and working fireplace. I poked my head into the two tiny bathrooms (one was originally a closet) and the narrow kitchen.

How narrow? Imagine your backside hitting the cabinets when you lean over to check the oven.

Time for an ironic detail: Derek Clayton is a professional chef.

Apparently, even a one-person kitchen wasn’t a big enough bummer to change his opinion of the century house.

“We walked inside, and we loved it with all of its quirks,” said Derek, who is a corporate executive chef for Michael Symon’s restaurant group.

For now, the couple plan to start with small renovations and learn what they need to know along the way. After moving here in April, their first project was roof repairs. They spent the summer tackling overflowing gutters and the large, neglected yard where poison ivy tussled with English ivy.

The exterior work gave them time to consider what to do on the inside. First, they’ll turn a ground-floor room into a home theater.

The kitchen will come last. “We’ve talked about so many options,” he said.

They will definitely keep the original wide-plank wood floors, and may rip up the living room carpeting to expose more of the wood.

Any changes that can be seen from the street will be subject to review by the Shaker Heights Landmark Commission, said Ann Klavora, senior planner with the city of Shaker Heights. The commission asks that any changes are sensitive to the home’s historic status, Klavora said.

The Claytons lived in Detroit before moving to this area in 2006 for Derek’s job. They rented older homes in Detroit-Shoreway and Ohio City before they bought the century home.

As conscientious stewards, they hope to pass the Upson house to its next owner better than they found it, with all its historical and unusual details lovingly preserved.