February 28, 2012

Ithaca College Professor Awarded for Renovating Historic Property

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Up East State Street, past rows of sagging gray houses, sits a bright yellow house with green trim, lined with roses and butterfly bushes, perennials and annuals. Soon, it will be paired by sister houses freshly painted and fringed with flowers. This will complete the vision of Prof. David Kramer, English, Ithaca College, who sees his project as a model for future Ithaca housing communities.

“[It’s] a sort of gateway sight as you come into Ithaca,” Kramer said. “[The yellow house] will harmonize with its next door neighbors. There’ll be a lot of roses this coming spring.”

Kramer, who, with his family, owns 16 houses, first began renovating historic houses in Ithaca, such as the East State Street property, more than a decade ago.

In December, the Rotary Club of Ithaca and the City of Ithaca awarded Kramer the Pride of Ownership award for his work at 522 East State Street. The award is given annually to property owners who have improved the aesthetics of the city.

The Rotary Club recognized seven properties in 2011, including the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art for its new wing, the restaurant Mia and the First Unitarian Church.

“I was really incredibly honored to receive that award,” Kramer said. “That my work should be considered in the same class as [the new wing of the Johnson Museum] — that was really humbling. There were many million dollar jobs, and my modest house job was in there with them. I was touched to be put in that category.”

But Kramer insisted that his pride in winning the award is merely a “secondary pride, a minor pride.” He said his primary motivation was to preserve historic structures.

The house was designed by architect William H. Miller 1872. Miller designed the house sometime around 1872, according to Mary Tomlan M.A. ’71, an architectural historian who has lectured and published on Miller’s work.

Miller went on to design dozens of other buildings in Ithaca from about 1871 until his death in 1922, according to Tomlan.

“It’s hard to generalize about Miller’s work because he’s so protean,” Kramer said. “He’s interested in the neo-gothic, but really he can work in any style.”

More than a century later, however, the house needed major cosmetic work. Kramer, seeing its potential beauty, began tackling renovations when he bought the property in 2008.

“I thought, ‘What beautiful bones in that fine old building,’” Kramer said. “I just loved it as a building, and I think I completed my work on it, except for painting, before I found out it was a Miller.”

Kramer spent three years restoring the house, working mostly in the summer. He hired about 50 artisans, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, roofers and other craftsmen to work on the site while maintaining his other historic properties.

“I love the process,” Kramer said. “The thing is that I’m an amateur. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing when I start, but I learn as I go along, often from the expertise of the people who are actually doing the work.”

Over those summers, Kramer worked 40 to 60 hours a week and spent a “tremendous” amount of money, as well as effort, on the project.

“People who were with me as I was doing this were saying, ‘You’re insane. This is a rental building. Why are you doing this?’” he said.

But Kramer said he could not resist renovating the building. He tore out its drop ceiling — a lower ceiling built to hide the decaying original — to reveal the building’s openness and ornate plaster molding. He also uncovered and restored its antique hardwood floors, the alternating chestnut and walnut pattern of its stairs and the scrollwork on its staircase.

“The building was so wonderful,” Kramer said. “I thought, well, if it doesn’t pay me back in some obvious dollars and cents way, it’d still be worth it.”

With the glee of a child in a candy shop, Kramer sees in every house he passes something he can make beautiful. In addition to receiving the Pride of Ownership award, Kramer, alongside his wife and mother-in-law, was recognized for his work five years ago by Historic Ithaca, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the preservation of historically significant buildings.

Residents of the home said they agreed that Kramer’s work was worthy of the award.

“I think it’s great, especially in a place like Ithaca, where it’s difficult to find reasonable housing,” said Claire Holton-Basaldua grad, one of eight residents living in the property. “Some of these houses are pretty dilapidated, and it’s nice to find a landlord who really cares about the buildings and maintaining their historical significance.”

Kristen Olson, preservation services coordinator for Historic Ithaca, described David Kramer’s efforts as “an investment in the community.” Kramer himself described his efforts as similar to those of his work as an English professor — passing down cultural artifacts to the next generation.

“I just love the process of taking things that need love — that are intrinsically beautiful but need refreshing, and bringing them into beauty and use and handing them on to the next generation,” Kramer said. “I see that as really akin to what I do in the classroom.”

Original Author: Nikki Lee