Sartore family busy with renovations of fourth oldest house in Lincoln

2013-08-15T03:55:00Z Sartore family busy with renovations of fourth oldest house in LincolnBy JORDAN PASCALE / Lincoln Journal Star

As he hammers away to stabilize a floorboard, Joel Sartore realizes he's going to need to make a trip to the hardware store.

It's never long between trips when you're restoring a home from 1878 — the fourth-oldest in Lincoln.

Sartore, a renowned National Geographic photographer, and his family have taken on a task few would commit the time, money or patience to complete.

Soon, the Lewis-Syford House on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's campus near 16th and Vine streets will have a new life, a new caretaker and new residents to call it home.

Cole Sartore, Joel's son and a sophomore at UNL, will live in the renovated home, which they hope to have ready by the time school starts Aug. 26. His younger siblings will live in it when they go to college.

The Sartores, who have renovated nearly half a dozen other historic homes across Nebraska and the Midwest, bought the home from the Kinder-Porter-Scott Foundation in February.

They essentially saved the home, which has struggled to find purpose since it was given to the State Historical Society Foundation in 1965. It was used by the university for a time but has sat vacant for more than a decade.

Last year, a family tried to turn it into a school for children with autism, but city officials denied the proposal.

The second floor hasn't been used for a while. The Sartores found two dead squirrels in the wall and a mummified rabbit carcass in the middle of a deteriorating bedroom floor.

The place is a money pit. They had to tear out a toilet that was in the converted kitchen (the home was converted for office use at one time), replace the roof, restore rotted window trim, rebuild dormers, install new shingles and buy historic cabinets from the early 1900s.

They're reusing everything and filling in the rest with historic material -- even antique toilets.

The 2,000-square-foot house has a unique preservation easement that prevents changes that would harm the character of the home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Our goal is to not change anything," Sartore said.

So it won't be your average white-washed college apartment.

But Cole says he likes it that way.

"This place has way more character," he said. "I appreciate the house for what it is — it's built so much better than anything today."

Elisha M. Lewis, an early Nebraska pastor and missionary, built the French Second Empire-style house in 1878, shortly after the university was established.

It still has many of the original parts that have stood the test of time — a brass doorbell, iron trim around the roofline and handmade glass in some of the windows.

Although they have hired contractors with backgrounds in historic work, the Sartores are doing much of the cosmetic work, such as painting, themselves.

That includes spending time to make the 100-plus-year-old floorboards straight — even if it means going to the hardware store for a longer bolt to fasten it correctly.

"Most contractors would fly through here just to get their check," Joel Sartore said. "That's not how we do it here. We want to do this right because we want this to be functional in the future ... have a viable use.

"This will be here longer than most cookie-cutter homes being built now."

The family is thinking about having an open house once the renovations are complete.

"I love the building," Cole Sartore said. "It's an honor to work on and have it be useful again."

Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120, or follow him on Twitter: @LJSPascale.

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