The first time the basement boiler kicked in, the racket reminded Shelly and Dick Smith they weren’t living near 77th and Old Cheney anymore.
“We were watching TV and it went off,” Shelly Smith said. “And we were like, ‘Did someone just run up the stairs?’”
But five years after moving to the heart of the city, the couple has grown used to the creaks and character of their 110-year-old historic home -- a 5,700-square-foot space originally built for a salesman, expanded for a plumbing magnate and later redesigned for a longtime Lincoln dentist, who had exam rooms built in the basement.
The house at 26th and Franklin didn’t need any real work before the couple could move in, but it’s kept them busy. They turned the basement into a game room. They went through the third-floor ballroom, adding a projection TV and covering the exposed air conditioner and ductwork.
And once they finish their laundry room renovation, they’ll be ready to show it off to the more than 1,000 visitors expected to sign up for this weekend’s Near South Neighborhood Association Tour of Homes.
The every-other-year Mother’s Day tour raises funds for the association’s projects, said tour chairman Brayden McLaughlin. The money made this weekend will help pay for new equipment, benches and landscaping at Peach Park.
The planning takes months, McLaughlin said, lining up sponsors, enlisting volunteer tour guides and convincing a half-dozen homeowners to open their doors. Like the Smiths, who are relatively new to historic homeownership.
“It’s funny,” Dick Smith said. “It’s like we went backward in time.”
The couple built their first home when their kids were young. Everything brand new, nothing to worry about. And even when they moved, they bought a newer, bigger house in Edenton North.
They were always drawn to old homes, he said, but they weren’t ready.
“We knew there was a lot more time you had to put into an older home. We didn’t have time for that, or the money.”
Then they found the listing for the house at 26th and Franklin. They liked the cost per square foot. And they liked that it already bore their name: The Smith-Cornell House.
“That’s cool,” he said. “Though it’s not any relation of ours.”
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Salesman Elliot Smith and his wife, Lena, had the first half of the house built for $4,000 in 1909. A few years later, J. Cass Cornell, who owned a plumbing and heating company, bought it, and his name still appears on the radiators throughout the house.
In 1924, Cornell nearly doubled the house’s size with a $6,000 addition, including a family room, master bedroom, half of the second floor and a third-floor ballroom.
The marriage of the two halves is visible from 26th Street. The stucco of the original south side, the grander brick addition on the north. The connections are visible inside, too, Shelly Smith said. A thick exterior wall is now a thick interior wall. And before they covered it up, a window in their workshop opened to a view of the underside of the porch.
“You stop and look and think: What was that for? How was that used? Sometimes, you scratch your head,” she said.
After Cornell died, Cecil and Emma House spent much of the 20th century here, from the 1940s through the 1980s. He was a dentist, with his office downtown and later on Sumner Street, so any exam rooms in his basement would have been a secondary location for his practice, said Ed Zimmer, the city’s historic preservation planner.
Since moving, in, Shelly and Dick Smith have focused most of their work in the basement. The exam rooms were already gone -- converted into apartments -- so the couple opened up the space, tearing out the dropped ceiling and exposing the brick foundation.
They’ve been impressed with the workmanship that went into this house more than a century ago -- the three fireplaces, all of the trim and crown molding, the Italian tile in the kitchen, the shower door trimmed in lead, the knob-and-tube wiring, the sturdy timber.
“I’ve had screws break off in it,” Dick Smith said. “This house is very unforgiving. There are some low ceilings, and if you bonk your head, you don’t forget it.”
They don’t have any other major projects planned, but a house this old -- and this big -- will continue to demand time and attention.
They will keep finding more fixtures to update, Dick Smith said, more doors and windows to bring back to life.
“People will say, ‘When do you think you’re going to be done?’ And I say, ‘I’ll be dead before I’m done.’”