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The 23-year resurrection of a former Near South eyesore
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The 23-year resurrection of a former Near South eyesore

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The boiler was broken and the pipes had burst and the wiring needed to be replaced, but that's not what made Laurie Barger Sutter's oldest daughter cry the first time they walked through 1900 B St. together.

“She said: 'You’re making me move to a house with men’s underwear all over and beer cans and cigarettes?'”

And it only got worse. What would turn out to be her daughter's bedroom had leopard-print linoleum, and a sign on the door that simply said, Women.

“Who knows what had happened in there?” Sutter asked. “I didn't want to know.”

This would eventually become Sutter's dream home — 7,000 square feet of turn-of-the-century eclectic revival — but when she bought it in 1994, it had barely survived three decades of service as a housing co-op for up to 60 male college students at a time.

The boys hadn't been kind to the house they called the Brown Palace. The property had started as a single-family mansion, built for a flour mill president, but the students had since carved every available inch into sleeping areas.

And even after the pipes burst, they kept opening the faucets anyway, water pouring through the walls and into the floors. When the boiler failed, they burned kerosene. The city hit them with housing violations, their neighbors complained.

Just before Sutter bought it, the Preservation Association of Lincoln listed it as the second-most endangered historic building in Lincoln, she said, ranked behind the former Saint Elizabeth hospital on South Street.

“We were definitely the eyesore of the neighborhood.”

Sutter makes her living as a public health consultant, but she graduated with a degree in architecture. She was able to see beyond the broken windows and rotting soffit and collapsed retaining wall.

“It sort of tugged at your heart,” she said. “It was a beautiful house that had fallen on hard times.”

But it was also uninhabitable. Her family needed more than a year to simply make it safe enough — and clean enough — to move in.

And Sutter would spend the next 20 years restoring enough of its original splendor to make it one of six featured stops on Sunday's Near South Tour of Homes.

The every-other-year event is a popular fundraiser for the Near South Neighborhood Association, typically drawing about 1,000 people who spend their Mother’s Day afternoon touring some of Lincoln’s most historic homes.

“Normally, there are homeowners who have put in a lot of work over the years who’d like to showcase their homes,” said tour chairman Brayden McLaughlin. “Others are just word of mouth, from friends and neighbors of good homes that have been shown a lot of TLC over the years.”

Sutter didn’t ask for her home to be on this year’s tour. But McLaughlin had heard what the house had been through, and what Sutter had done to it. And when he invited her to be a part of the tour, she agreed — for several reasons.

It’s an important fundraiser for the neighborhood association, which uses the money to pay for area parks and projects. Also, her house is far enough along in its restoration to finally show it off, she said.

The most-pressing reason: The thought of hundreds of strangers coming through her door gave her motivation.

“I had several projects I needed to get going on,” she said. “And I knew if I did this, I’d get them done.”

Her house has already been an unending project for more than two decades. It was built in 1910 for H.O. Barber, who spared little expense: His architects designed stacked sun porches on the B Street side, three stories of bay windows on the side facing 19th.

Barber's home had three fireplaces, one in the basement great room, one in the living room and one in the master bedroom.

His builders filled the home with white-oak columns and paneling, brass window hardware and cut-crystal doorknobs. The three-story oak staircase was lit by towering stained glass, reflected by a large, beveled mirror.

On the outside, they covered it in brick and limestone, stone arches and Italian-marble keystones, topping it with a clay roof tile.

Barber sold the house in 1914 for $31,000. In the early 1930s, a pair of doctor cousins turned it into a duplex, one living on the lower level and first floor, the other on the second and third floors.

But that required major changes. They cut off the base of the main stairway to wall it off from the first floor, for example, and they turned the dining room into a bedroom.

In the early 1960s, it became the Brown Palace — like a fraternity, but with fewer rules — and that led to even more changes.

“Pretty much every space that could be turned into sleeping quarters were, including spaces that didn’t have heat.”

The master bedroom alone, Sutter said, was divided into four rooms. She saw the plans the co-op presented to the city: small rooms full of military-style bunks, some stacked two or three beds high.

The Sutters put in a new boiler and plumbing and wiring. And then they started the long process of trying to return the house to its original floor plan. They replaced floors and ceilings and rebricked the first-floor sun porch. They got rid of the parking lot.

They removed more than 100 feet of unwanted walls, recreated doors and woodwork, repaired the stained glass, restored the base of the staircase. Slowly coaxing the past into the present.

Sutter didn’t have the home's original plans to guide her, so some of it was architectural detective work, such as using old nail holes to figure out the curvature of the staircase or studying an early photo to replicate a missing railing.

Her work isn’t finished. With a house like this, it never is.

“I’d say we are closing in,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re ever done.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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