In the 1850s, a small stone house was built in the relatively newly-established state capitol of Iowa City.
That home’s limestone foundation and part of its walls are still standing, as part of a red brick home at 528 E. College St.
On an exterior wall of Helen and Kevin Burford’s house across the street from College Green Park, a few blocks from Iowa City’s downtown and the University of Iowa’s campus, a visible line marks where the limestone ends and the brick, added in 1867, begins, the newer house built right on top of the older one.
Restoring the interior of the house with that history in mind has been a labor of love for the Burfords, who bought the residence in 2003 after it had fallen into a state of deep disrepair.
“This house should have been condemned,” Helen says.
She’s glad it wasn’t.
The building’s previous owner had converted the house into four apartments that served as student rental housing for two decades. After years of neglect, the problems, to name a few, included termite-infested walls, an unsupported room that had been built over a stairwell and a persistent odor left behind by a previous occupant’s ferrets.
The Burfords converted the home back into a single family residence with four bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms by effectively gutting the house and rebuilding its interior from the ground up. They knocked out interior walls, replaced the roof and gutters, installed a new interior staircase, new kitchen and bathrooms and replaced the heating, cooling and electrical systems.
“It’s as if you were building a new house inside an old house,” Helen says.
She and her husband have made their renovations deliberately, with an eye toward preservation and historical accuracy. Wherever possible, they’ve used reclaimed and refurbished materials including recycled wood floors, doors, tile and chandeliers.
“We made a conscious effort to restore this house to the original period in which it was built,” Helen Burford says. “What could be preserved was preserved, and what couldn’t be preserved was rebuilt with salvaged materials.”
Many of those materials came from the Salvage Barn, operated by the Friends of Historic Preservation at the East Side Recycling Center, 2401 Scott Blvd. SE, in Iowa City.
The home will be presented to the public during a Friends of Historic Preservation Parade of Historic Homes May 11. The parade will feature some of Iowa City’s oldest houses surrounding College Green Park and along College Street. To complement the tour, historian Bob Hibbs will present an overview of the neighborhood at the Iowa City Public Library on Saturday.
The Burfords were the right people to take on the momentous task of revitalizing the almost 3,000-square foot house.
The couple previously lived in Florida, where Helen worked as a marketing director for Celebrity Cruises. While there, she oversaw the reclamation of rooms from four historic ships, including the Olympic, the sister ship to the Titanic. The cruise company used the old ship’s rooms to create historically-themed restaurants on their ships.
“The response to it was amazing,” Helen says. “People really do respond to these things.”
She was hooked on historic preservation. When the couple moved to Iowa City to care for Kevin’s ailing parents, Byron and Kay Burford, Helen, now 65, spent several years working as director of the Friends of Historic Preservation, while Kevin worked at the Iowa State Historical Society. His parents lived in the house next door.
A former University of Iowa faculty member and one-time graduate assistant to Grant Wood, Byron Burford’s paintings fill the home. Chandeliers, all salvaged, hang from the ceilings. Two fireplaces, one in the living room and one in the dining room, are bordered by colorful tile. The tile in the dining room is original to the house. That fireplace sits on a piece of marble salvaged from a City High School bathroom. Helen rescued the living room’s fireplace tile when it was being thrown out from another Iowa City house.
The house’s current front door was added after the 2006 tornado blew out the older door along with many windows. Many of the surviving windows are over 100 years old, distinctive for their slightly wavy glass and six-pane frames.
The Burfords added grates in the front porch to allow natural light into window wells in the basement. The window wells are original to the 1850s stone house, but were covered over with plaster and filled with straw. The couple uncovered and tuckpointed the limestone foundation and walls.
Helen has stories for pieces throughout the two-story house, from each unique rescued door to salvaged wood flooring to a stained-glass window in a second-story window.
Thanks to Kevin’s research efforts, the home is full of details like historically accurate paint colors on the porch’s columns. A front and back porch, along with a solarium that now serves as Kevin’s music room, were added to the house after the second owners moved in during the 1880s.
The decade of work the couple has put into the home hasn’t been easy, but Helen says it has been worth it.
“I do think somebody has to take responsibility to reinvigorate these homes and keep history alive and at least try to give something back to the community,” she says. “There are few homes of this period left in Iowa City. These are things you can’t reclaim once they’re gone.”
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Parade of Historic Homes
•When: 1 to 5 p.m. May 11
•Where: 109 Johnson St., 113 Johnson St., 528 College St., 811 College St., 932 College St., 613 College St., 715 College St., 722 College St.
•What: “College Green Park: Covered Wagons to Tornadoes” talk by Bob Hibbs
•When: 2 p.m. Saturday
•Where: Meeting Room A, Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., Iowa City