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Seeing possibilities in mansions and cupboards 

There is much to adore in Mark Siwiec's 6,000-square-foot house, but his second favorite room (after the porch) is a cupboard under the stairs that he has converted into an audio closet --- with shelf upon shelf of CDs and a stereo whose speakers are tucked away into corners of the living and dining rooms.

            "Techno Harry Potter," observes his partner, Duffy Palmer.

            When Siwiec and Palmer wanted a house that could accommodate their fondness for entertaining. But even though Siwiec is a realtor, it took him and Palmer six months to find the perfect place: a 1901 three-unit mansion on Westminster Road.

            "What was great about this place," says Siwiec, "is we walked in and it was just crap --- but we saw the possibilities."

            Possibilities are realities now. The main unit, the one half of the house where the couple lives, is pristine. An enormous living room glides into a spacious dining room, with a sleek kitchen tucked off to the side. Tall, curved windows wink at each other across the first floor. A wide, grand staircase descends gracefully.

But Siwiec --- as if he is talking about a rascally puppy --- calls it a money pit. After 30 years of "nasty absentee landlordism," the house had seen too many generations of students and too many years of neglect. Large amounts of wood on the exterior needed to be replaced, the entire exterior needed painting, the roof was in bad shape, the interior hardwood floors were giving off splinters, and one-third of the balusters in the main unit's staircase were broken or simply gone.

            Siwiec and Palmer put in painstaking amounts of time, patience, and money to bring the house back to glowing condition. Palmer painted the entire interior --- including every fussy nook and cranny of the woodwork --- in calm, organic colors. The kitchen in the main unit (originally the house's mudroom) was completely transformed from a misarranged hallway with cupboards falling off their hinges into a efficient, gleaming galley.

            They replaced hardwood floors on the first floor and re-plastered the ceilings. Rugs, furniture, and light fixtures were carefully chosen and brought in to match the house's grand style. Siwiec and Palmer shudder with wonder and horror when contemplating that someone would put a drop ceiling in the kitchen, obscuring key structural details. But now the house's cosmetics again match its structural quality.

"You could parade elephants through the place," says Siwiec. "It's just that solid."

There is evidence that in its early life, the house was in good hands. Though Siwiec doesn't know who divided the house into its three units sometime after its initial construction, he does know that they did it with care.

"They just did the right things. They used all the really good material, so when you walk through it, you don't even realize that you're walking through something that shouldn't be."

Over the next year and a half, the couple hopes to add more living space, offices, and an exercise room in the massive attic. The basement (where stacks of unused doors and the remainder of a coal shoot lurk) will soon house a media room, complete with two-tiered seating and a wide-screen TV.

They shrug when asked how they knew what to do with an old house in need of repair.

"It's having a good eye and knowing what you want to do," Siwiec says. Those of us who wish we lived in a flawlessly restored, turn-of-century mansion hope that's all it takes, but we doubt it.

In This Guide...

  • In with the old

    It's possible that the rumors are true: They just don't build things like they used to. As you'll see in the following pages, people are restoring old homes, reclaiming old records for art, picking up old furniture from the side of the road, and essentially tossing that whole "new is better" thing out the window.

  • Reversing time

    The ticks and whirs of dozens of clocks --- a gentle but bustling presence --- follow you as you walk through Fran and John Sadden's 1830 cobblestone house. When asked how many there are, Fran looks around and sighs: "a lot."

  • There was treasure beneath the Marlite

    Even after all the work Philip and Harriette Greaser put into unearthing, stripping, and cleaning the woodwork in their house, they are very forgiving of the people who at one time tried to cover it. "It was the style," Philip says.

  • Home sweet homes in the making

    Bill Owen, a graduate student living in Rochester between his semesters at Goddard College in Vermont, wanted to put music on his walls. Instead of buying posters of favorite bands or concerts, he bought records.


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