Home & Garden

Couple take on historic renovation of 1863 home in the Amana Colonies

Evan and Elisha TePoel are restoring this home in South Amana, which was built in 1863 and used as a communal home and h
Evan and Elisha TePoel are restoring this home in South Amana, which was built in 1863 and used as a communal home and harness shop. Photographed on Saturday, July 18, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Elisha and Evan TePoel imagine their South Amana home with a large, open-concept kitchen. Two laundry rooms: one on the main floor and another upstairs near the three family bedrooms. A second-floor master bedroom suite with a large bathroom and walk-in closet.

They see high ceilings with hand-hewn beams harvested from local forests. Walls with exposed original red brick or thick, live-edge planks. Sun shining through multi-pane windows onto original, refinished hardwood floors.

What was once the South Amana Harness Shop will be their family’s forever home — a historic, one-of-a-kind showplace — someday.

The 1863 home they bought in 2018 still is a few years away from the “after” of renovation.

The TePoels knew what they were taking on when they bought the property — a large home in need of pricey structural repairs. The sizable three-quarter-acre lot also included two, historic outbuildings.

“We’ve always wanted to renovate an old house,” said Evan, who works in IT. His wife, Elisha, works as a lighting designer. “This opportunity came our way, and we jumped on it,” Evan said.

First, the infrastructure

Renovating an older home can come with major challenges, so the TePoels have tried to prioritize the tasks at hand.

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“The biggest thing with old houses is you have to think, ‘What’s crucial,’” she said.

At first, there was no running water in the house. Elisha, 38, and Evan, 40, and their two daughters lived in a camper parked on the property for about two months.

The previous owner had installed a new septic system.

Evan TePoel and a buddy drained and removed two bulky water heaters. They installed a new water heater, whole-house water filter and water softener system. Then came new furnaces and air conditioners — two of each to adequately heat and cool the 2,742-square-foot home.

During the renovation, the couple has worked to comply with the Historic Architectural Guidelines mandated by the Amana Colonies Land Use District (aclud.org).

The district, for example, restricts roofing to cedar or asphalt in brown or medium to dark gray, so the TePoels chose Storm Grey by Malarkey. Because of the roof’s steep pitch, they hired professionals to install new shingles on the three structures. During the tear-off, roofers found three layers of shingles, including a base layer of wood from the early 1900s. Replacing that was an added expense.

The TePoels hired masons to repair four leaking chimneys on the main house; there are two more on the outbuildings. Although the Amana district approved the removal of the chimneys, the TePoels hired masons to cover the brick with stucco — also approved.

“We have them up there, so the house looks historically accurate,” Evan TePoel said. “So I have some very heavy historic ornaments on the roof.”

Then, the district approved, and covered some of the costs, of historically accurate quarter round gutters of galvanized steel.

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“It’s nice to have gutters that function,” Evan TePoel said. “Finding people to put them on was not easy.”

The original gutters drained near the dirt-floor basement. Every time it rained, the house smelled musty.

Fearing the moisture would deteriorate the original beams below and the flooring above, the TePoels decided to install a poured concrete floor. They talked about doing the work themselves but ended up hiring a concrete contractor with experience working on Amana homes. They also added a new sump pump, drains and support beams.

Indoor projects

It’s not always easy to get a contractor who’s willing or able to work on a 157-year-old home.

The TePoels take on what they can, when they can, and as their budget allows. Friends have often pitched in or helped get them started.

For now, the family of four lives in a maze of rooms on the main floor. The plan is to complete the three bedrooms and master bath on the second floor, then remodel the main level.

Their daughters Fiona, 12, and Isobel, 10, have mixed feelings about living in the old house.

It’s fun to play hide-and-seek in the big house, but they miss some of the modern conveniences of their last house.

Elisha TePoel is eager to add some “pretty” to the home but stays focused for now on removing what’s not pretty or practical.

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“We’re trying to get the big stuff done so we can work on the décor,” she said. “Then, we have those two outbuildings that are projects in themselves.”

Downstairs, they plan to refinish the original flooring and antique door latches. The trim work, insulation, drywall and much of the plumbing are projects they can handle. They’ll hire a structural engineer for advice about opening the wall between the galley kitchen and the current dining room.

Upstairs, they have tackled removing old insulation between the attic floor and the dropped ceiling in the bedrooms.

The second floor has 1950s laminate tile nailed to the subflooring.

“We’re in the process right now of removing a hundred million nails,” Elisha TePoel said.

Someday, they’ll get rid of the bedroom ceilings to expose the beams. The knotty pine nailed to the walls in the 1950s also will go.

The couple estimates it will take another three years to complete the projects on their to-do list.

But there is an upside: They often find treasures as they work — two 40-foot-long tree trunks used as beams; handmade square-head nails; handwritten numbers on attic floorboards; the original Amish blue wall color behind lathe and plaster. There are numerous finger impressions and initials of long-dead workers on the original red bricks.

“We’ll have a house with history,” Elisha TePoel said. “You can’t buy that in a new home.”

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Stepping back in time in the Amana Colonies

The Amana Colonies were first founded in the 1850s by a group of German immigrants who were hoping to escape religious persecution.

The word Amana comes from the Bible, Song of Solomon 4:8 and means to “remain true.” (Although they sound similar, residents of Amana are not Amish.)

The villages of Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana, and Middle Amana were settled, each a mile or two apart. In 1861, the village of Homestead was added to the fold, giving the Colony access to the railroad.

The new residents established a communal lifestyle, living and working together for decades, until the Amana Colonies set aside its communal way of life in 1932, during the Great Depression.

The seven villages of the Amanas were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

The South Amana home that Evan and Elisha TePoel bought from the Walter Leichsenring family was originally built in 1863 as a communal home for two to four families.

A traditional Amana home features a central staircase that leads to the four-square second floor: four bedrooms on a central hallway.

The original home didn’t include a kitchen or dining room because the Amana residents ate in communal kitchens. There was no bathroom. Outhouses were, well, outdoors.

The TePoels aren’t exactly sure who added the one-story harness shop to the property or when; their best guess is the 1880s. A wood shop was added about 1900 and an icehouse in the early 1900s, before 1932. Evan uses the icehouse as a gym for now; it still has a two-seater outhouse.

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You can follow the progress of the TePoels’ home renovation at ouramanahome.com, on Facebook @ouramanahome or Instagram @ouramanahome.

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