Shortly after they acquired their multistory, center-hall colonial house on Chelmsford Avenue, the Van Hecke family faced a harrowing dilemma.
John, the husband and father, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a wasting disease that eventually forces its victims into a wheelchair. Their new home, with its many steps, was exactly the opposite of what the doctor might have ordered for a man who would soon find himself too tired to walk upstairs.
“We spent a fair amount of time agonizing if we should move to a one-story house in the suburbs,” said John’s wife, Betsy. The suburbs, that is, where the houses are as low and flat as Betsy’s tone of voice when she considers the lack of attraction that suburban life held for the young family.
The Van Heckes loved their house and their St. Anthony Park neighborhood. Eventually, they decided to stay where they were, but with a few changes.
The result of those changes was a three-story, handicapped-accessible addition to their house, plus a showplace front-yard garden that effectively transforms their wheelchair ramp from an adaptive mobility structure to an elegant counterpoint to the surrounding flowers.
Visitors will get a chance to examine their work on October 27, when the Van Hecke residence will be open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. as part of the 2007 St. Anthony Park Home Tour.
The Van Hecke home will join other houses on display because of recent remodeling projects or for their historic or architectural importance.
One noteworthy addition to this year’s tour is the 1844 Old Muskego Church, one of the oldest houses of Christian worship in the Upper Midwest. The church, which was built by hand by Norwegian immigrant families, originally stood near Racine, Wisconsin. In 1904, the structure was disassembled and moved with painstaking care to its present site on the campus of Luther Seminary.
The Van Hecke family is enthusiastic about the results of their remodeling effort, but no one would say that the project, which included installing an elevator with four stops to link John to all floors of the house plus the garage, was easy.
“We lived in the house during construction,” says Betsy, “and it was every bit as bad as I was told it would be.”
She developed an eye infection from drywall dust, and to save money she did all the painting herself. By the time she finished, her do-it-yourself skills had improved so much that she could no longer tolerate the less-than-perfect work in the first room she’d worked on. So she painted that room all over again to bring it up to the standards of the rest of the house.
“We were happy that our kids were in school while the really horrible stuff was going on,” Betsy says. But then came the unseasonable cold snap at the end of September. “One night, the entire back of the house was open to the elements.”
In addition to the normal hassles of construction, the Van Heckes had to do some careful planning for the future. Things that are difficult for John to bend down for now will become easier to reach when he is eventually confined to a wheelchair — factors they had to consider when establishing counter heights and the placement of doorknobs and drawer pulls.
Planting a frontyard garden was partly an effort to distract the eye from the newly built wheelchair ramp, but it was also a labor of love for Betsy, who, despite working full-time as an attorney, describes herself as a “huge gardener” who tends her flower beds for relaxation.
Now that the work is done, the family is delighted with the result. “It’s an accessible house that looks like anybody’s house,” says Betsy. “We’re home a lot and we wanted to really enjoy our home.”
While the Van Hecke family celebrates the transformation of their house, Ann Brey takes quiet pleasure in the unchanging quality of hers. Brey’s landmark Queen Anne Victorian near Langford Park remains much the same as it was in 1946, when she, her widowed mother and her five nearly grown siblings moved in.
“I had just finished college when we moved in,” says Brey, who was the oldest of the brood. “The house is very well-built and it was spotless when we came. We’ve never made any drastic changes in it.”
The few changes that were made can be accounted for more by the march of time than any alteration of taste or fashion. The Brey garage was once a stable with wooden floors for the horses and accommodation for the chickens that belonged to an earlier owner. Instead of city water, the house once used a brick cistern, which was cleverly located beneath the stable so that the horses’ drinking supply wouldn’t be interrupted in freezing weather.
Built between 1889 and 1891, the house at one time belonged to a branch of the Pillsbury family. They left a historic millstone beside the garage, says Brey.
Although Brey notes proudly that the beautiful pocket doors of the original dining room are still in place “and never warped,” her favorite memories are not of the room itself but of what it contained.
“My favorite times were when we were all at home at mealtimes, having lots of good arguments,” she says. “My brother loved to argue politics. He would take whatever side the rest of us weren’t on.”
Over the years, all of the siblings but one brother moved away and established families of their own. Brey, a retired teacher, and her younger brother, Paul, now look forward to milestone birthdays “like a 75th” that serve as an occasion to gather their multigenerational family once more in the much-loved dining room with the elegant pocket doors.
Advance tickets for the Home Tour can be purchased at Bibelot, Micawber’s and The Little Wine Shoppe. Tickets are also available at the St. Anthony Park Community Council’s Web site: www.sapcc.org. On the day of the event, tickets will be sold at the St. Anthony Park Library (2245 Como Ave.). Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 on the day of the tour, with proceeds to benefit the St. Anthony Park Community Council.