Issues arise when updating old Duluth homes

A thud heard from down the stairs, the shuffle of feet, and an exasperated voice lets out a heavy sigh. The fridge will not fit. “In an old home everything is wonky,” said Nikki Olson, the owner of a 1926 Colonial style Congdon area home.

Holes to patch, rooms to paint, and leaky toilets are issues that many new homeowners encounter. But with all of the turn of the century homes in Duluth, many residents experience the woes of updating an older home.

“They made the doorways a lot narrower,” Olson said. “And we had a lot of trouble finding a fridge that would fit through the door. It was a nightmare, I was upstairs like, ‘please let them get it in.’”

Olson and her husband, Henry Eichman, have been working on updating their home for a few years and have found it to be both a difficult and rewarding experience.

“The biggest challenge of doing stuff in an old house is the unconventional sizes of materials,” Olson said. “Everything is smaller.”

The end result of the fridge fiasco was to take the hinges off both the door frame and the fridge in order to get it into the kitchen.

“Now the fit is so tight one of our cupboards doesn’t open,” Olson said.

In most modern homes, the size of doors and windows are standardized to accommodate for modern appliances. But in Olson’s home, the layout has not changed since 1926.

“We don’t use the home as they intended in 1926. We have the TV room in the dining room, and the dining room we put in the big living room. Our son’s room has a sink in the closet because it used to be a maids room. Not everything’s easy to fix.”

With all the issues that have come along with renovating an old home, Olson and her husband still find excitement in every new challenge.

“We love it,” Olson said. “We spend our extra time decorating or painting and so it definitely doesn't occur to me that things may be difficult for some people, because we really enjoy it.”

Many of the homes in Duluth were built between 1920 and 1950, leaving behind remnants of a lifestyle since passed.

“The dining room is set up very old school,” Olson said. “Where the buffet-table is supposed to go there’s one two-prong outlet in the whole room, that’s it.”

Olson now strings an extension cord to the dining room, now used as her family’s TV room, the extension cord is then hooked to a power strip that powers all the appliances in the room.

“I don’t think it’s a safe situation,” Olson said.

During the time that many of Duluth’s homes were built, knob and tube wiring was in use. If this wiring has remained untouched, it can still distribute power in a home. According to Home Inspections of Minnesota, knob and tube wiring is not always unsafe; installations must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If a home was built prior to 1950, it may have this style of wiring.

“We’ve avoided some of those things because of the fear of things not being up to code,” Olson said. “We still have two prong outlets. Putting lights in, or lamps, or vacuuming, is hard because we don’t have that many outlets.”

Olson said they have bought adapters to compensate for the missing prong. Olson does not have plans to rewiring her home anytime soon, because of the cost.

“We do a lot of things ourselves,” Olson said.

Olson documents her home renovations on a blog called “The Lovely Residents.” The blog started during her house hunt, and has progressed into a place to teach other bloggers and crafters the tricks of the upcycling trade.

“It’s mostly about being thrifty.”

Glen Filipovich, president of the Duluth Preservation Alliance, said that homeowners should always make sure their older homes have updated electrical systems, have had the foundation checked, and to make any necessary updates to the home. The catch is the line between a good renovation and going too far.

“We advocate for people to keep their original look of the house.” Filipovich said. “It’s usually more appropriate than putting on vinyl siding, taking off the front porch, or turning rooms that shouldn’t be bedrooms into bedrooms.”

Olson admits that her and her husband have felt the pressure of maintaining the character of the home.

“There’s a lot of pressure to keep it how it was even though some of it’s not my style,” Olson said. “We want to respect the architecture of the home but at the same time infuse our own style into it.”



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