Its doors propped open, the battering sounds of construction poured onto West Third Street from within what is known as Legacy House last week.
Abandoned for 20 years, the two-story building in Lincoln Park had been many things since it was built in 1910, including a women’s hat store, or millinery.
But until the city of Duluth gave the building to Ecolibrium3 in 2017, it was just another boarded-up, blighted property — a bastion for neighborhood pigeons, with no hope for the future.
Now, it’s being reborn as housing for the poverty fighters from AmeriCorps VISTA.
"Legacy House can be a part of removing blight and an example of how damaged properties can be rehabilitated and bring new life to the community," said Hayley Cormack, an AmeriCorps VISTA leader serving locally from Ohio.
Started by President John F. Kennedy, one can think of AmeriCorps as a domestic Peace Corps with its members working to eradicate poverty through community project-work.
Ecolibrium3 runs the AmeriCorps VISTA program locally and has for five years, starting with 10 members and currently operating with a cohort of 24 members.
In August, when a new cycle begins, that figure will jump to 41. Currently, its “vistas,” as they’re called, are working on things such as vaccination efforts, and training farmers to build food sovereignty on the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Its members are paid a stipend of around $13,000 during their year of service — making escalating housing costs a barrier for some folks who may want to join in their post-high school or college years, but can’t afford rent taking up 60% of modest earnings.
"It can prevent people from choosing to do national service, which is an opportunity and a privilege," Cormack said.
Ecolibrium3, or Eco3, is a neighborhood nonprofit which serves as a hub for solutions related to sustainability, energy, health and equity. For Eco3, the development of Legacy House was a natural fit.
“What we love about Legacy House is the fact that we have these community service volunteers who will be able to affordably live in the community they’re serving,” said Jodi Slick, founder and CEO of Eco3. “Legacy House meets many of our mission points — service, affordable housing and redevelopment here in Lincoln Park."
When the News Tribune visited Legacy House last week, apprentices from the Hermantown-based Carpenters Training Institute were crawling all over the project. They were installing the steel-studded framework for four bedrooms upstairs, and a fifth, wheelchair-accessible, bedroom and bath on the first floor.
The carpenters union will be followed later this summer by training plumbers, electricians and window glaziers scheduled to donate their time and skills to the project.
“It’s hands-on, real-life experience and they get to give back to the community,” carpenters union instructor Joel Stone said. “It’s good for them; chances are they wouldn’t have gone and framed an 800-square-foot ceiling at the training center.”
The property had last been sold in 2006 for $47,000. A man had wanted to renovate and live in the house, which is formally a duplex, despite its many commercial iterations. But sources say he found love and moved away, allowing the property to slip into disrepair and the city’s hands.
Legacy House resides on a narrow 25-foot-wide lot, and is only separated by a few feet on either side from its neighbors.
“It’s too small a lot to rebuild on, so by renovating it we’re able to keep some of the neighborhood density, and keep an old property serving the neighborhood instead of being an empty lot,” said Lucas Giese, VISTA program coordinator for Eco3.
Giese started out in Duluth as a vista himself. He’s greatly responsible for the community solar garden along Lower Michigan Street.
“He doesn’t do a lot of bragging, but Lucas is awesome,” Slick said. “I hired him, and now he runs the VISTA program (locally).”
During the walkthrough, Giese and Cormack noted a large hole in the second floor that’s been stabilized, and described work to gut the property as having started with scraping out bird excrement.
“We were in full hazmat suits,” Giese said.
A new roof was installed last year by the Duluth-based contractor Jamar, which provided a $10,000 discount for the work.
Last fall, Cormack began a $40,000 fundraising effort to match a $40,000 challenge grant from Duluth’s Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation.
“We just finished raising funds to match that in April,” Cormack said.
The list of organizations pitching in to make Legacy House a reality could fit on a drugstore receipt. The list of financial donors is even longer.
Cormack and Giese introduced Curtis Martinson, of Gardner Builders, one of the project’s heaviest lifters.
“Gardner Builders has been helping us out for a number of years now on this project, shepherding us through the process of design and now managing some of the different construction elements,” Giese said. “Curtis is a huge help, our guiding spirit.”
“It’s personal to me,” said Martinson, who completed apprenticeship through the Carpenters Training Institute early in his own career. “It’s been a huge collaboration within the unions with each other, coordinating when people can come — and working with their schedules. They have a fairly regimented schedule for what they need for their training.”
Because of that, the project is taking longer than a typical reconstruction. The project can sit dormant for weeks at a time. Apprentices are scheduled to work when they need particular aspects of hands-on training.
“At the end of the summer we hope to be at a point where it’s habitable,” Giese said.
Until then, it’ll remain a symbol of resilience.
“Legacy House can be a part of removing blight and an example of how damaged properties can be rehabilitated and bring new life to the community,” Cormack said.
Asked about the name, Legacy House, Cormack said it reflects on the cycles of vistas who helped with the effort but won't get to see personal benefits of it.
"It's a privilege to serve in Duluth," Cormack said.
If individuals want to support Legacy House, there are still materials needed to finish construction. Donations can be made at ecolibrium3.org.