Sandy Popham and her family were on vacation in Mexico on the night of Jan. 14, 2015, when she woke up in a panic.
She didn't know why she was so distraught. Maybe it was the gnawing feeling that she hadn't unplugged the coffeemaker before they left.
Within hours, she would get the terrible news. A fire had swept through her family's historic Duluth home that night, causing extensive damage. But it wasn't the coffeemaker.
The fire started by accident in a nearby chicken coop where there was a heat lamp. It spread to the house's sunroom, then shot up three floors and burned through the roof while also spreading through the rest of the house. The damage to the exterior of the century-old house at 3531 E. Fourth St. was repairable, but the interior was destroyed. Nobody was home at the time of the fire which claimed the family's two cats and the chickens in the coop.
The house's beautiful woodwork, built-in dining room hutch and hardwood floors couldn't be saved. Most of the Pophams' furniture and their belongings were lost. Charred and blackened by soot, the rooms were beyond repair. The Duluth Fire Department estimated damages at more than $500,000.
The only option Popham and her husband, Geoff, considered was to rebuild the inside. They had a comprehensive homeowners insurance policy that covered historic restoration. But the couple didn't just have the home's three floors gutted and reconstructed. They had the house restored to its pre-fire appearance, going as far as to duplicate the original woodwork, fireplaces, built-ins, windows and other features. Today, the rooms look much as they did before the fire.
For their efforts, the Pophams will receive a preservation award Monday at the Duluth Preservation Alliance's 38th annual awards celebration at the Duluth Folk School in Lincoln Park. Award recipients are chosen from nominations and projects that come to the attention of board members, such as a new garage built to match a home's historic architecture, said Mike Poupore, the group's president.
"We're always looking for people who are busy preserving their homes," he said. "It could be anything from painting the exterior to replacing or rebuilding their front porch. But the key is that things being done match the character of the period their home was built."
When it comes to restoration efforts, the Pophams' house is a standout. The 2,500-square-foot American Foursquare sports classic Craftsman features such as low pitched roof, deep eaves, horizontal lines, built-in cabinets, large fireplaces and thick baseboards and crown moldings.
"Many people would have walked away from the devastation that the fire created," Poupore said. But the Pophams rebuilt their home for the better in a historical way, rather than use the fire as an excuse to rebuild with modern features, he said.
Since the house was built in 1916, only three families have lived there. The first was August A. Bodin, head of A.A. Bodin and Sons, a local paving and construction company. The house stayed in the Bodin Family until the mid-1970s. The second family lived there about 20 years before the Pophams bought it in 1998, when they moved from Hawaii to Duluth with their three children. Sandy Popham is a medical doctor; Geoff Popham is a banker.
Assessing the damage
After buying the house, the Pophams did some remodeling and updating. They had the wood floors refinished, remodeled the kitchen and basement bathroom, upgraded plumbing, removed wallpaper, repainted all the rooms and installed a new roof. They had one project left - expanding and renovating the upstairs master bathroom - when the fire occurred.
Within a couple of days of the fire, Sandy Popham walked through the house with Lonny Anderson, owner of Heartwood Construction which secured and boarded up the site and was the project's general contractor. The two determined what could be salvaged and what couldn't.
"Seeing it was pretty awful," Sandy recalled. "Everything was really black, the windows, everything was covered in soot. You're looking around in shock because this is your life."
The outside of the brick and stucco house didn't look that bad, but the inside was beyond repair. Moving forward, the goal was to maintain as much of the character of the house as possible. And where compromise was needed because of today's engineering, construction techniques or building codes, the Pophams would opt for more energy-efficient choices, Anderson said.
The demolition that gutted the home's three floors took a couple of months. But the reconstruction didn't start for about a year. For Anderson, researching the seemingly endless details of what could be rebuilt, how to do it and the costs involved took more than six months. It became clear that recreating the original well crafted features in the 100-year-old home would be challenging and expensive. Duplicating all the house's woodwork, for example, couldn't be accomplished in a trip to Menards. To match the exact profile of the wood trim, it would have to be custom-made, Anderson said.
Getting the insurance authorization for such an ambitious restoration took time and delayed its start.
Meanwhile, while the Pophams' house was unlivable, the couple lived in a rented condominium. Their children were grown and living elsewhere. Sandy Popham remembers being constantly on the go those first two weeks after the fire and getting little sleep. She returned to work after only two days off. Everywhere she went, people wanted to talk about the fire. She didn't.
"Whenever something like this happens, you're in so much shock," she said. "It didn't hit me for months. You're so busy at the time. There's never any time to deal with it, no time to think. You're so busy doing what you need to do. You get through it because every day you get up and do what needs to be done."
When Sandy would go to her boarded-up house to salvage what she could of their belongings, the damp, moldy smoke smell would sicken her. She was able to save jewelry, dishes, photos, scrapbooks and some antiques. Clothes had to be tossed. Most of the furniture had to go. But the dining room table was cleaned, painted and later used as a craft table.
Her husband says the stuff doesn't matter.
"No one was in the house," Geoff Popham said of the fire. "No one was hurt. We are all alive. The rest of the stuff is stuff."
Moreover, the number of people offering them help and showing concern after the fire was heartwarming, he said.
"We were surrounded by a lot of family, friends and professionals to help us deal with it," he said.
By summer 2016, work to rebuild the home's gutted interior and repair the exterior was well underway. The home's framing was repaired. Electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems were redesigned. The house was insulated. And plasterboard walls - a compromise for traditional lathe plastering - went up.
All the wood floors were replaced. The woodwork and built-in dining room hutch were rebuilt to match the originals. The staircase, many of the original interior doors were saved, along with leaded and stained glass windows. The brick fireplaces and wood mantels were rebuilt. All the windows were replaced with new energy efficient ones that look like the originals. The sunroom was rebuilt. The kitchen, which had been remodeled before the fire, was redone the same way. Bathrooms were renovated, while other rooms were returned to their original condition.
"The house came together slowly," Sandy Popham said. "At first it was fixing things. All of a sudden walls were going up, tiles laid and windows put in, bringing in the light. It was nice."
The reconstruction took about 10 months. Anderson found most of the specialized skills, knowledge and materials needed through local sub-contractors and vendors, including some he had never used before.
"In this business you have a network of tradesmen who are local, and they are a good resource to find others," he explained.
While Heartwood Construction has done many fire, water and storm damage projects and has worked on historic homes, Anderson said the Popham house was the largest, most extensive and detailed project his company has done.
"We have done historic renovation but not to this scale. It really was a journey to do," he said, adding that a big part of its success was working closely with the Pophams.
"There was a definite sense of fulfillment when it was done," he said. "I was really happy for the homeowners."
Despite some bumps in the road, it all worked out for the Pophams who are happy with the work done. They have been enjoying their home again since reconstruction was completed two years ago. They credit their homeowners insurance - which covered historic replacement and their living expenses while the house was unlivable and being restored - for making it happen.
The experience has prompted Geoff Popham to encourage others to make sure they have good home insurance that covers replacement costs and living expenses for a substantial period if displaced by fire or other damage.
"What kind of policy you have and how much help you get is huge," he said.
In his work, Anderson says he meets many homeowners who are underinsured.
"A lot of people insure houses for their real estate value, not the cost of replacement," Anderson said. "There's no way anyone can rebuild a house for the real estate value. It really should be based on the cost to rebuild which is more."
Candace Renalls is a retired News Tribune reporter who writes freelance stories for the paper.
If you go
The 2019 Annual Preservation and Centennial Awards Celebration will be held Monday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Duluth Folk School, 1917 W. Superior St. Doors open at 6 p.m. The Duluth Preservation Alliance will present awards to nine home and commercial building owners who have preserved or restored the historical character of their properties. Several well-maintained century-old buildings with their original features intact also will be recognized. The event is free and open to the public, but attendees are asked to reserve spots at www.duluthpreservation.org.
Bent Paddle Taproom, 1832 W. Michigan St.
This former warehouse was built in 1908 for Enger and Olson Furniture Company which operated until 1971. Converting the empty warehouse into the craft brewery's taproom required installing an entire heating and ventilation system from scratch, extensive plumbing and electrical upgrades and adding a sprinkler system. The original brick walls and timber posts and beams are part of the decor and the old loading dock serves at the patio deck.
Duluth Folk School, 1917 W. Superior St.
Built around 1915 to house the Minnesota Tea Company, this building has been given new life by Bryan French, Tim Bates and Carmel DeMaioribus. Refurbishing included repairing the wood floors, a new facade, new roof with better drainage, new plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems, creating a commercial kitchen, skylight, studio and office space and showcasing the period elevator.
DeWitt-Seitz Building, 394 Lake Ave. S.
During his 19 years as owner of this tall 1909 building, William Rogers has continued the previous owner's vision to convert the former furniture and mattress factory into a bustling mixed-use complex. Rogers has converted more upper floors into office space. Repairs and renovations have included tuckpointing, new windows throughout, a new roof, storefront renovations, floor replacements, a security system, fireproofing and a sprinkler system.
Redstone Lofts, 1509 E. Superior St.
This three-story redstone was built as side-by-side duplex in 1892 by renowned architect Oliver Traphagen. Traphagen lived there a few years followed by Chester Congdon before Glensheen was built. A catastrophic fire in 2014 made its demolition a possibility. But while the interior was destroyed, the sandstone and brick shell was structurally sound. A complete renovation by developer Dean Jablonsky created 12 luxury loft rental units, featuring expos
ed brick walls and original fireplaces.
1704 E. Eighth St.
Owners Stephanie and Kyler Anderson have done a series of improvements to their 1920 expansion bungalow since buying it two years ago. The exterior has been meticulously scraped, sanded, primed and painted. Upper and lower rear porches have been fixed up for use. Interior walls have been repaired and painted. The kitchen was modified, with the cabinets refurbished and reused.
4301 Robinson St.
This expansion bungalow built in 1911 boasts Craftsman features inside and out. Current owners Kim and Mark Kroll stripped the interior wallpaper, removed paneling, repaired plaster and painted all the walls and ceilings. Missing and damaged molding and broken stair spindles were replaced. Plumbing to the kitchen and bathroom were replaced. The sewer pipe was relined, and a new sump pump system installed.
125 W. Kent Road
This house was built in 1921 by Priscilla and Victor Huot, owners of a downtown store that sold candy, ice cream, pastries and soda. Current owners Christopher and Kristin Hill have removed wallpaper and repainted walls, restored plaster cameo reliefs and added period fixtures. They removed the suspended kitchen ceiling to reveal an original curved art-deco ceiling feature. Bathroom remodeling included installing a repurposed cast iron sink. Meanwhile, the home's first floor woodwork remains untouched and pristine.
3531 East First Street
Built in 1913, this house was designed by Peter M. Olsen, who also designed the Salter School. The first owner was a real estate loan and insurance firm president. Since 2014, owner Benjamin Koch has made numerous improvements. They include repairing plaster and painting throughout the house, installing new period-style wallpaper, refinishing the hardwood floors. Woodwork was replicated, the wiring and plumbing updated and mechanical system improved. More renovations are planned.
3531 E. Fourth St.
After a 2015 fire destroyed the inside of this 1916 Craftsman home, owners Geoff and Sandy Popham chose to rebuild it. Gutted to the studs, reconstruction recreated the rooms to their pre-fire appearance. Plaster walls were installed and hardwood floors replaced. Woodwork, fireplaces and a built-in hutch were rebuilt, while the staircase, stained and leaded glass windows and some doors were salvaged. New energy-efficient, period-style windows match the originals.
Source: Duluth Preservation Alliance