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AT HOME: Home renovation setbacks don't deter Virginia woman

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- More than a century ago, Montague Harwood and her husband, Washington William, stood admiring their freshly built Colonial Revival home on Huntington Avenue in the old north end of Newport News, Va.

Mary Kayaselcuk's home can be seen in Newport News, Va. Kayaselcuk has been renovating the 100-year-old house, trying to take it back to its original features. McClatchy Tribune

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- More than a century ago, Montague Harwood and her husband, Washington William, stood admiring their freshly built Colonial Revival home on Huntington Avenue in the old north end of Newport News, Va.

The 6,100-square-foot home with its two-story porch, stained-glass windows, large bedroom closets and upstairs ballroom embodied their standing in the community -- he as a successful merchant and she as an educator.

Now, 108 years later, Mary Kayaselcuk stands inside the mostly empty parlor of the same monstrous house wondering if maybe, just maybe, she's the reincarnation of Montague Harwood, herself.

"See, if I wear my hair up like this, I even look like her," Kayaselcuk says pointing to a portrait of Montague in the notebook where she keeps records of the house's history.

After pouring her life savings into purchasing the 26-room home five years ago, the site coordinator for historic Lee Hall Depot in Newport News, Va., has spent every spare moment scraping, sanding and painting to restore its original glory.


But she has years of work in front of her. The front porch is gone, as is the carriage house that used to sit in the backyard. The wooden gutters are rotted, and the front door is covered in plastic until it can be redone.

"I managed to buy the house in the worst shape at the height of the market," she says. "But there was just something calling out to me. Every family that has lived here has had something strange about them. And I'm just one more in the quirky cast of characters."

At 51 years old, Kayaselcuk considers this project her life's calling, and nothing is more important to her than restoring the house to reflect the late Victorian era. Everything from the maple, oak and heart pine flooring to the 6-foot-wide ice box in the kitchen and the elaborately engraved toilets will look as if the Harwoods never left.

She's had some historic renovation experience when she oversaw the restoration of the historic Newsome House in Newport News from 1989 to 1991. But the work has been long and tough for Kayaselcuk and her boyfriend, Bernie Bishop, who also spends his waking moments working on the Harwood house. They've experienced a variety of disasters, including setting the house on fire -- twice.

On the first day she took possession of the four-story home, the boiler failed and water came raining down from the third floor to the basement. Not too long afterward, an overloaded trash can fell on her foot, almost breaking her ankle.

Then came the first of the fires. While stripping paint with a heat gun on the two-story back porch, she ignited some dry leaves that were hidden under one of the shingles. Kayaselcuk and the house escaped with only a charred piece of trim.

But in what she calls her "Oops I Did It Again" moment, Kayaselcuk set the side porch ablaze with her heat gun. This time, the flames warranted a call to the fire department, who chopped through an upstairs bedroom, hallway and bathroom to make sure the fire didn't spread. Kayaselcuk was left with a demolished porch and even more walls to repair.

She's also learned the hard way that renting a lift is preferable to balancing sheet rock on your head.


Kayaselcuk's not sure if she'll ever finish restoring the house completely, but she doesn't regret her purchase. Right now, she's keeping her eye on a more attainable goal -- actually being able to move in.

"Our first hope is to get a toilet installed. After that we're going to celebrate World Toilet Day -- Nov. 19 -- with one grand flush," she says. "Maybe it will be this November."

Tips for do-it-yourselfers

It's all about the prep. You'll probably spend more time taping off the trim, spreading covers over the flooring and furniture and priming the walls than actually painting. But Kayaselcuk says all of the work beforehand ensures a clean finished product and prevents mini-disasters from happening in the meantime.

Protect the woodwork. If you have to sand the wall before painting, make sure you cover the woodwork. The granules that fly off of the sander can be ground into any nearby woodwork, causing unsightly bumps.

Watch out for that heat gun. Kayaselcuk jokingly says her heat gun should be permanently unplugged because of the two fires she's caused. But she's serious when she cautions against holding the gun in one place for too long. She also suggests keeping a bucket of water or fire extinguisher at your side.

Be thorough. Since Kayaselcuk's house is so old she didn't have difficulty peeling off the layers of wallpaper. But making sure all of the glue was scraped off was another matter. She spent days working on one room, but she recommends being thorough, because leftover glue can leave bumps.

Don't skimp on the paint. If you're going to spend the time painting, use a quality paint that's going to last.

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