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Eddie Black restoring his boyhood home

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By Ron Benningfield

Country singer Miranda Lambert has a popular song out now, “The House that Built Me,” about a woman who goes back to the home of her childhood to vicariously relive the precious memories that she formed there.

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In a way, local home restorer Eddie Black is doing the same thing as he repairs and preserves a historic home on Greensburg Street in Hodgenville, a house that, like Lambert, “built him.”

“I am so thankful that God brought me back to LaRue County,” said Black. “When I first started restoring an upstairs window of this old house and looking in to where I lived and played as a boy, I couldn’t help but cry.”

This house, like any that Black restores, is much more than a residence to him.  He respects the individual history of the home and seeks to return its condition to the time it was new. Much like an artist who, with brush in hand, sees the end result even before he’s finished, so Black sees his work. 

“The house is my canvas and my goal is not ‘to fix it up,’ but to restore it to the point that anyone walking by can look at it and actually be looking back to the period in which it was built,” he said.

This particular house had a storied history long before Black lived there. D.H. Smith, a Hodgenville attorney who served as a state senator and U.S. congressman, started construction in 1885 and moved into the 12-room house in 1887.

The two-story residence was built in Queen Anne style which Black said is characterized by a turret being included in construction. It was built with the many kinds of available lumber on hand – hand-split cedar shake shingles, pine weatherboarding, poplar window sills and porch posts. Its fir doors included decorative stained glass.

Like any structure, the house showed weather damage over the years. In fact, in 1968 when Black’s late father, Clifton, and his mother, Jean, purchased the house from Jake and Nell Ovesen, it needed maintenance and Black’s mother knew just the people to help her do it.

“I was a teenager and Mom would make me and my brother Wayne stay in after school to strip wallpaper,” Black said. “Some rooms had as many as 13 layers of wallpaper over the plaster.”

Thus started a restoration project that continued through his graduation from LaRue County High School in 1971 until he moved to Ohio in 1992. During that time, the house, with its 12-foot ceilings and winding stairways, was included in the Christmas Open House tours, and it also yielded some surprises.

“When we took some of the old trim down, we uncovered a set of pocket doors (those that slide back into the walls instead of swinging open),” said Black.  “I could picture Mr. Smith closing those doors to the parlor to give him and whoever he was meeting with some privacy as they conducted business in that room.”

His mother sold the house in 1998, and in September 2006, the current owners, Don and Martha Costello and her sister, Nancy Conner, purchased it.

Those two ladies observed Black, who had moved back to LaRue County in 2005, restoring buildings in downtown Hodgenville. They contracted with him to restore their house, a task that he was more than glad to accept.

“The main culprit to a house is water damage,” Black said. Water had damaged shingles, windows, porch and many of the ‘fish scales’ that covered the turret and house front.

“My plan was, and is to restore it in phases,” he said, explaining that whenever possible, a restorer will reuse the original wood, substituting new wood only as a last resort. That meant a lot of scraping. 

“I even took the counterweights out of the windows, added new sash cords, stripped every clapboard and other painted surface to bare wood and rebuilt,” he said. 

The first phase included his replacing the balcony roof, restoring the balcony cap and hand cutting over 1,000 Western Red cedar replacement fish scales.

In phase two, as he replaced rusted out galvanized upstairs’ gutters, he found that water had been leaking, unnoticed, in between walls. 

“I realigned hidden gutters, replaced rotted moldings, removed, repaired, reglazed and reinstalled the glass,” he said.

For phase three, which began last fall, he has been restoring the porch, including its 100-pound poplar columns. So that he could work in bad weather as well as good, and to minimize the possibility of any lead escaping as he stripped layer upon layer of decades-old paint from the original wood clapboards and posts, he built a plastic cover that extended over the entire porch area.

“Every historic house, every building, has a character, just as every person has a personality,” he said. “As people look at a home I have restored as close as I can to its original appearance, I want them also to be able to see not only what the house looked like when new, but also to see the character of that house.”

“That’s why I can’t help but get emotional as I work on these homes, and it’s also why I love every minute of what I’m doing,” he said.