Emily Reilly keeps a pair of Victorian-era lace-up ladies’ shoes by her front door. With their pointy toes, high tops and worn-down black leather, the shoes belonged to a witch who flew through the house one Halloween night and accidentally dropped them.
At least that’s what she tells the grandchildren.
The real story behind the shoes might be just as horrifying – at least to people unlike Reilly and her husband, Larry, who take more than a measure of delight in fixing up old houses.
Actually, the shoes were found in a third-floor bedroom in the couple’s Van Wert, Ohio, home – one shoe in the rubble of plaster and lath that had fallen off the water-drenched ceiling and the other behind a wall.
And that’s only one of the terrors that confronted the Reillys after they bought the abandoned three-story brick structure in 2002.
There’s the spooky story of the cat skeleton Larry found wrapped up in dead ivy vines in the basement and hauled upstairs to show a suitably startled Emily. And the random bats that fluttered through the only room the couple could live in – its doorways covered with blankets to keep in the warmth from a space heater – during their first months of restoration.
One day I was out here in the kitchen, and he was upstairs working in one of the apartments, and I heard him say, Get out of here!’ I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, Emily, 65, says.
Then he said, No, not you. There’s a possum underneath this kitchen sink!
The critter ambled off, nonchalant as you please, Larry says, like How dare you disturb me!’
Today, however, the Reillys’ prominently situated home at 402 S. Washington St. is rather a pleasant place – from its pediment-style front porch to its mansard-style roof and remodeled kitchen with exposed brick walls, original plank floor and even a reproduction of an antique stove.
The Reillys have done everything they can to reconvert the house – expanded with a first-floor addition and divvied into three apartments around the time of World War II – into a single-family dwelling that resembles what it was when built.
The house dates to 1876, when its original owner, Dr. Adam Nelson Krout, had his office in what is now the home’s dining room, with its high ceiling and huge bay window facing West Maple Avenue.
Krout, wealthy and socially prominent, built the home in Second Empire style, a French tribute to the era of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Empress Josephine that had a brief burst of popularity, mostly in cities in the eastern United States, around the time of the Civil War.
Second Empire homes’ major characteristic is an unusual roofline, which in the Reillys’ house consists of multicolored, patterned slate tiles. They cover a portion of the third-floor walls as well as the top of the house.
Emily says the roof, with its modified dormer windows, gives Second Empire homes a stately appearance, but it actually was a way to cut costs. The story under the roof was considered an attic, she says, and it wasn’t taxed, even if it contained living space.
Her home’s attic now houses two children’s bedrooms, one dedicated to little boys and one to little girls. In the latter, dolls from her childhood look down from a shelf and stuffed bunnies and bears can join each other for tea around a fanciful, child-sized chalkboard-topped table with legs that look like carrots.
Although Emily says she hasn’t stuck to pure Victoriana, many of the home’s furnishings came from a previous generation of family members or estate sales – an oak icebox in the dining room, a wind-up music box in the master bedroom, a wicker bird cage on the living room coffee table and white wicker baby buggies in a guest bedroom.
Larry, 70, a retired factory worker who now works part time in real estate, has done much of the heavy lifting required by old-house fix-ups, such as turning a back porch into a laundry room and relocating an original claw-foot tub from an upstairs bedroom to the downstairs powder room.
He’s the one who dealt with the icicles hanging on the inside of a now-demolished closet, threw layers of flooring and stained wallpaper into metal trash bins and carried old radiators into the backyard in the snow.
For a while, the yard there looked like a dinosaur graveyard, Emily says.
But not all the finds in the house were horrifying – on the third floor, the couple uncovered the original railing for part of the home’s central staircase, which had been boarded over.
The railing slipped right in to its original spot, she says.
Even the finding of the shoes might not be completely upsetting. Emily says she’s read that old shoes were sometimes left in the walls of houses for good luck.
She says she’s often felt lucky to have the house – and adds that she lives by the motto inscribed on a chalkboard over her downstairs bathroom door – to disguise the fact that the door lost its glass transom who knows when.
Everything has its beauty, it reads, but not everyone sees it.