The Journal Gazette
Sunday, February 28, 2016 5:48 am

Structurally sound, its future teeters

Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

Fort Wayne Realtor Joe Leksich has taken on houses in pretty dire shape, but the one he’s got now might take the cake.

Let’s put it this way: Although the building has been found structurally sound, it’s got every entrance boarded up, a roof that needs work, and, he said, raccoons living inside.

Leksich, owner of Ambitions Real Estate and a professional home restorer, saw a demolition sign on the front door a couple of months ago and decided he wasn’t going to let the mid-19th-century home of one of Fort Wayne’s early pioneers go quietly to the grave.

"I had actually looked at it years ago, and it needed a lot of work then," he said of the property at 815 W. Creighton Ave. known as the Fairfield-Nestel House. 

"I want to save the building," Leksich said. "I can’t stand to see the city tear it down."

Michael Galbraith, executive director of ARCH, Fort Wayne’s nonprofit historic preservation group, said the wood-frame house, which dates to around the time of the Civil War, has a colorful back story. But for ARCH and neighbors, the house also has been a headache of historic proportions.

One of only a handful of Italianate villas from the Victorian period remaining in Fort Wayne, the home is notable for its builder, Captain Asa Fairfield, a Maine sea captain who brought his fortune and family to Fort Wayne sometime before 1840. 

Fairfield farmed and ran canal boats on the Erie & Wabash Canal. And, yes, he’s one of the Fairfield family patriarchs for which Fairfield Avenue is named.

Subsequent residents were Charles W. Nestel and his sister Eliza, diminutive stage entertainers known as Commodore Foote and The Fairy Queen who traveled the nation at a time when tiny showman Tom Thumb was welcomed into the drawing rooms of Europe. 

"It’s got two of the best stories of any house in Fort Wayne," Galbraith said.

But, by the waning years of the 20th century, the house fell into the hands of out-of-town investors, who bought a batch of city properties without knowing their condition and did scant upkeep.

ARCH found those owners and arranged to take possession of the place, which had a demolition order then because of code violations. The house became a local historic district in 1999, but no funds were available to fix it.

In 2007, ARCH arranged to hold the mortgage for someone who lived in the San Francisco area but had grown up nearby and promised to restore the property.

But that buyer suffered financial difficulties in the real estate downturn, and, although he put on a new roof, did not complete the restoration, Galbraith said.

The house has had two owners since, a local man who said he would live there and fix up the house, but did not, and Ben Roney, a Fort Wayne resident interested in history who bought the house from the Allen County Community Development Corp. after it failed to sell at tax sale. 

ARCH is now not actively working with the house, he said. However, it is offering "consultation and encouragement" to Leksich, who gained ownership in recent weeks in an attempt to avoid demolition. 

Allen Superior Court Judge Nancy Boyer agreed Jan. 28 to stay the Dec. 15 demolition order. A conference on the status of the case is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday. 

Because the house is a local historic district, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission would have to agree to any final demolition order from the court and could delay any demolition for a year, said Don Orban, Fort Wayne’s historic preservation planner. 

A dilapidated carriage house at the back of the property was ordered demolished and torn down in 2014.

Neighbors, however, remain unconvinced the house should stand. 

Darrell Kindschy, vice president of the Creighton Home Neighborhood Association, said the house has been a magnet for vagrants and vandals. The association has asked neighborhood code officials for it to be torn down.

"There’s been fires in it. There’s been animals in it. The thing is deteriorating bad for the last 20 years it’s been empty," he said. "The historical group had their fingers in it for 15 of them, and they would get people with bright ideas and no money, and they’d give them the property, and it would be the same thing over again."

Kindschy questions whether anyone who’d take on the property could make it financially worthwhile. Sitting back from street level atop a hill that once overlooked Fairfield’s farm and downtown Fort Wayne, the house "is in a bad location," Kindschy said

"If they stick $100,000 or $150,000 in it, what would they accomplish anyway? Who would want to live there?" he asked.

On the economics, Galbraith does not disagree. "It will take well into six figures to get this restored," he said, "and the money he (Leksich) will spend will not be matched by the market potential, at least not right away."

Among work that could be needed is the replacement of a now-nonexistent tower at the back of the house. The area where the tower was has not been under solid roof for about 20 years, Galbraith said.

Also, the house would require repaired clapboard siding and attention to a foundation built partly on the log foundation of an earlier cabin on the site, he said.

However, Leksich does have a restoration track record in the Williams-Woodland Park and West Central neighborhood and some financing,

Galbraith said, adding the recent history of those neighborhoods shows how preservation of homes can yield dividends.

Leksich cites residential restoration projects on South Wayne Avenue and Webster, Taber, South Harrison and West Berry streets.

He said his goal is for the Fairfield-Nestel to become owner-occupied and back on tax rolls, as with other properties he’s improved.

Leksich said a structural engineer hired by Roney found the Fairfield-Nestel house sound and its walls are still square. Leksich said he will pursue exterior work in upcoming weeks as weather holds.

He met with Neighborhood Code officials this month on a plan for repairs. 

"I’ve gotten so many homes into compliance with them over the years," Leksich says, "that I hope they have a little faith."


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