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At Home Magazine
July/August 2006

By Christy Marshall

Photography by
Alise O'Brien

Off the Presses

For years, Phil Durham longed to own an old ironstone cookware-factory-turned-printing-press warehouse in Soulard. Now he does.

Phil Durham was heading off on vacation to Cancun with Hali Blumenthal. Once there, he planned to propose marriage. But just as he was about to leave, he got a call informing him that if he wanted to buy a circa-1840 building on Menard, he had to move. Fast.

“I proposed to her on our first night there because it was her birthday,” Durham recalls. “Then we spent the whole trip negotiating the [real-estate] deal.”

A longtime city dweller, Durham had lusted after the building for years but it was never for sale. “It was quasi-inhabited by this crazy old guy who lived off the grid,” Durham says. “He bought old printing presses and stripped them for parts, which he sold all over the country. But he didn’t have electric, water or gas.” In the late 1980s, an executive with Ross Construction bought the building to protect another neighboring property his company owned. Durham tracked down the name of the owner in the city’s property database and wrote a letter asking to buy the building. But being owner was a dubious distinction.

“The building was in really bad shape,” Durham recalls. “I wouldn’t have let one of my clients renovate it … All I had when I bought the building was brick and a relatively watertight roof.”

The challenge was to turn the structure into both home and workplace for $75 per square foot, including the $140,000 price of the property. Unheard of. Unthinkable. But for Durham, doable.

“I had some advantages,” he says. “I had free architectural services and I was able to call in many favors. I was the general contractor; I did all the finishing work myself. Hali and I did the painting, finished the woodwork and the miscellaneous labor all through the project.”

On the first floor, there were no walls, so there was nothing to tear out. “There was one stair and an old elevator,” Durham says. “It was nothing except junk.”

The walls were “racked” or wavy, so Durham had to build two sheer walls to stiffen them side-to-side. While he usually focuses on exposing the building’s woodwork, he didn’t have that option here. There had been a fire years earlier and all that was left were damaged floors and walls of brick. “I ended up having to do drywall ceilings and things. The only thing we really got to expose was the brick and the heavy timber structure.”

Outside, Durham cleared out the courtyard. Per the dictum of the city’s historic preservationists, he put windows in the brick so it looks like there are rooms on the second floor. There aren’t.

“They didn’t mind me taking the roof away or this modern façade, but they had to have the windows put in,” Durham explains. “So I have a bunch of windows with open air on either side. It cost us 20 grand—these historic replacement windows are expensive.”

The front is constructed out of planks of cunaru, a tropical hardwood similar to epee. The wood is on a vented cavity system that opens to the wall. “It really holds solar gain off the building,” Durham says, “and makes it more efficient.”

Pine steps lead upstairs to the living space, basically a large loft room with kitchen-dining room-living room-bedroom in one continuum. A wood stove rotates and can be seen in the bedroom as well as the living room. A second bedroom, filled with furniture built by Hali’s grandfather, is off to the side, as is the master bath and dressing area. Aside from Mr. and Mrs. Durham, Tallulah, their large dog, inhabits the house. In the middle of the living room is the building’s original elevator. “It has been incredibly useful,” Durham says. “It still works. It’s counterweighted—it raises you and you have to pull yourself down.”

The kitchen features cabinets with straight-grain fir veneers built by Stephen Souder, as well as a nifty organizational system by Driad. There are no upper cabinets (Durham doesn’t believe in them), but there is a sizeable pullout pantry.

“Cooking is what I love, so we got the 36-inch Viking stove,” he says. “Hali likes to bake, which is not something I like.” The backsplash and countertop are stainless “because you get such a great deal with stainless and I love having the one surface.” Most of the furniture not made by Hali’s grandfather came from Centro.

On the first floor, behind the architectural firm offices, is a private parking spot and separate workout space for Hali. When they were pouring the new concrete floors, they discovered kilns from long ago.

Since purchasing the old ironstone factory, Durham has bought more—the building next door and another neighboring building that is being converted into condos.

An obvious supporter of city living, Durham chafes at the term and notion of New Urbanism. “It sort of drives me fruity just because it rationalizes the same old developer crap, from what I can tell,” Durham says. “They wrap it all in these high-sounding things about making people come to green areas, but they are still plowing down cornfields into developments.

“But if it makes people stop and think that maybe they should live in a community where they could walk to the store or a restaurant; and then if they make the logical leap to say, ‘There is a whole city out there with places like that,’ at least [the New Urbanists] are making an important contribution to the dialogue. So there is a limit to how upset you can get with them.”