Jerry Clarke prioritizes projects, moves ahead one step at a time
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Jerry Clarke was living in East Bethel and working in Minneapolis in March 2005, when he came across a listing for a Little Falls estate home on the Internet that caught his eye.
“I thought, here is a big old house that needs me,” he said, “and there was a big bay window and lots of bedrooms.”
Clarke drove up to see the house at 3 p.m. March 5, 2005, and bought it — all in one day. “I was thinking about retirement and had actually been considering moving to Ohio,” he said. “This is better; it’s closer and has all those good things.”
The colonial style house at 724 Second Street S.E. in Little Falls was built for Dr. Roman Fait and his family in 1937. Dr. Alfred H. Benson bought the home for his family in 1950, and it stayed in the Benson family for more than 50 years.
The house has 3,800 square feet with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, three fireplaces and an upstairs maid’s suite with private stairs from the second floor to basement.
“I was very happy to find out it had forced air and not hot water heat,” Clarke said.
But the two furnaces and separate air conditioning system needed to be removed and the air handlers consolidated into one system. A new 100,000 British thermal unit (BTU) furnace was installed, replacing the combined 70,000 BTU three-part system.
Clarke intended to rent out the house until he retired and was just going to do minimum maintenance and repair to prepare for that.
At that time, the electrical panel was replaced and a new refrigerator purchased. New storm windows were put on all first floor windows and the yard was regraded to slope away from the house. Gutters were installed.
After taking a look at the rental market and discovering that he couldn’t rent it for what it was worth, he decided to sell it. It was on the market for five months in 2006.
“Meanwhile, I was looking at other houses and realized that I kept searching for this house,” Clarke said. So when a potential sale fell through, he decided to keep it.
He moved 99 percent of his furniture to Little Falls but continued to live in East Bethel while completing projects there so he could sell that house. Clarke has refurbished about 20 condos, cabins, townhouses and houses.
For four years he used the house on weekends. Then in the fall 2010, he decided to retire the following spring, and completed the move to Little Falls. During that winter, he worked at home four days a week and drove to Minneapolis one day a week for meetings and office coverage at the Hennepin County Child Support office.
Clarke retired in April 2011 after 34 years in state and county government.
The first major project he tackled that year was the back porch. “I couldn’t stand the thought of putting on an aluminum porch,” he said.
He found eight wood porch panels and proceeded to rebuild and enclose the porch. Marv’s Woodworking helped with specific pieces. The door was moved from the south side to the west side opening into the back yard.
When it was time to furnish the porch, he found the perfect furniture: a set by Lane that is still in production and sells for $5,500. Clarke got it for $650.
Once they get home, pieces are usually recovered, refinished and/or touched up.
There are some family pieces interspersed throughout the house, such as a table and a rocking chair in the living room which belonged to his grandmother.
Clarke wanted to have some nice oil paintings of ancestors but did not have any of his own. He looked online and found the perfect piece to hang over the mantel in the living room. The portrait was located at a gallery in Denmark. Clarke acquired it for less than $200.
He is not lacking in ancestors himself, of course. But he was surprised when looking through some family history to discover that his great-grandfather was one of seven siblings who, along with their parents, founded both the Sebring Pottery Company and the town of Sebring, Ohio.
“No one had ever talked about it. Life changed dramatically for my grandparents during the Depression,” said Clarke. “It was like discovering lost treasure.”
Some pieces of Sebring pottery have special places in his home.
As often happens, it isn’t until a person actually lives somewhere day-to-day that things needing to be done come to light.
“When I sat outside on the patio, I realized it would be nice to have more privacy from the road,” Clarke said.
A lilac hedge was put in a year ago and has already doubled in size.
Last winter, Clarke concentrated on interior projects. Three bathrooms and seven closets were painted. Exhaust fans were installed in two bathrooms and every toilet was replaced.
After an energy audit was conducted through CenterPoint Energy, new attic insulation was put in.
A blower test was also done which showed air leaks, so those spots from basement to attic were sealed.
“The air conditioning bills are lower this year already,” he said.
One of the upstairs bathrooms had water damage because of ice dams on the roof, so Clarke tore out plaster and rotting wood and reconstructed the area.
The bathtub in another bathroom leaked, so Clarke had to cut an access in a closet wall. He replaced the plumbing throughout the house himself.
A new bathroom light fixture and ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet were wired by Clarke.
Masonry work, roofing and the heating/air conditioning are things Clarke did not do himself. Once the electrical panel was updated, he added many outlets and replaced all but two light fixtures in the house.
This summer was the season for the really serious landscaping. When the lot was regraded in 2005, all previous plantings were removed, so Clarke had a clean slate.
“I put in 36 bushes and four cubic yards of rock,” he said. “In July the sprinkler system went in. I’m not much of a flower person, but I did put in several kinds of hostas.”
The back patio and the sidewalk on the north side were poured.
A road project in 2006 had taken out three mature maple trees from the boulevard in front of the house, and they have been replaced with new trees.
“I love the architectural interest of a colonial house,” Clarke said. “From the front it all looks like one big house, but each side is totally different from the others. There are nooks and crannies everywhere.”
Clarke is well on his way to a complete refurbishment of an architectural jewel. When he first started the project, it was necessary to look at the basics.
“First, get rid of anything that shouldn’t he there, that is not appropriate for the house,” he said. “Get rid of what you don’t want.”
He filled two 30-yard dumpsters with carpets, drapes and storm windows.
“Then look at the mechanicals such as wiring, plumbing, furnace, gutters and other maintenance,” said Clarke. “Some of the plumbing hadn’t been used in a while, so the drains were clogged and the washers were dried up.”
Clarke recommends that painting be the last thing to be finished. “You have to work from the foundation up and from the inside out,” he said. “Painting is cosmetic, and the messy parts need to be done first.”
The only real surprise for this experienced house restorer was finding out that the chimney had deteriorated to such an extent that it needed to be rebuilt from the roof up to the cap.
Sisters Marilyn Benson Girtz and Carol Benson Valesano enjoy many dear memories of their years growing up in the house. They recall the foot buzzer located under the dining room table, something used by the house’s first owners to call the housekeeper.
“We wore the buzzer out by playing with it all the time,” they said. “Playing hide and seek and tag was always fun, especially with four staircases in the house.”
Since he retired, Clarke has been mentoring students at Lindbergh Elementary through the “America Reads” program. He has also completed all the necessary paperwork and training to adopt a child or children and is now waiting for a child.
“This is such a great family home; I want to take advantage of that,” he said.