Fourth Ward house drama has happy ending

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, February 9, 2014

JANESVILLE--It's a happy ending all around for the house at 173 S. Jackson Street--happy for the Fourth Ward, the former owner of the house and the new owner.

If you consider shoveling cat feces a happy ending, that is.

The vacant, deteriorating, Italianate structure last spring galvanized Fourth Ward residents who had complained to city staff for years about the home's condition.

Neighbors suspected the structure was on the brink of condemnation.

Neighbor Kurt Linck said the house built in 1858 was at a tipping point, although the beautiful architecture remained.

"It would be next to impossible to replicate a home like that,” he said. “Once it's gone, it's gone."

Residents took their fight to Janesville City Council members and the media.

Jay Winzenz, who at the time was acting city manager, and Kelly Mack of neighborhood services put a new priority on the home's condition.

They followed through on the numerous work orders that had been issued over the years, and Winzenz began levying daily fines on property owner Margaret Zweifel for work left undone.

Zweifel put the home on the market in September for $49,400.

Nathan Bussan, a home renovator who restored the dilapidated, problem home across the street at 182 S. Jackson St., toured the home after a deal to buy a house he was looking at in Rockford, Ill., fell through late last year.

Inside the house, cat feces and urine smelled so strongly he almost threw up, he said. Junk was mounded. A dining room ceiling was caved in, and a cage was propped in the ceiling joints to trap invading raccoons. The water leaked through the roof, causing water stains and crumbling plaster.

Bussan said he didn't use the words “heinous” and “nasty” lightly when he described the home's condition.

Still, Bussan thought he could rescue the home. He felt it had potential: a lovely marble fireplace, large rooms, hardwood floors, ornate grates, colonnades and original shutters from the 1850s.

Bussan made a verbal offer to buy the home for $10,000, the most he felt he could risk. Bussan had lost money on the house across the street because he couldn't sell it for enough to recoup his costs. He can't ask as much for homes in the Fourth Ward as he can elsewhere, he said.

Before the deal was signed, Richard Donahue, who rents numerous properties in the Fourth Ward, offered $20,000.

It could have played out as a scenario feared by Fourth Ward neighbors and city staff: a home is sold for next to nothing to a landlord who does minimal repairs before renting it out.

Donahue has been cited in the past for failing to maintain his properties. In 2012, he was  issued violation orders on 20 properties under the city's chronic nuisance ordinance.

"Are you kidding me?" Bussan remembers thinking when he heard of Donahue's offer.

He had little hope Zweifel would accept his cheaper offer.

But William Perkapile, Zweifel's friend and representative, said Zweifel is fond of the house, which had been in her family for years.

She meant to maintain it, Perkapile said, but “circumstances never worked out … she just couldn't get it done.”

Kelly Mack of the city suggested the couple view the properties that had been owned by Bussan and the properties owned by Donahue.

They did, and Zweifel accepted Bussan's offer.

“I don't want anyone to think we're playing favorites,” Perkapile said. “But she (Zweifel) really felt that was what was best for the house.

“We are confident Nathan will do a good job,” he said.

Bussan is grateful Zweifel accepted his offer.

“I really thank her for that,” Bussan said. “She had the good of the house in mind.”

Bussan closed on the house Jan. 13 and has since moved in. He will live in half the house and rent the other half so he can raise the money to continue renovations.

He's already hauled out 14 truckloads of junk, including tires from a living room. He and a crew have ripped out the carpeting to expose three-quarter-inch maple flooring. The floor in one room has walnut and maple inlays. They are scraping layers of wallpaper.

But even Bussan was unprepared for some of what he found.

A first-floor toilet and tub, for example, were sinking into the basement. They had not been connected to plumbing, and the water drained into a crawl space. Bussan had to level the floor by removing rotten beams and jacking up the back of the house.

Feral cats lived in the house and used the tub as their litter box. Bussan found several dead cats.

Bussan plans on replacing the large windows, which are 87 inches tall and 36 inches wide.

He'll dismantle and refinish the staircase and strip the woodwork. He'll bleach and pressure wash the siding, put the front porch back on and repair the back porch, which has collapsed.

The house was close to the point of no return, he said.

“For a lot of people, it was already unsalvageable,” Bussan said, noting many would not have spent the money needed to fix it.

“It's a mess, but it's definitely home,” Nathan said with a smile.

Meanwhile, the neighbors are ecstatic.

“What a way to start the New Year,” said Burdette Erickson, who lives nearby.


Every year or so, Nathan Bussan, 35, saves a house.

He recently moved into 173 S. Jackson St. in the Fourth Ward, a structure staring down  condemnation.

“I couldn't let that happen,” Bussan said. “It's too gorgeous of a house.”

In 2010, Bussan kicked out the drug dealers and prostitutes in the home across the street at 182 S. Jackson St. and restored that one, as well.

Bussan doesn't mind living among gutted kitchens and gaping ceilings, tarps on the windows, dirt, obnoxious smells and layers of construction dust.

Recently, in the living room of his latest Jackson Street project, he cradled his Yorkshire shih tzu he bought for $45 on Craig's List.

“Poor Leo,” Bussan said. “He has to live in this mess. He lived in this mess across the street, then in Beloit, now here.”

Bussan was raised in Galena, Ill. His dad is a contractor, and his mom a real estate agent, so his penchant for buying distressed properties could be in his genes.

In high school, when Bussan's classmates worked in pizza parlors, he refinished and sold old furniture.

“It's kind of rolled into houses,” Bussan said.

It's never been about the money, Bussan said, although he makes some profit on most.

“I'd see this big, old beautiful house, and I knew I could make it better,” Bussan said. “I can't make it perfect, but I can make it so somebody doesn't want to tear it down.”

Most are centuries old, and many were in foreclosure.

Bussan lives in the houses while he does the work. He also holds down a full-time job.

He figures he has a touch of attention-deficit disorder.

“I have got to be fiddling with something all the time,” Bussan said.

He loves fixing up the homes, laying out kitchens and decorating them.

He thinks it's fun to move frequently and live in houses built in different styles: bungalows, cottages, arts and crafts, Victorian, federal and Italianate.

Bussan rescued his first house when he bought a tiny 1836 miner's cottage for $19,000 after graduating from high school. He had to sit in a chair to wash the dishes because the sink was installed at the end of a sloped ceiling. All of the home's electricity ran through one fuse, and the oil burner started a fire two weeks after he moved in.

Bussan sold it for $27,500.

Through the years, he's lived in a “cat house” in Galena—where Bussan gained the handy skill of ridding a home of the rancid urine smell caused by 27 cats and seven dogs—and most recently lived in a little house in Beloit built in 1904. He fixed up the Beloit home, sort of a cross between Victorian and arts and crafts, in six months. His mom tried to convince him to stay, but Bussan got bored.

Once, Bussan moved into a 1960s ranch house in Madison in fairly good shape. It was the first time he had central air condition, and he discovered why people live in newer houses when saw his first heating bill.

“My mother and my grandmother walked in and said, 'Really? You paid $101,000 for this awful thing?'

“My grandmother said, 'You're not going to be here long. Everything's straight. Nothing is creased.'”

She was right.

“I just hated it,” Bussan recalled. “A year and a half later, I was saying, 'This house sucks. I missed the creakiness, the oldness.'”

Bussan moved into a Federal-style home in Columbus built in 1861. It was on the brink of foreclosure and a “bastardized mess,” he recalled fondly.

“It was just perfect."

Bussan was looking for another house in Madison when someone mentioned the  affordable homes in Janesville.

For now, Bussan likes being near his work at Creative Community Living Services and expects to be in the home at 173 S. Jackson St. for awhile.

“Until another big, beautiful house comes on the market,” he said with a smile.

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