Edgerton house being renovated after fire damage

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, February 10, 2013

— A house that holds memories of generations, irreplaceable architecture and a place in the history of a charming Midwestern community has survived, barely.

The house at 211 Albion St. in Edgerton suffered fire and water damage, but its 12 inhabitants escaped safely Feb. 1.

Victor Gonzalez, his wife, Erin, and their children plan to return later this year. The family plans to restore the massive elegant house built by tobacco money more than 100 years ago.

“The woodwork is in very good shape, given the circumstances,” Gonzalez said.

But it won’t be the same. Plaster moldings are gone, and the cost to re-create them is hard to imagine, Gonzalez said.

The fire occurred on a frigid night. The water that saved the structure infiltrated everything. Then it froze.

“It was an ice cave in there,” Gonzalez said.

When Universal Restoration Service pumped warm air into the building, the plaster melted, Gonzalez said.

A grand edifice

The house is a proud relic of a time when people of means could build massive, impressive structures. It survived into an age when such houses stand out as museum pieces that catch the eye of passersby and gladden the hearts of historical preservationists.

Today it looks a bit like a monster, with blue plastic sheeting covering gaping holes in the roof. Several large, round ducts snake into and out of boarded-up windows.

The ducts are pumping warm, clean air into the house, and more than a week after the fire, the exhaust duct is still emitting a muted stench that anyone who has been to a house fire would recognize.

What caused the fire, which seemed to start with the 2-year-old furnace, remains a mystery. An investigator plans to inspect it, Gonzalez said.

The restoration company told Gonzalez on Friday that the house could be saved.

“We’re pretty excited about that,” he said.

Gonzalez doesn’t know the restoration cost, yet. He is working that out with a restoration service and his insurance company.

The work could take eight months. In the meantime, the Gonzalezes are looking for a house they can rent. They’re now in the house of a friend who is more than gracious, but they know they should relieve their friend of the burden, and they need some normalcy in their lives, Gonzalez said.

The temporary house doesn’t need to be like the 5,000-square-foot home that burned.

“We’re a pretty flexible family, you know. We go camping. We do that kind of stuff where we stay in one cabin, so we’re used to that kind of craziness,” Gonzalez said.

The first residents

The machines on the snow-covered lawn that are heating and pumping air into the house would be more than strange to W.W. Child, a tobacco merchant who commissioned the structure, which was built in 1905.

Tobacco was a mainstay of the economy in those days. It’s still grown in these parts, although its role is much diminished.

Workers over the past week have found three bottles in the ceiling. They might have contained whiskey, Gonzalez said.

“That just tells you that people in 1905, when building it, they were enjoying their work,” he said.

Gonzalez said it’s not clear whether W.W. lived in the house, but his wife and their daughter did.

The Childs donated a lot of money to pay for two schools, buildings that still stand, repurposed, in downtown Edgerton, Gonzalez said.

It’s not clear how many families lived in the house over the years. Gonzalez said his family might be the fourth.

Kindness of friends

The Gonzalezes lost most everything but their coats, shoes and pajamas. Gonzalez said he felt guilty for replacing his iPad, but it’s the device he uses to keep track of his real estate business, so it’s invaluable.

A fund was set up at Associated Bank, but Gonzalez said he hasn’t even looked to see what has been donated.

“At this point we want to let it be and see where we are. Later when it’s done, we’ll count our blessings then,” he said.

Gonzalez and his wife feel undeserving of the overwhelming kindness of friends, he said, and they plan on paying the utility bill of the friend who is housing them.

“I don’t wish it upon anybody, but if it’s going to happen, it should happen in Edgerton,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been wonderful.”

The Wileman house

Many in Edgerton still know 211 Albion St. as the Wileman House.

Marie Struebin of Janesville lived there starting in the late 1940s, when she was a Wileman. Her children and those of her siblings had great fun in the rambling structure in later years, and one of her three daughters always wanted to be married in grandma’s house. And she was.

Struebin was shocked to hear of the fire and gladdened to hear that it will survive.

“We had rooms on the third floor. Each of us had a room up there. When we married and the grandkids visited, it was wonderful for the children,” Struebin recalled.

Marie’s parents, Esther and Franklin Wileman, owned the house for more than 30 years, said Dave Wedeward, retired Gazette sports editor who grew up across the street.

The family owned the historic Wileman’s Variety Store in downtown Edgerton, Wedeward said.

“We had a lot of good memories being there,” Struebin recalled.

While the house might have been an elegant mansion in its heyday, the Wilemans lived a different kind of life.

“It was a lived-in house,” she said. “It was not what you would call fancy-fancy.”

Struebin remembers beautiful woodwork, built-in china cabinets and a window seat below huge windows, as well as doors that slid into the walls.

The Wilemans rented rooms on the second floor to a number of teachers.

“It was quite a thrill for me and my brother to have our teachers living right across the street,” Wedeward recalled. “Those were also days when your parents had your teachers at your house for dinner once or twice during the school year.”

The Wilemans sold the house around 1990 to a couple from Chicago. There might have been an owner or two before the Gonzalezes bought it, Struebin said.

I’m just glad everybody was able to get out, having it happen at night like it did,” Struebin said.

Life goes on

Gonzalez said the biggest losses were items of sentimental value that can’t be replaced, including videos and photos from his “first batch” of children, from the time before digital technology.

More modern photos were preserved thanks to the fact that they were stored “in the cloud” of modern cyber technology, he said.

Also lost was a set of cherished antique chairs from his mother-in-law and dolls belonging to one of his daughters, now 16. The first doll was a collector’s item from his mother-in-law, who intended to give one each Christmas, but she died, so Gonzalez’s mother picked up the tradition, sending dolls of her own.

And there was all the hard work the family had put into restoring the interior after they bought it.

But none of that compares to the losses that did not happen that night, Gonzalez said. He and his wife were up caring for a son with an ear infection. He had gotten into bed when he heard noises. He investigated and found the furnace room on fire.

If the warning had come five minutes later, it would have been very difficult to get two of his children out of their room, he said.

Last updated: 8:12 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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