Across from the Janesville Central Fire Station, the street-facing front of an old Victorian home is bright and inviting. The house at 340 Milton Ave., otherwise sandwiched by scaffolding, is seeing signs of restoration years in the making.
From the newly stained brown front door, to the red and green pillars, surrounded by creamy yellow siding, the 131-year-old house is getting a new sheen not seen for some time.
But the house hasn’t long been seen on the east side of the street, either. As part of a plan to make space for the fire station on the west side of Milton Avenue, the city acquired several homes to be either moved or demolished, including this one.
When Fred Harmon caught wind of this in 2015, Harmon knew he had to scoop it up—almost literally.
Harmon, a retiree and resident of Janesville with a knack for restoring old homes, purchased the two-story Second Empire house distinguished by its Mansard roof.
“It was kind of the jewel,” Harmon said of the house, whose address at the time was 327 Milton Ave.
Built in 1870, the residence originally belonged to local businessman John C. Jenkins, who lived there until 1875. The Zeininger family owned the house, as well as several other properties on the block, until the late 1930s. It was then sold to the Boos family.
Harold and Myrtle Boos moved into the residence in the early ’40s. Their daughter, 92-year-old Mary Ann Venable, was in fourth grade at the time.
“Our house was always open,” Venable told The Gazette, remembering her family hosting sleepovers with her friends. “It was just a big house where we could have a lot of company.”
(More of Venable’s memories of the house will appear Monday in The Gazette).
Rescuing the house from demolition benefited both Harmon and Janesville as it preserved a piece of Janesville history and provided Harmon with a new project.
“I just didn’t want to see the house get torn down,” he said.
In addition to buying the house, Harmon had to acquire property on which the house could be relocated. He was adamant about finding a spot nearby to avoid compromising the structure and limiting the cost of moving the structure.
“When you move a house, you can’t move it far unless you’ve got big, deep pockets,” he said.
Fortunately, Harmon found a contractor to move the house a week before it was scheduled for demolition. But it took another three days to secure the property across the street.
“It was a scramble,” he said.
After the sale was finalized came the Herculean task to remove the house from its original foundation and onto the new property. Badger Construction jacked the house up and placed it onto a flatbed house-moving truck. Aided by the power company, power lines were lifted to allow the truck to pass underneath and place the house in the backyard of Harmon’s new property.
Over the next two years, Harmon had a new foundation and a basement built for the house. When the materials were finished curing, contractors raised the house again and, with structure moving skates, slid the building on top of the foundation.
In the years since, Harmon has taken a gradual approach to restoring the structure. He recently has been sprucing up the face of the property, erecting a wrought-iron gate around the lawn, lining the fence with stones from the original foundation and installing a light pole among other aesthetic alterations.
Harmon left much of the interior charm untouched—keeping the fireplace intact and preserving fixtures, such as chandeliers and even the front doorbell. To keep with the 19th-century aesthetic, Harmon moved in furnishings from the era, including an old pump organ and a shelf sitting atop the mantlepiece.
“I tell my wife all that furniture came with the house,” he said with a chuckle.
At first glance, the progress made on the house might appear to be minimal, but Harmon has his hands full with this and other restoration projects.
“People in the city think I ought to be a little faster than I am on fixing it up,” he said.
Harmon said he eventually intends to sell the house to, as he put it, “the right buyer.” He said his goal is to restore the house to a degree that it will be cherished by whomever buys it.
“Somebody will really appreciate it,” he said.