A NEW LIFE FOR
AN OLD HOUSE
Woman Renovator Restores a Future to Old Holyoke Victorian
By Diane Lederman
Transcript Telegram Staff
For 95 years, it sat atop the hill on Dwight Street, Holyoke, watching the black smoke curl from the factory stacks along the canals, watching the smoke dissipated as factories closed. Its view was its own for the first two years, then other homes were erected around it. Architect George Alderman created the 24-room Queen Anne for Michael Cleary who had come over from Ireland in the 1840’s to help build the Holyoke Dam. Then, he opened a distillery on Maple Street, did construction work and made some money. He decided to build in the Highlands at a time few Catholics lives there.
For 94 years, Cleary’s relatives lived in house. But for the last year, it has been empty. And as 81 potential buyers during the last 55 weeks wandered through its empty rooms, around the spiral staircase, shaking their heads at the price, shaking their heads at the stained wallpaper and house came close to being torn down. But Thomas Ripa, who for five years lived with the last Cleary in the house --- Thomas Cleary Fitzgerald --- wanted to save it. “It is a crossroads of everything in Holyoke, the history of Holyoke, the history of the Irish.”
Ripa, who was helping the executors sell the house, had read about the work of Leslie Clement, 28, a trained carpenter and historic renovator who had saved 20 building in Springfield. He called her. She came that day, toured the entire property and went away for awhile to do her due diligence. And she then came back with an offer in hand and closed in a few weeks.
Alderman originally built the house as a duplex --- 12 rooms on each side, each a mirror of the other half. In each side is a fireplace, three ceilings made from tin, a stained glass window, one inch oak floors and detailed beautiful carved wainscoting. Architect Alderman built the balloon-framed house by first pouring the concrete base. He used two by four inch white boards, probably oak as sheathing then narrow strips of cedar clapboard for the first floor siding. He applied fish scale shingles to the second and third floors so the house would have a membrane appearance, a classic Queen Anne architectural detail.
Ripa, 43, has a degree in American history from University of Massachusetts and restored brownstones in New York City. He saw life in the house he couldn’t bear to see killed by a wrecker’s ball. “There is a story in this house. A lot of life has passed through it. In 1987, the house will conduct itself differently, but the house itself is the constant.”
Michael Cleary never lived in the house, but other Clearys did including his niece Margaret Cleary who married John Fitzgerald. Cleary had money, Fitzgerald didn’t. “It was a sign of Irish mobility,” said Ripa. The couple moved into the house in 1907. Thomas Cleary Fitzgerald would live there until his death in 1985. In 1917 John Fitzgerald opened Fitzgerald, Inc. on Maple Street in Holyoke, a clothing store. It was the kind of place where models paraded the clothes along a runway to customers who bought on credit. He died in 1926. Three years later, his wife lost all the family’s money when the stock market crashed.
And the house saved them. “They took it to a bank, mortgaged it. It put food on the table until 1941. It gave back to the owner in way a piece of property doesn’t usually,” said Ripa.
By 1941, the family was working again. Thomas Cleary Fitzgerald had a job with Edward Center in Springfield, selling cleaning products to places like the Log Cabin and the Yankee Pedlar. Meanwhile he continued living in half of the house, renting out two apartments in the other.
After a few years in New York, Ripa wanted to come back to Holyoke because his family was here. He learned Fitzgerald was looking for a tenant -- $225 including heat, a bargain against Manhattan rents. He knew the house. “I used to walk across the lawn on my way to the Nonotuck Street School,” he said. Soon he was managing for Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had a lot of friends, played golf, worked up until about four months before he died.
But he didn’t like renting his apartments to women. He wouldn’t rent to them if their skirts were too short, said Ripa. “He was a man from another time, a Victorian mentality.” Ripa said there is an irony that the house is now owned by a woman.
Clement great up in Pittsfield, moved around with her father who worked for KayBee Toy and Hobby Shop, and graduated from Indiana University with a degree in political science at 19 because “I was so hyper.” She waitressed for a year but it wasn’t her calling, then moved to Springfield where she talked her way into Carpenters Local Union Apprenticeship. She helped build I391, worked on the Morgan Square project. But she said, “I was bored out of my mind” with routine construction work.
She bought eight houses on Pine and Central Streets in Springfield because she couldn’t stand looking at them in disrepair (she herself lived nearby). From that, she started working for herself, forming Clement Restorations Inc. about three years ago. She has restored twenty housing, including the Bay Street Castle in Springfield. Her assistant Heidi Christensen has a background in arts management. The two of them are scouting other buildings in Holyoke.
“Plaster is in my blood,” Clement says. When she was ten, her mother bought an old farmhouse in the Berkshires and told the family it didn’t need much work. Clement said it was a disaster. As a child, she and her brothers spent weekends tearing down plaster walls. Despite the amount of work, Clement said her mother was “so enthusiastic that I developed an eternal optimism.”
Clement talked a bank into financing her first project, and from that banks have continued to cooperate with financing. Borrowing is the only way to make real estate projects work, she says.
She said the Cleary House is the finest show property she owns. It seemed to speak to her as soon as she walked through its doors. She often is taken by first impressions. But she checks them with other visits, over and over until she thoroughly understands the mechanics, the layout, the drawbacks and best features. Clement paid $115,000 for the Cleary House and will spend another $100,000 fixing it up. Despite the amount of work to be done, Clement sees that the house has been well-cared for over the last century. “In the woodwork, you can picture 100 years of cleaning women rubbing polish,” she said, running her fingers along the ornate woodwork.
Ripa believes the house is an anchor for its two Queen Anne neighbors and the other Victorian houses in the neighborhood. People will bring their lives to it which is what the house and Holyoke needs, he said. Ann Burke, who as president of Greater Holyoke Inc., is hoping to bring new life to the city’s downtown, said the project complements those downtown projects. “It all fits in nicely. People coming into the community doing first-class jobs are all positive additions. I’m delighted Leslie is working here.”
Clement plans to convert the property into six condominiums.