Before and After 

HISTORIC PRESERVATION MAGAZINE

 

EVOLUTION OF A REHABBER

By Maria Stieglitz May/June 1988

 

How a frustrated college educated carpenter joined the rehab revolution

 

Leslie Clement’s historic rehab projects range from low-income apartments to Queen Anne condominiums.  “I couldn’t have done most of those buildings without the tax credits,” she says.

 

Leslie Clement bought her first house at 22 years old  --- a 1980 Queen Anne house in the Maple Hill Historic district of Springfield.  Both the house and the neighborhood had classy backgrounds, and both were in disrepair.  She remembers her father coming from Indiana to visit her for the first time just as she was starting the renovation.  Some of the ceilings were falling down, the roof was leaking and there were abandoned plumbing fixtures that needed to be yanked out of the bushes.  Clement recalls, “We sat down, had a bottle of wine together and my father said, ‘Is there any way to get out of this deal?’”

 

Clement didn’t budge.  She successfully restored the Springfield house herself and now lives with several roommates.  That was in 1980;  Clement was just 21.  Then, as now, she tackled life head-on.

 

She bulldozed through Indiana University in two years, earning a B.S. in political science and women’s studies, and then returned to her native Massachusetts.  “I heard carpenters were making $18 an hour and said, ‘That’s for me!’”  She joined local 108 as an apprentice and spent the next four years on bridges and high-rises. 

 

“The week they told me that I had to hide in the ladies’ room because there was nothing to do,” says Clement, was the week she decided to go into restoration on her own.

 

She bought an 1824 brick cottage for $8000 and borrowed $20,000 from the Springfield Redevelopment Authority to restore it.  While working on the cottage, Clement bought the house across the street for $6000.  Shortly after that she paid $82,000 for four houses down the street and hired a foreman.  Her carpenters came from the neighborhood, young people who learned on the job and still work for her today.  Master craftsmen were brought in to make moldings, finials and railings. 

 

Within the next three years, Clement bought and restored 17 nineteenth century houses.  She sold one and kept 16 as rental units in a low-income neighborhood in Springfield’s Maple Hill Historic District.  Each property is either listed or nominated for the National Register. 

 

“I knew if I didn’t buy the houses, somebody else would and would not do what I wanted to see done with them,” says Clement. “I didn’t all of a sudden think I wanted to have a career in this.  I just became obsessed with each house, house by house.  I was fascinated with how they were put together.  When you start to work on them, they start speaking to you and coming back to life.”  Many of the small Victorians were originally the homes of foundry workers at the Springfield Armory and had been long abandoned or neglected by slumlords and destructive tenants.  No one else would touch them.

 

“Leslie had the courage to take on buildings that had been damaged by fires,” says Kim Lovejoy, preservation planner with the Massachusetts Historical Commission.  “By saving these buildings, she has greatly contributed to preserving the streetscape of Springfield’s historic neighborhoods.  Leslie’s low-intervention approach to rehabilitation is a very good type of preservation.”

 

Clement financed her work with commercial mortgages and HUD rehab loans.  At Mayor Richard Neal’s recommendation, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority provided gap financing.  Other money came from the Springfield Historical Commission and Clement’s own pocket.  In 1985, needing additional funds, Clement sold her $250,000 rehab tax credit in several of the Springfield houses to a group of limited partners.  She retained 60 percent equity in the properties and manages the 28 apartments. Clement also received local preservation awards and media coverage for her work, but profits have been harder to come by.  Her determination to do first-rate restoration, she admits, often throw budgets askew.

 

Also the neighborhood hasn’t improved as quickly as she expected, making it difficult to raise rents, which are set and subsidized under the HUD Section 8 program and are about 30 percent below market rate.  “If you’re going to play monopoly, you have to own the whole thing,” says Clement.  As a result, Lovejoy says that Maple Hill is exemplary in providing quality rental units in historic housing with wide plank pine floors, beehive ovens and hand-hewn chestnut beams.

 

Clement’s work on her own house prepared her for her biggest rehab challenge, another 1890 Queen Anne known as the Bay Street Castle.  For her partners to take their tax credit, Clemetn needed a certificate of occupancy by December 31, 1985 before the tax credit law changed.  “My name would have been mud,” say says.  So her crew worked 18 hours a day to finish th work.

 

Since the project’s completion, enactment of the new rehab tax law has caused Clement to change tack.  As far as she’s concerned, “limited partnerships are dead and they provided gap financing”.  She says she couldn’t have done most of those buildings without the tax credits.

 

But Clement is not one to sit idle.  She has plunged into new construction, upgrading modular lakefront homes in the East Forest Park area of Springfield.  And just to keep her hand in, she spent $300,000 saving a 24-room Queen Anne twin town house in neighboring Holyoke from demolition, restoring and converting it into six two-bedroom condominiums.  To avoid marring the tin ceilings, ornate moldings and quarter-sawn oak floors, she laboriously snaked new plumbing and wiring systems through the original ventilating shafts.  The project was written up in the New York Times.

 

Last fall Clement teamed up with a local custom builder and bought a historic four-acre site overlooking downtown Springfield and the Connecticut River.  The property was originally landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead for a non-gone Tudor mansion.  Using historical drawings as well as period materials and construction methods, the partners plan to build two Victorian style mansions, each subdivided into 12 luxury condominiums, and to re-create Olmsted’s lost landscape.  The name of the condominium complex, Wyndhurst on Crescent Hill, was the name of the original mansion on the site. 

 

Clement was so adamant about treading lightly in the low-density neighborhood of spacious Victorian and Tudor homes that she placed a deed restriction on the property, down-zoning it from 90 allowable units to 24.  “It’s very nice of me to cut my own throat,” she jokes.

 

Still, Clement may profit handsomely from the $5 million project.  But typically, she’s more excited about simply restoring one of Springfield’s loveliest locations.  “There is this expression in construction that a lot of carpenters use,” she explains.  “Darn, we’re good!  And you know, you can look back and say, God, it’s gorgeous!”