KNOXVILLE, Ill. -- Despite having a master's degree in business administration from Regis University in Denver, Cynthia Block returned to central Illinois two years ago from Cincinnati and found a tight job market which, for her, included no job opportunities.
So she decided to turn what she did as a hobby for friends in the Cincinnati/northern Kentucky area into a career.
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Block, the daughter of former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John "Jack" Block, began flipping houses -- buying houses at a low price, having them remodeled and selling them for a profit. Block decided to add a twist, developing designer houses using her own concepts. It was the design work that she did previously as a hobby.
It's a business perhaps more common in larger cities, but one attracting the interest of some in west-central Illinois. Block's focus, for now at least, is Knoxville. Her story is an example of one way to approach what can be seen as a career or an investment.
Walking into a circa 1908 house at 507 Mill St. -- a house Block bought from an estate -- it's a pleasant surprise to find a contemporary look, which uses a variety of colors.
"It's happy and feels good," she said of the color scheme.
Charlie Cooley of Cooley ii Real Estate, which has the 507 Mill St. listing, said Block modernized the house and "brings a fresh look to what we're used to seeing. I think she just has a pretty keen eye for mixing colors.
"It worked well," he said of Block's ideas. "It's cheery; it's a feel-good environment when you walk in, which makes it more enjoyable."
Block has no formal training designing houses.
"It's just a gift," said the single mother with a strong Christian faith.
Block returned after the July 31, 2009, traffic accident that took the life of her brother, Hans Block. Her father asked her to return and she decided it was time. She said her father comes back about once a month and is helping her with the business venture.
Block started by buying what she called a "dilapidated" Victorian at 710 S. Broad St. She said when she first saw it, there was a pending purchase contract. After "staging" her house in the Cincinnati area -- preparing it to look its best for potential buyers -- things started to fall into place.
"I staged my house, inside and out, and made everything perfect," she said. "And, the first people who looked at it bought it."
The same day, she learned the deal on the Victorian fell through. She bought the house and went to work.
The house has since been completed and sold to a family from Galesburg.
"Many, many people in the community approached me and thanked me for fixing up this house," Block said. "This enhances the community."
Block brings her own ideas to the design phase. That meant hiring a crew to knock out walls of the Mill Street house, building a 14-foot addition and modernizing everything.
There is an enclosed porch, with pink window sills and what Block called "a very Florida feel."
There is the open look of a great room/kitchen combination when one walks through the front door. The kitchen offers features such as an acrylic sink, a built-in microwave, a top-of-the line G.E. Profile refrigerator and more.
"This is definitely a turnkey home," she said.
The house has a flow; the rooms, and access to them, seem to direct one naturally from one area to another. Block said the old design was "choppy," with walls preventing that flow.
After being rebuilt from the ground up, with all new wiring and plumbing, this is no longer, in all ways that matter, a century-old house.
"That's something I would hope would be relayed to the client coming in," Block said. "Although it was built in 1908, it's a brand new home."
She said the house, which has its living space on one floor, works for everyone from a new family to an older couple.
"It can reach any market," she said.
Cooley agreed. He said the work changed the house from "probably a home that might have been suitable for a single person and is now suitable for a family. It's still cheaper to buy a house and remodel than to build from scratch."
The granite countertop in the bath for the master bedroom was bought in Champaign, but Block said many items needed were bought in the Knoxville/Galesburg area.
"The architectural shingles were bought from RP Lumber," she said. "A lot of the materials for the house were bought locally."
Block said the only thing left to do, if someone so chooses, is to finish the attic. She envisions a possible loft design that could be an entertainment room, bedrooms for children or even a bigger master bedroom. The walls of the basement have been sealed to keep out moisture, providing a dry storage space.
Block had a vision and tried things others weren't so sure about.
"Everyone was thinking I'm so crazy," she said, telling her, " 'You are actually mixing red and white cabinets?' "
Her confidence has grown.
"I was a little nervous with the Broad Street house," she admitted. "I've gained a tremendous amount of experience doing this home."
Block admitted she's still learning. While her business gets going, she may do some work staging houses for an area Realtor.
"In this home, I am over budget, but in the grand scheme of things, we'll press on," she said. "I know I'd be smarter the next time.
"Now I turn it over to a great power," Block said. "My experience has been, if I've done the footwork, if I remove myself, the next thing I turn around, the dust settles and everything will work out."