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updated: 9/27/2012 7:35 AM

Peoria couple updates historic home

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  • The tower of the Romanesque Revival home in Peoria.

    The tower of the Romanesque Revival home in Peoria.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

PEORIA -- Nancy and Dr. Z. Vesoulis are painstakingly restoring the historic three-story home they purchased five years ago.

Built in 1890 by Peoria flour baron J.W. Gift, the old house needed a lot of attention. Plaster had come loose from the lathe on many ceilings and the pipes were clogged to a slow trickle.

With an interest in historical stewardship, the Vesoulises want to do things right. That kind of commitment takes time - a lot of time. Though they've been working on the house since moving in five years ago, large areas are still unfinished.

The first floor, however, is beautiful. Light filters through gleaming stained glass windows and dances across glossy hardwood floors. Deeply textured Lincrusta wallpaper covers the walls above intricately pieced quartersawn oak wainscotting.

When asked when they completed the first floor, Z. Vesoulis pauses to think.

"Last night," he deadpans with a twinkle in his eye.

Z. Vesoulis is a surgical pathologist at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. The Vesoulises started house hunting when he took the job there. They relocated from Ohio.

"I knew exactly what I was looking for - this house out in the country," he said while sitting with his wife in the home's elegant dining room recently.

The Realtor took him to several historic properties, but none of them were right.

"We looked at a lot of old houses that had been redone in the 1970s," he said. They were all missing the architectural details he was looking for. Then the Realtor took him to see the J.W. Gift home just blocks from St. Francis Medical Center.

"This house had all its integrity," said Vesoulis. "I walked in, saw the sun room, the river valley and the woodwork - that kind of sold it."

It's not the first antique house the Vesoulises have redone. The couple's first home was an 1870s Gothic Revival in upstate New York. The pair got so burned out on home restoration that when they moved to Ohio eight years later they purchased a brand new house. But after 17 years of modern living, the Vesoulises were ready to try again.

Built in the Romanesque Revival style, the J.W. Gift house on Glen Oak Avenue is perched on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River and downtown Peoria. A turret forms one corner of the house, spanning from the basement to the roof. Some time in the 1920s, the top of the turret was removed and a new, lower roof was installed. Not long after purchasing the house the Vesoulises decided that restoring the turret to its former glory was a priority.

"It was truncated," said Vesoulis. "It was eight to 10 feet lower than it was originally and all the stone work across the top was gone." In old photos, the top of the tower had evenly spaced limestone blocks creating the castle-like appearance characteristic of Romanesque Revival architecture.

"It looked funky," said Vesoulis. "We decided that it was going to be our one big expenditure on the house."

The Vesoulises have done about 95 percent of the work on their house themselves, but for the tower they hired a contractor who in turn hired brick masons, stone masons and carpenters. The job was supposed to take two weeks - two months later they still weren't done.

During all that time workmen were trooping up to the third floor and dust was filtering all the way down to the basement. But on a recent breezy day as sun streamed through the narrow curved windows lighting the newly installed spiral staircase, it was evident that the Vesoulises were delighted with the results.

"We think it's one of the best, if not the best, view in Peoria," said Z. Vesoulis while standing on a portion of flat roof accessed through the turret.

"We sit out here on the Fourth of July and watch the fireworks," Nancy Vesoulis said.

The Vesoulises are meticulous with each project. Since the curved glass in the turret windows made them pretty much irreplaceable, Z. Vesoulis is in the process of carefully restoring the frames with a special epoxy designed to shore up rotted wood.

"These windows were literally dust in your hand," he said.

One feature of the home that Vesoulis had fun restoring was the dumb waiter. With the help of his son Zachary Vesoulis, a neonatologist at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Z. Vesoulis repaired the broken mechanism in the attic. The project required the men to lean precariously inside the three story shaft while installing lighting.

"It was a little scary, especially on the third floor," Vesoulis said.

A neat little oak tray now hauls groceries, luggage and building supplies up and down the three stories of the house.

"This is one of the coolest features of the house," said Vesoulis. "To have it not work was kind of an anathema."

While it's evident the Vesoulises have spent a lot of time working since they moved into the house, they have also spent some time enjoying it. They re-did the sun room overlooking the river early on so they would have an oasis from the restoration chaos.

They've also spent a lot of time researching the home's first owner, a celebrated civil war veteran who made a fortune milling flour. J.W. Gift had many adventures in his long life. He met Abraham Lincoln after spending several years as a prisoner during the Civil War. He was also a great patron of the arts - he named his flour "Pride of Peoria," the nickname of Emma Abbot, a famous opera singer from Peoria. She performed often in his home.

The Vesoulises love to glean out details like that. Perhaps their love of history is what inspires them to withstand the rigors of restoring an antique house.

"We are just caretakers of this place," Z. Vesoulis wrote later in an email. "...(we) realize others will come along in the future who also love old houses and effectively preserve this important piece of Peoria history."

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