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Stone House Diary: Rain and trees of heaven are not always divine

The ruin of the Becker Anthes house has presented a challenge that would-be restorationists have not yet met
Lisa LaRose

Rain is a beautiful act of nature. It brings nourishment to everything that it touches and creates flush, lustrous green forests and beautiful flowers. In the wake of such awe-inspiring beauty, it also creates hard work.

Since we received the call from the city that we would be able to purchase the stone house, we have learned just how much work in a short time a heavy rainfall could bring. In the spring, we had volunteers help us clear the brush and cut down trees that had overrun the property and help us haul limestone from a nearby construction site that had unearthed a limestone basement from an old structure long gone.

Lisa LaRose and her husband, Mike Schrand, operations and program manager for St. Louis Public Radio, have embarked on a mission to restore what is known in the Lafayette Square as the old stone house. They hope to turn it into a museum about the early immigrants to the area. This is the second of periodic updates from LaRose.

The adventure had begun.

With all the vegetation gone, we could view the little house more clearly and saw the work we have to undertake. First, we found an architect who shared our dream with an expertise in restoration. It was so exciting to meet at the little house and talk about our plans. A few weeks later, we were presented with drawings that illustrated the resurrection of the little house and we finally had a picture of the possibilities. So far, so good.

The plan was to maintain the landscape ourselves to save on costs. It seemed feasible, until the rain started. Every time we would plan to go work at the stone house, the rains would come. At first it was not such a concern, so we focused on construction details.

Before the architects could begin construction plans, they needed a good survey of the property. I called our real estate agent and asked for references and advice regarding what type of survey since we were absolute beginners. She advised us to get an exact survey that would give us the precise borders of our property. We decided on the surveying company we would go with and made arrangements for them to visit the property.

As we were gathering the information they needed, we realized we needed to work with a title company to research for any possible liens or easements on the property. The property had not had residents for at least 40 years that we know of so there is a bit of apprehension as to what the title company might find.

We now know there are no outstanding liens on the property, which is a relief, but we still await word if any easements exist. So basically we await the results from the title company, so we can forward its findings to the surveying company, so we can send its cumulative findings to the architects so that construction plans can actually be started. It is a game of preservation dominoes.

Meanwhile, the rains kept falling. When they finally let up and we drove to the property to assess our grounds keeping needs, we were shocked.

The old stumps from the cut-down trees are not even visible anymore due to all the new branches that have shot out of them. They all resemble big wild bushes. The grass was alarmingly tall; and fast growing weeds and wild trees almost as high as my shoulders had engulfed the little stone house.

My first thought was the wilderness was taking back its little secret. My heart sunk. The trees we had chopped down in the spring are Ailanthus altissima, an Asian export, also known as tree of heaven, or stink trees as we called them in southeast Missouri where I grew up. The trees have a remarkable suckering ability, meaning this was going to be a huge challenge.

This was war! As we tried to combat the weeds, and lop the suckers off the stumps, the grass kept growing, and we quickly realized we were in over our heads. It was time to call the green marines. The plan of doing the grounds keeping ourselves quickly changed to getting bids from landscaping contractors in the height of the season in the hopes of getting regular maintenance done.

In the greater scope of things, this frees us up to focus on the construction plans and organizing an architectural dig to accurately date the property.

There is a saying that in life you can choose the rollercoaster or the merry-go-round. We certainly did not expect to be on the merry-go-round, but we weren’t exactly expecting the Screaming Eagle either.

It is excitement though, and we have learned a lot. We have also met a lot of wonderful people who have offered to volunteer their services. I cannot express how wonderful it is to know so many people in this city care about this little house.

I think the stone house is starting to feel the love. 

Follow progress at www.beckerantheshouse.org and check back for more of the Stone House Diary, which will have new installments from time to time.

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