When Tawana Lawson’s 8-year-old grandson visits his new home, he heads straight for the cupboard under the stairs.
“Logan loves books, so he decided it would be his reading nook,” Lawson said.
Lawson and her family plan to move from a two-bedroom north St. Louis apartment into the nearly 130-year-old brick house in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood this week. Less than a year ago, the home was sitting empty, its plaster walls crumbling into dust.
A unique partnership between a local church and St. Louis nonprofit LOVEtheLOU has helped restore the aging building to its former glory. The program aims to reduce the number of vacant buildings in JeffVanderLou, while supporting longtime residents who can act as community organizers and advocates.
Grace Church, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Maryland Heights, purchased the home from a private seller in Nashville for $35,000 and donated it to LOVEtheLOU.
A small army of volunteers from Grace Church renovated the house in 10 months, working mostly on the weekends.
The house, which had been vacant for years, needed extensive renovations — funded entirely by the church. With installing new windows, replacing the original clay tile roof, rewiring the electrical lines, replacing the plumbing and installing a new kitchen, the total renovation cost came to $100,000.
Still, volunteers worked to preserve the house’s character, said crew leader and Grace Church member Christy Fry.
“It still has all the original woodwork,” said Fry, pointing to the hand-turned spindles of the staircase. “It was really important to save as much of the house as we could and still bring it up to code.”
The crew also uncovered surprises hidden inside the walls, including old newspapers from the 1920s used as insulation.
‘There's no need to leave'
For LOVEtheLOU executive director and founder Lucas Rouggly, the home is a test case — one potential way to support longtime neighborhood residents and allow them to build equity.
“This is a prime area for developers to come in and start snatching up houses and flipping them,” Rouggly said. “We’re really hoping that neighbors will stay as new development comes in, as opposed to pushing them out and displacing them.”
Rouggly selected Tawana Lawson and her family to move into the renovated home on a rent-to-own basis.
Lawson has volunteered with north St. Louis kids for years as a member of Antioch Baptist Church and will continue to do community outreach in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood as part of a housing agreement with LOVEtheLOU.
For each year that Lawson volunteers, one will be removed from her 20-year lease.
“This neighborhood is home for her, so it’s not a stretch to ask her to serve her neighbors. It’s part of her DNA already,” Rouggly said. “The thing that sets this apart from other housing projects is that this isn't the finish line. Tawana moving in is actually where the work begins.”
With this project nearing completion, Rouggly said LOVEtheLOU is already eyeing their next home renovation project, either in the Ville or Kingsway West neighborhood.
Lawson, who has helped paint and clean the house, said she’s looking forward to putting down permanent roots in the city where she was born and raised.
“It’s a legacy, not just for my kids, but for my grandkids and their kids,” she said.
As she prepares to move into her new home, Lawson is already thinking about tangible ways to encourage more of her neighbors to remain in the community — and work together to strengthen it.
“I know the needs of the community because I’m from the community,” she said. “I want them to see that there’s no need to leave. You can stay and build right where you are.”
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org