23 Mar 2018 Fixer upper: Renovations under way in Conway’s first neighborhood
I am a design nerd, especially when it comes to residential architecture. More than once on a sidewalk stroll, I have had to awkwardly explain to a homeowner that I was not trying to peek in a window, I was simply admiring their well-crafted porch corbels.
One of my favorite places to take those sidewalk strolls is along the shady streets of the area informally known as Old Town Conway. Conway’s very first residential neighborhood is here, a planned community that developed in the late 1800s around the downtown railroad depot. This neighborhood – in the general area of Robinson Avenue, Caldwell and Prince Streets – is now known as the Robinson Historic District.
Most of the homes in this district and the adjoining neighborhood were built from the 1890s to the 1950s, the glory days of residential design. From stately mansions to the cutest tiny cottages, each home is unique and brimming with charm and design elements from the era of its construction. Many of the homes stand as tall and proud as the day they were built. Some have felt the tragedy of time with their crafted curves and stately lines sagging in disrepair.
But there is an exciting trend gaining ground in this little neighborhood. These days it seems like somewhere on nearly every block, hammers are flying and saws are whirring, breathing new life back into another of these fantastic old homes. Homeowners are drawn to this area for its historic style and the convenience of being within walking or biking distance from schools, area parks and the shops and restaurants of Downtown Conway. Demand for this area has sparked a renovation revival.
“I truly feel like Old Town Conway is experiencing a revitalization like never before,” said Niki Thompson, brushing some sawdust from her shoulder and onto the front porch of a historic home that is in the midst of a resurrection. “It is becoming a sought after area to live in. No other place in Conway has such a sense of community. The people of old town love where they live. The neighbors all know each other and they take such pride in their homes and neighborhood.”
Niki should know. She is the visionary behind the home restoration company Storybook Homes, which she operates with her husband Rory. As we visit, cars passing by on the busy street honk and give a thumbs-up, or slow down to shout a resounding, “Thanks and nice work!”
“It happens like that all day long,” said Thompson. It is evident that the neighbors appreciate her passion for seeing the beauty beyond the overgrown shrubs and peeling paint and bringing these once glorious homes back for generations to come.
Home buyers are going to great lengths to live in old town. Scott and Laura Roussel had been looking for a home in the old town area for several years when they got a lucky lead on a ramshackle little home on Ash Street. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Laura could see the potential charm beyond the overgrown yard and broken windows. She enlisted the help of local restoration icon Lance Johnston of Reform Design+Build to turn that little broken down home into a fabulous cottage.
Restoring a historic home may seem like a fairy tale, but it is challenging and expensive work. “Most of the homes we redo have been neglected for years and everything needs to be redone,” said Johnston. “It’s difficult to do everything and keep a job on budget.”
Thompson said, “I like the challenge of finding the most terrible home on the block and turning it into something beautiful. Often that means tearing out all the walls and even taking the flooring all the way down to the dirt. It’s not easy work but I want to give my best to every house that I work on and help bring out its unique personality.”
“Downtown has come a long way,” says Johnston, “but there is still a long way to go.” As more and more homes are restored, the value of those homes and the homes around it increase and higher home values mean that more of these homes become feasible to restore from an investment standpoint. “I see the old town area continuing to get more popular with more new infill as well as continued restoration of the older gems. I receive calls on a weekly basis from people interested in living downtown. They are from all walks of life, newlyweds to empty nesters. I think the historic district will one day be the most desirable place in Conway to live.”
“The borders are expanding on the parts of old town where people want to live,” says Thompson. “Not long ago, there were a few specific areas of interest but that area is growing. My vision is that every home in old town would see its full potential and that the uniqueness found in the old town area would spill out into our new neighborhoods. The historic district is in the heart of the city so if you focus on making the heart healthy, the rest of the city will flourish.”
Donna Benton is a maker of custom home furnishings and specializes in classic painted finishes for antique and vintage furniture. You can see her work at WaterHouseMarket.com.