An old Victorian townhouse changed its owner's career

Clem Labine and his wife, Claire, bought their 1883 Victorian brownstone house in Brooklyn in 1968 because they figured it would be the best and cheapest way to get the space they needed for themselves and their three children. They paid $25,000 for it in its "untouched" state of dilapidation. The house had been run as a rooming house since the 1930s.

Little did Mr. Labine realize at the time that this purchase of a run-down old house was going to change the course of his career. His involvement with his own abode plunged him into the kind of intense interest in old houses and their restoration that later prompted him to establish the Old House Journal and to publish, thus far, three editions of the Old House Catalog of sources and resources to aid the restorer.

When the family pitched in to patch plaster, strip and refinish walnut woodwork and floors, and haul away rubbish, Mr. Labine, a chemical engineer, was editing an industrial publication at McGraw-Hill and his wife was (and still is) a television scriptwriter.

His intention for his new-old brownstone was to do a quick "contemporizing" job on it: open up the spaces, paint all the walls white, and hang plants at the windows. "But the house told me better," he reflects now, "and beneath the grime we began to detect its true character. In the end it dictated its own terms of restoration back to its original Victorian beauty."

Today, almost 12 years later, the house is 95 percent finished, with only the front parlor yet to complete. It has been rewired, replumbed, stripped of calcimine paint, and the walls and ceilings covered with canvas. The canvas has been painted ivory, given antiquing glaze, and then hand stenciled with Victorian motifs of the period. The Labines have done 50 percent of the work themselves to save on costs.

Somewhere in the renovating process Mr. Labine lost his heart to the 19th century and to the exuberant richness of Victorian design. He explored the lore of vintage architecture of the period and experimented with many materials and techniques.

"There is a peculiar kind of personality that gets involved with old houses," he said during an interview. "For lack of a better term I call them "creative masochists" because there are easier and cheaper ways to get shelter. Some inner drive involves them in restoration. These individual urban renewal experts are usually tinged with messianic zeal and fired with pioneer spirit."

One day, Clem Labine realized that he was part of a vast restoration movement in the US and that other people were interested in his experience, experiments, techniques, and resources. He decided that there must be a market for a specialized publication that would give sources and practical information on fixing up and maintaining old houses. His own struggle to restore could provide material for the initial copies.

Fired by the idea, he gave up his job at McGraw-Hill, drew out his $4,000 savings from the bank, and in November 1972 published his first issue of the Old House Journal -- "a newsletter of restoration and maintenance techniques for the antique house." He gave away the first 2,000 copies at a Brooklyn Academy flea market and mailed out introductory copies to newspapers and other publications.

He also began to build a network of historians, artisans, restoration consultants, manufacturers, and readers themselves who could contribute practical articles about new products, processes, and methods. His plan was to give economical solutions to every problem that puzzled owners of old houses, whether it was maintenance of gutters, fixing double-hung windows, easy ways of removing paint, or repairing stained-glass panels. His newsletter apparently met a need, and today it goes, at $12 a year, to 33,000 subscribers in all 50 states.

Mr. Labine says his most typical readers are married couples in their late 20 s and mid-30s who need help and moral support as they go about giving their old houses a rebirth. These young people, he has found, are the backbone of the nationwide revival of old neighborhoods and old homes.

In 1976 Mr. Labine and his staff, which now numbers seven, assembled their first Old House Catalog. The third edition, "The Old-House Journal 1980 Catalog" lists 830 companies and 8,717 products and services for owners of houses built before 1920.

"I think that any house that has survived 60 years or more in our throw-away culture has a special claim on our sympathy and attention," he explains.

One other arm of Clem Labine's effort to help old-house owners is his one-day workshop called "Upstairs and Downstairs in the Victorian House." He and other experts in the field present the workshop from time to time in various parts of the country. They tell how to find the right old house, how to research its history, how to find out what it looked like originally, and then how to restore it appropriately and authentically. His next such day-long workship is scheduled for May in Denver.

A few of the basic guidelines he sets forth in these clinics are that purchasers make no irreversible changes in their old houses, that they not rip out any wainscoting or cabinetry or woodwork, and that they live in it a while before making any changes whatsoever.

In the past 10 years the Labines and other families like them have rescued many of the four-story row houses in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn and have helped renovate the entire area. Clem Labine's idea of helping other old house enthusiasts find their way has become "a healthy small business" and he's glad he took the plunge.

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