Rehabilitating Dutchtown, the heartland of St. Louis

If the nationwide back-to-the-city movement is flourishing in St. Louis, one good reason is Don Occhi, an urbanite who fiercely believes in preservation, renovation, and the general revival of old inner-city neighborhoods.

Mr. Occhi has had a hand in renovating at least 14 buildings in the Dutchtown South neighborhood of St. Louis, where most of the sturdy old middle-class homes were built by French and German settlers between 1865 and 1920.

He began on a shoestring in the mid-1970s, by buying and fixing up the $12, 000 structure on South Jefferson that now houses his interior design studio and art and antiques gallery. His most recent project is the house across the street from his studio, which he and his wife, Pat, bought for $10,000 in 1979. They spent nine months and $85,000 transforming it into the attractive four-story residence they occupy today.

Despite three moves and three renovations of their own homes, Mrs. Occhi enjoys being a fixer-upper and a city dweller as much as her husband does. Other encouragement and help have come from Occhi's father and brother, who have contributed both muscle and money to some of his rehabbing projects in a neighborhood just five minutes away from the city's central business district.

Don Occhi feels very protective about old houses. He believes you can best help spruce up an old neighborhood and make it live again by showing a respect for the spirit of the place, and for the people who live there. He does not believe in dislocating longtime residents, and has only purchased buildings from absent owners.

''We have become a mixed neighborhood of. . . people of all ages and income levels and backgrounds,'' he says. ''We feel this gives us a unique stability not always found in totally renovated areas. All of us today enjoy the feeling of being a small town within a large city. Our next project is to revive the little business area adjacent to the neighborhood. Most of the small-business people we have talked to like our concept of renovation through private financing, sweat equity, and rolling up the sleeves and getting involved.''

Occhi began to win city beautification contests in 197l, and today he has a wall full of awards recognizing his ongoing approach to both building rehabilitation and neighborhood improvement.

After the Occhis' successful first renovation, they began to interest others in tackling similar projects on their block. Within a year four friends had purchased houses in this heartland of the city and begun to renovate them. Occhi took on the job of working out the exterior coordination and the interior apartment layouts for the entire cluster. In each case, he says, he emphasized good workmanship, the use of good-quality materials, and making the properties as energy efficient as possible. He knew that these elements would both attract and keep future owners and tenants.

When the Bicentennial celebration of 1976 came along, the Occhis and their friends and neighbors completed their own special project. They planted trees, put in off-street parking and patios, and made the area as attractive as possible. This encouraged many of the old-time residents to do the same, and to start fixing up their own buildings. In such ways has renewing change taken place in the Dutchtown part of St. Louis, which has the Mississippi River as one of its borders.

Asked what advice he would give other young couples who are considering becoming old-house renovators, Don Occhi lists the following points, based on his own experience:

''1. Look at the general neighborhood you are considering and see if you feel it would be compatible with your living requirements for some years to come. Pat and I were willing to commit ourselves, financially and emotionally, to a poor but decent area which we felt we could help lift and develop into a well-rounded neighborhood.

''2. Consider the type of living that you are most attracted to, and how you really like to entertain and shop and spend your leisure time. If you like free-standing houses, lawns to mow, and country clubs, you should move to suburbia. If you opt in favor of the faster pace, cultural excitement, and special character of inner-city living and want to rehab an old house in an improving neighborhood, you are in for a great adventure. But you cannot be status conscious about having a 'good address,' and you must feel secure enough in your decision of how and where you want to live so that you can smile benignly when family and friends imply that you are no longer sound of mind.

''3. Be very concerned about your financing, because the work is likely to cost more than you think. We went to our bank (which is very supportive of neighborhood redevelopment) and secured a first deed of trust, then slowly and carefully worked out our plans, submitted our estimates and bids, and asked for a construction loan. We drew money as we needed it, and the bank made regular inspections at the site to see how we were progressing. When the work was complete, we rolled the loan over into a regular mortgage loan.

''4. Think about the amount of living space you actually need, then work out a total plan for that space before driving a single nail. We decided to live on all four floors of our house, and planned it, floor by floor, beginning with the third floor, where we put the master bedroom, two baths, two dressing rooms, and a sitting room for television and reading. We put the country kitchen and family room at the old basement level, the living and dining room on the second level, and a guest room and library on the top floor. We knew, from our plan, where every door, built-in, shelf, and piece of furniture was going to go.

''5. Carefully consider the energy requirements of the house and the measures you are willing to take to keep energy costs low. Down the road, when you may either be selling or renting, energy costs are what will probably determine the value of your investment. Although ours is a three-brick-thick house, when we decided to renovate, we removed all the original woodwork and furred out all interior walls to put in six inches of fiber-glass insulation, covered with a polyethylene film barrier and a half inch of dry wall. We put in thermal pane windows throughout, and installed two gas forced-air furnaces and ceiling fans that circulate cool air in summer and blow down heated air in winter.

''6. Don't think you have to furnish a period house with period furnishings. We advocate taking all the liberties you please. Our house was built in 1884, but we have furnished it with some good antiques, a lot of modern modulars, and some reproductions, as well. We have treated our windows in a variety of ways, including covering them with shutters, thin-slatted blinds, and chintz draperies. And we have reused old doors, old fireplace mantels, stained-glass panels, and old brick on the floors and kitchen countertops. To make the porous bricks practical for kitchen wear we gave them 10 coats of polyurethane sealer.

''7. If you can avoid it, don't live in the house while you are renovating it. We lived through the grime, dirt, plaster dust, and general mess during our first old house renovation job. But our joint verdict was 'never again.' Now we live in one house while we are rehabilitating another, and we strongly recommend it.''

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