Fairgoers reap home-restoration ideas in a new industry

Thousands of house-rehab buffs and exhibitors exchanged information during the fourth annual City House Home-Improvement Fair at McCormick Place West recently. The fair drew exhibitors from New York City to the West Coast.

As home-repair and rehabilitation fairs become more popular these days, the City House fair offers the amateur and the home handyman information about how to hire contractors, when to avoid do-it-yourself improvements, and how neighborhood groups are supporting home rehabbing.

''That tip I picked up on refinishing oak floors made this whole fair worthwhile,'' said one fairgoer.

The large turnout tended to support a Landsman Terry survey of last year's fairgoers showing a 75 percent rise in home-improvement expenditures over the previous year and a two-year median spending budget of $8,800 for house restoration and repair.

This year's fair was sponsored by the City of Chicago and the city's department of housing.

Robert Richardson, director of curriculum and development for the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies in Mount Carroll, Ill., said ''there is a real need for skilled restoration craftsmen'' these days. The center, itself an adaptive use of the former Frances Shimer College, plans a series of low-tuition preservation workshops, beginning in mid-May, that will stress actual preservation techniques.

Maury Garvy, a paint expert and manager of Suburban Painters, characterized the Victorian era as ''a time of self-righteousness, expansion, and ornate architecture'' that created a demand for a variety of earth-tone paint colors.

John Burrows, architectural historian for Bradbury & Bradbury, a wallpaper firm in Benicia, Calif., urged people to treat reproduction wallpapers ''as a fine-arts revival'' in old-house restoration.

People who oppose rehabbing in their neighborhood ''are living in the old days and are blind to the new trend of community involvement,'' said Edward Marciniak, president of the Chicago Institute of Urban Life.

Neighborhood home renovation today, he said, involves people who live there, ''not the downtown bankers.''

Boston contractor Norm Abram of ''This Old House,'' the popular PBS television show, said that home restoration ''can only be done right if the owner is willing to spend the money to re-create the authentic detailing.'' Abram urged thorough planning ''so you and the contractor know what's wanted and agree on specific work and costs.''

''Remember,'' he declared, ''if you do your own contracting, you are responsible for keeping the work on schedule and in order of steps.''

Fair exhibits always attract a widely mixed group, ranging from young couples with children in strollers to older couples still living in large older homes.

Displays run the gamut from chimney sweeping, interior design, and architectural advice, to energy-saving products, ironwork, and building materials.

Washburne Trade School students built a cutaway frame cottage for the exposition to show techniques of wiring, construction, plastering, and architectural ornamentation, all labeled so visitors could identify details from friezes to brackets. A popular crafts demonstration was plastering. Visitors to the bricklaying demonstration were encouraged to try their hand at troweling mortar.

''Just because you can't see your chimney inside doesn't mean you should neglect regular cleanings,'' two chimney sweeps advised.

The American Institute of Architects provided free consultation on how to rehab property. Other discussions covered custom wood floors, restoration integrity and interior design, repair of the building outside, financing sources in a tight market, kitchen lighting and appliances, and the rehabbing of three-deckers and lofts.

One session even showed how to use a home computer in projecting rehab costs, a clear affirmation of the fair's concern for the latest technological aids.

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