Back to Brewer
Once-forgotten Suffolk street returning to its former glory, once house at a time
BY SHIRLEY MOZINGO
Not too many years ago, Brewer Avenue in downtown Suffolk was a picture of neglect. Many of its classic centuryold "manor homes" had been converted into multi-family duplexes owned by absentee landlords. Yards were overgrown. Chimneys leaned. Porches sagged. Roofs leaked. Foundations had crumbled.
Brewer's Place, as it was once known, had suffered the backlash of urbanism. It was no longer a gathering place for the city's elite or a safe place for an evening stroll. Despite its impressive pedigree, it had lost its luster.
Today, Brewer Avenue is on the rebound.
It is representative of what's happening throughout the historic district of Suffolk. People are bringing streets back to life by buying older houses with stories in their walls, knowing that their connection to history carries a certain responsibility in restoration.
It was the aging buildings in Suffolk that lured developer Mickey Garcia across city lines five years ago.
"I came to Suffolk because of the (housing) inventory. A lot of old houses needed work. And the city council had a plan to revitalize downtown," he said.
Garcia was restoring a historic house in Portsmouth when he met Suffolk resident Ernest Hefferon, owner of Top of the Line Restoration.
"I wanted to talk to him about doing work for me. He lived on Brewer, so I went over there and met him," Garcia recalled.
Hefferon lived in a restored and stately Victorian at 512 W. Washington St., on the corner of Brewer Avenue. Garcia stood in Hefferon's back yard and looked out over a neighborhood infested with neglect.
Nevertheless, Garcia admitted, "I fell in love with that street."
He and Hefferon formed a team and shared the vision.
"When I bought my house, I could see it - and Brewer - go back to what it was originally," said Hefferon.
They weren't the only ones.
Hefferon's next-door neighbor, Angela Koncz, first saw the Victorian house at 101 Brewer on the Internet from her home in Cleveland, Ohio.
"Our dream was to renovate a Victorian. To take something old, add something new, and make it your own," said Angela Koncz. "I told my husband,
'I want to buy that house."'
Frank Koncz, a construction superintendent, had just completed extensive renovations on their Cleveland residence and wasn't excited about the prospect of starting over on another old house; although, he confessed, there is something therapeutic about taking a sledgehammer and knocking down walls.
In June of 2000, they bought the house on Brewer for $100,000, despite a negative impression when they saw the place in person.
"It had no personality.
My first thought was that it looked like the 'Adam's Family' house," said Angela Koncz.
The structure had been partitioned into a five-family residence. Paint was peeling off the walls. Fireplaces had been removed. Windows leaked. And neighborhood children thought it was haunted.
"I called my friend in Ohio and cried. I told her, 'I think I've moved my family to the slums,"' Angela Koncz recalled.
Her friend told her to hang on, that revitalization was coming to their town.
"And slowly but surely, the street is being revitalized and neighbors are taking an interest in their houses," Angela Koncz said.
A sense of pride was resurfacing on Brewer.
"When we moved here, 70 percent of the houses were rental property. Now it's only four or five," Frank Koncz said.
The revitalization has already bolstered the value of their property to more than $400,000. Although they joke that it's still a good Halloween house, their 85-year-old residence has been beautifully restored and, they say, Brewer Avenue now feels like home.
"It's like the neighborhoods I grew up in as a kid," Frank Koncz admitted.
Willie Harrell did grow up on Brewer, next door to where he now lives. Although there's no original deed for his residence at 137 Brewer Ave., historians estimate it was constructed around 1926.
He and his wife Laura purchased the three-story house at auction for $112,000 in August of 2003. They spent another $10,000 renovating it with Willie doing most of the repairs when he wasn't working as a fitness and aquatic coach at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk.
"When you buy any house, there's always something to do. Well, there's a new meaning to that when you buy an old one; but I like doing the stuff. There's a sense of accomplishment and we're preserving history," he said.
The couple wanted an old house with soul and this one was beside the house Willie Harrell lived in while they were dating.
Although the neighborhood brings back a flood of memories, their home produced a flood of its own soon after move-in day. Laura Harrell was in the kitchen when an overhead water pipe burst, dumping water on her head.
That was just the beginning. As they undertook the tedious task of restoration, they uncovered a partial cardboard wall behind wallpaper applied with a hot-glue gun. The roof was like a sieve, the kitchen floor collapsed and the back yard was a jungle.
Their original wood floors still "Slant a hit," but that just adds character, Laura Harrell said.
The good news is that, in the two years they've owned it, their property has more than doubled in value.
Restored properties on Brewer Avenue are selling in the $400,000 range.
Garcia is quick to point out, however, that Brewer is still a transitional neighborhood.
"So you've got to sell the concept - the vision - before you sell the house," he said. "But, in two year's time, these houses have tripled in value."
Out of the 50 properties Garcia has purchased in Suffolk since 2000, seven are on Brewer. Five of the houses were duplexes that he restored to single-family residences.
"Older houses are a lot harder to deal with than a new house. It's double the labor. You must undo before you can redo," said Garcia.
He has plans to build three more houses on Brewer that "will feel old but be new." One of those will be his residence.
Although buyers have found that these restored older houses are solid investments commanding premium prices in the real estate market, they are also aware of their intrinsic value.
Residents treat their old houses as cherished antiques that are polished and presented like debutantes to uppercrust society.
"People take an old house over a new one because it's unique. Go to a development and most of the houses are alike. When you find an old house here on Brewer, it's a one of a kind," said Hefferon.