House healers: East Cleveland couple saves and restores historic home back to its original shine

An East Cleveland couple is taking it upon themselves to preserve the rich history of the city’s Forest Hill neighborhood by restoring the famed homes, one house at a time. Their work on the house located at 16237 Forest Hills Blvd. recently earned them a Cleveland Heights Historic Preservation Award.

Jamain and Kesha Owens have lived in Forest Hill for 14 years. Last year, they kept hearing about an abandoned property near their own Rockefeller home that was in complete disrepair, had been taken over by the Cuyahoga Land Bank, and was on the list for possible demolition.

The two first learned of the 1953 house—which they estimate had been vacant for about 15 years—through emails from Forest Hill Home Owners (FHHO), and it sparked their curiosity. “I go past it all the time on my two-mile long running path, but I had never paid attention to it," says Kesha. "But [I thought] if we can do this, and do it right, it would be good to bring this house back to the neighborhood.”

The historic Forest Hill neighborhood dates back to the days of John D. Rockefeller, who once owned the land spanning East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights and built his summer home on it. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought the land from his father in 1923, with plans to build upscale residential and commercial development. While Rockefeller Jr. carried out some of his plan—building 81 French-Norman style homes on the Cleveland Heights land just north of Lee Boulevard—the vision was left incomplete with the arrival of the Great Depression.

Residential development resumed in the 1950s. “A half-dozen builders came to the subdivision to finish off what John D. Rockefeller Jr. had started,” says Jamain, adding that the later houses comprise ranch, colonial and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes.

Despite the hurdles involved with such a distressed property, the Owenses knew they had to restore this house. “We wanted to maintain the historic value of the neighborhood,” says Kesha, who says if the house was in any other neighborhood they would have walked away. “If that’s what you’re sitting next door to, you don’t have incentive to keep up your house. We did our part in contributing to the community.”

To put their project in motion, Jamain and Kesha obtained loans from the Cleveland Restoration Society’s Heritage Loan Program and Key Bank, and worked with the City of Cleveland Heights to waive the 125 percent escrow requirement for point-of-sale home purchases. 

They bought the property from the Land Bank in April 2016 and began work.  The slate roof was all but gone, the hardwood floors were warped and buckling from water damage, the mosaic tile in the bathroom covered in rotten wood, the basement was waterlogged, and the masonry and brickwork needed repair and rebuilding.

“You could look up and count the stars at night, or see blue skies. In the basement, there was a lot of water—probably about a quarter-inch in the middle of the floor,” says Jamain. “A lot of people walked away from [this house] because it was in such bad condition.”

Then there were the odors coming from racoons living in the house, the copper gutters clogged, and rotten wood and water damage virtually everywhere. It was so bad that Kesha, who has asthma, couldn’t go inside in the beginning stages. “It was disgusting,” she says.

Yet Jamain and Kesha persevered in restoring the three-bedroom, 1,799-square-foot home to its original glory—keeping a meticulous eye for detail. They repaired the muted multi-colored slate roof, one of the assets that first attracted the Owens to the property. Jamain actually got on the roof with the contractor to oversee the operation and take in the "gorgeous views of lush green trees that put the ‘Forest’ in Forest Hill.”

They restored and replaced the windows. They fixed the leaks throughout the house—drying out, waterproofing, and refinishing the basement; ripping out the mosaic tile in the bathrooms to address the rotten wood underneath; and replacing the hardwood floors and repairing them where possible. They refinished the kitchen, tuck-pointed the chimney, and worked with Vagner Masonry to rebuild the stone planter in the front of the house using the original stones and matching the original mortar.

“You can’t tell the difference,” notes Jamain of the planter. “I wanted it done so a person who had never been there would think it was original.”

Jamain says the floors in the dining room were so bad that they were about four to five inches above the rest of the floor. “The rain would come in and fall directly on the floor,” he says. He purchased red oak to match the original flooring, then interlaced the old and new wood to create a seamless transition.

The dining room is now Jamain’s favorite room in the remodeled house, due to "the red oak tongue-and-groove flooring, and the plaster and glass doors leading out to the sun porch that were restored in a way that looks as if they had never been touched. To me, that is the mark of exceptional restoration work.” 

They also replaced the HVAC system (plumbing and electrical), made plaster repairs and hung new drywall, and restored and powder coated the heating vents to their original finish. The Owens even anodized the original brass hardware on the exterior doors.

Finding the right people to do the work was its own chore. The Owens worked with more than 22 different contractors to get the job done right.

“We tried to hire three different general contractors and they didn’t want to take it on because it would take too long,” recalls Jamain, who ended up serving as general contractor. "If I couldn’t find someone to do it, I rolled up my sleeves and did it myself. There were things that took time because I couldn’t find the people to do it the way I wanted at the price I wanted.”

After making a substantial investment, the Owenses recently put the house up for sale and have already gotten a lot of interest. Says Kesha, “Seeing what it was like when we first purchased the home to now, it is an amazing transformation."

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.