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Marshall House makeover


At the web address www.227northstreet.com, Mark Goff and Phillip Engel proudly posted their version of a vacation photo.

It's a fiery sunset over the ocean, looking out from a beach with gently lapping surf and a stand of bending palms. In the midst of this vacation scene is a big white house, plopped beachside — courtesy of Photoshop — like a thatched cabana or Dorothy's farmhouse rudely dumped into the middle of paradise.

Jokingly, Goff blogs to friends and followers, "As the sun sets on our ninth day of vacation, we reflect on nine fun-filled days of home renovation and a pre-inspection walk through by the city inspector. A lovely time was had by all, sanding, digging, priming, and running around shopping like chickens with our heads cut off."

Since purchasing one of Healdsburg's oldest and most neglected homes — an 1870 Italianate with front bay windows so saggy the house appeared to be frowning in despair — Goff and Engel have foregone not only all vacations, but all weekends. In fact, as soon as their work day begins, the pair race down from their nearby rental and start picking up the power tools.

For more than a year, they have devoted every possible spare moment to the ultimate DIY makeover on a house that to the passerby appeared so forlorn, so beyond redemption, only the patron saint of hopeless causes, St. Jude himself, could save it from total rack and ruin.

"It goes on and on and on and on," sighs Goff of the never-ending task of making the decrepit three-story mansion, whose electrical system was red-tagged in the 1950s, even remotely habitable.

Despite appearances, dramatic things have taken place beyond the front door of 227 North. The house has drawn so much curiosity that people lined up down the block with lawn chairs for a chance to peek inside when it was featured on Healdsburg's spring Historic Homes tour. Recently, a neighbor watched astonished as a Wine Country tour bus pulled up and spilled out its passengers for a photo op.

Starting late last summer, Goff and Engel lifted the house and had a firm new foundation placed under it. The house until then had sat on crumbly bricks whose mortar had turned to chalky dust.

That alone perked up the former belle of North Street like an eyelift on an aging movie star.

"The house is a bit taller than it used to be. We gained a little height. And we straightened it out," said Engel. "It's particularly noticeable in the front with the bay windows. They didn't have a foundation. They were just on these posts that had rotted away and they were actually sagging. But when the foundation was done they were the first thing to touch down and all of a sudden the house didn't look so sad anymore."

As soon as the house landed on its new foundation, Engel and Goff also hit the ground running.

"We rushed in and tore down the walls," said Goff. Since then, it's been plumbing, electrical wiring, water pipes, heating ducts — unglamorous but essential infrastructure that will never be seen.

To the curbside observer, not a lot has changed at 227 North Street. But Goff and Engel are close to making at least a few critical rooms in the house habitable. They hope to have the kitchen, breakfast nook and master bedroom done by the end of the year, enabling them to move in and stop paying rent, freeing up more funds to funnel into their magnificent obsession.

Friends and family thought they were a little crazy when the two men sunk nearly $1 million into the house. Trumpeted as the most expensive home in town at the time it was built in 1870 for the small fortune of $3,500, by 2009 the 140-year-old Marshall house was so ramshackle it didn't even qualify for a bank loan.

But Goff and Engel saw potential in those old redwood bones. They decided to invest everything they had — both money and time — into restoring the aged manse built by town blacksmith John Marshall for his bride.

It eventually wound up in the hands of the late Bette Frampton Miller, who bought it from her father for $1. Miller never had the money for anything more than the most basic of repairs. She rented it out to poor families who acted as caretakers over the years so she could qualify for insurance. But no one lavished any love or good taste on 227 North until Goff and Engel took a gamble on making it their dream house.

Although they've done some restoration work on other homes, it's been largely an exercising in learn by doing.

"It's the ultimate do-it-yourself crash course. Because somebody else requires money to do it," said Goff, with a typical trace of ironic humor.

The pair depleted most of their financial resources on shoring up the house, so they're doing the rest themselves, bit by painstaking bit. Each month they buy just the materials they need for the current projects.

"We appear between 5:30 and 6 every night and we work until 9 or 10. We go home. We eat dinner, watch a little television, fall asleep, get up and get to our day jobs by 9 every day," said Goff, who designs pop-up books, working out of his home. Engel telecommutes for a major international auditing firm.

Engel had never done any electrical work when he undertook the task of completely wiring a three-story, 3,500-square foot house, using a manual he picked up at Home Depot.

They laid all the walnut floorboards themselves, hammering in 16 square nails per board.

"Seven weeks on our hands and knees. Three-thousand square feet of floor," Goff sighs.

One of the more aggravating jobs was installing the custom-made kitchen cabinets.

"You must be very meticulous to get everything lined up just right," Goff says, explaining that the job is confounded further by the sheer weight and the fact that the old house is not plumb.

They've also kept costs down by sourcing some fixtures through Craigslist. They scored a great deal on a set of spectacular gas chandeliers salvaged from a foreclosed-upon mansion in Michigan of the same vintage. Sadly, they were severely damaged during shipping to California. But the pair found an expert in antique gas lights in Grass Valley who repaired and restored them and wired them for electricity.

The project has attracted followers, both curious neighbors and those who follow the progress through the guys' blog, 227North.com. Kind friends and townspeople have given them gifts and loaned equipment.

"We don't buy anything," Engel says of their simple lifestyle, pared down to the studs, so to speak, while everything goes into their house. "We rarely eat out unless we go to the Mexican place. We get ourselves invited out to dinner a lot."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.