Ashley Brockus can’t drive by her old house on South Broadway without tearing up. She, her husband and children lived in it four years, during which time Bryan Brockus Jr. spent most of his free time restoring the 1887 Queen Anne style home.
The Brockuses recently moved to Santa Fe Lake to give their growing family more room. But they’ll have a fond reminder of their time in what’s known as the Monroe-Mahan house: Bryan’s remodeling of the bathroom was chosen as the best in the nation this year by This Old House, the home improvement magazine, TV show and website. The magazine was set to hit newsstands Friday, and thisoldhouse.com carries a piece with before-and-after photos of the project.
“My husband did everything himself, which is pretty incredible,” Ashley Brockus said. “He spent every waking hour for three months.”
That, by the way, is a lot more time than Bryan expected to spend. With his firefighter’s schedule – 24 hours on duty, 48 hours off – “my plan was to just work full time on my days off, and I’d have it done in a month,” he said, chuckling.
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The Monroe-Mahan house was built at 1357 S. Broadway (then known as Lawrence) for the Rev. James Monroe, head of a nearby church, and sold a decade later to John P. Mahan, who owned a liquor distributorship as well as the bar in the Carey Hotel attacked by famed prohibitionist Carry Nation. Mahan sold it the same day as Nation’s attack. The house was later used as a boarding home and office building, and was nearly demolished before renovation efforts in the 1990s. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The bathroom remodeled by Brockus had last been updated in the 1970s. He gutted the room and leveled the floor joists. He installed a new shower – the only one in the house – so Ashley only had to spend a couple of weeks showering at the downtown YMCA. He installed subway tiles on the wall, a beadboard ceiling and radiant heating under the newly tiled floor. He put in a clawfoot tub the couple had found on Craigslist and moved a chandelier from another room in the house to hang over it.
The centerpiece of the project is a vintage iron washstand with griffin details at each end that Brockus turned into a double vanity, topped with 100-year-old marble. Brockus said the washstand was “something wealthy people had to heat up their bathwater. We bought it at an antique store in Andover, refinished it and antiqued it.”
Thisoldhouse.com said Brockus took “a dreary and inadequate family bath down to the studs to renovate it in period-perfect Victorian style, with bargain buys and salvaged finds.” The award comes with $1,000 in prizes and money.
The bathroom remodeling was actually a fairly small part of Brockus’ work on the home, and he makes it clear that he couldn’t have done any of it without a lot of help. The Brockuses first moved into the south-central Wichita neighborhood a decade ago, buying a smaller home a few blocks away on Waco.
“You know, when we got married, I didn’t want to rent a house and we didn’t have any money, so we bought a little bank-owned home, and we just basically did everything ourselves,” Bryan said.
The previous owners of the Monroe-Mahan house had undertaken some renovations by the time they put it up for sale, but they didn’t want to tackle the biggest job of all – re-doing the exterior. And neither did Brockus at first.
“I was hesitant to take it on because it was so much bigger and older,” he said.
So Brockus went to talk to Larry Mong, well-known for restoring his own home and others in the area. “He said, ‘You should buy the house. I’ll help you’ – and sure enough he did,” Brockus said.
“Basically he apprenticed me and kept me from going crazy, because you know these old houses can take a long time.”
Brockus got an estimate of what it would cost to scrape down the outside, perform the necessary woodwork and repaint the home: $36,000. “And so I thought, I’ll just do it myself. It took four years.”
Mong taught him the trick of soaking the wood with linseed oil and paint thinner after it’s been scraped, to put moisture back in and help keep the new coat of primer and paint sticking to it. Brockus took out three-fourths of the home’s windows, replacing windows, ropes and weights where necessary. The owner of Wichita Stained Glass Co. let him use his shop to build a half-dozen stained glass windows for the place.
An uncle walked him through leveling floor joists. A homeowner in Atlanta, whose historic residence the Brockuses had admired online, told them which Sherwin Williams paints made up her color scheme.
Mong, who lives at Gilbert and South Topeka, said he was happy to help. “Anybody that buys into my neighborhood, I’m thankful for.”
“Just to paint a house is one thing, but to take the time to re-do windows and stuff …” he said. Mong added that Brockus’ window work, as time consuming as it was, makes more sense to him than installing new windows.
“Those original windows, they used old-growth pine. They’re usually not rotted. You can restore those windows and they’ll last forever.”
‘We love old houses’
The emotion Ashley Brockus feels for the house extends to the neighborhood in general. She works as an emergency family therapist for Legacy Ministries, a nonprofit that’s active there. The Brockuses threw themselves into community activities as soon as they arrived, encouraging friends to move to south-central Wichita and even letting some live with them until they found their own place.
“That’s what keeps a neighborhood from going dark, not gentrification,” Ashley said.
“It gets a bad rap,” Bryan said, “but if you talk to any of those people that live down there, we don’t have any problems. It’s great.”
But the opportunity to live on Santa Fe Lake, where Bryan is working part time as caretaker of the old Camp Tawakoni Boy Scout Camp, was too good to pass up. The Brockuses have two daughters – Riviere, 5, and Orianna, 3 – plus a son, Bo, who’s 8 months old.
“I’ve never lived in the country so it’s amazing to be out here,” said Ashley, who still works in her old neighborhood a couple days a week.
The couple “basically broke even” when they sold the Monroe-Mahan house, Bryan said. “If we would have paid people to do all the work, we would have lost our butts.”
That wasn’t the point, anyway.
“We didn’t do it to make money,” he said. “We were doing it because we love old houses and we were planning to live there a long time.”