I would consider all of my fellow Historic Ithaca staff members Preservation Heroes, so it’s not too difficult to unearth inspiring stories about historic preservation just chatting around the office water cooler. Last month Suzanne Onodera, Significant Elements’ Work Preserve Education and Outreach Coordinator, sat down and shared her preservation story. Read on to learn how Suzanne and her husband Tim Merrick came to care for an 1870s Italianate and, in the process, deepened their commitment to historic preservation.
My support for Historic Ithaca grew out of my love for old homes, and one in particular. When the house right around the corner from us came on the market almost ten years ago, my husband Tim and I immediately jumped on it. The windows of the 1870s Italianate had been boarded up, and the house had clearly been neglected for decades. But Tim and I have an affinity for preservation and restoration and are not ones to back away from a challenge.
At our Northside Ithaca house, we discovered wide plank floors in the dining room underneath layers of linoleum and original clapboards under the exterior asphalt shingle siding. Tim rebuilt the staircase and has designed and milled out Italianate woodwork details for the side porch. He also custom built all the doors and rebuilt the original double front doors.
At first it was uncanny for me to think that I was living in a house from the 1870s. I quickly realized that I needed to start learning about the history of these old structures in Ithaca because we wanted to restore the house rather than remodel it. It’s a labor of love, and we’re doing it piece by piece.
As owner of Tim Merrick Construction, Tim had long been a supporter of Historic Ithaca. He started out making donations of leftover building materials to Significant Elements and looking through the store for window weights for old windows that he’d restore. I started to peruse the store for inspiration and loved the idea of preserving and recycling as much as we could.
In the process of working on our house and spending time at Significant Elements, I came to understand what Historic Ithaca does as the voice for preservation. They do everything from advising and educating to salvaging items. I knew I wanted to understand the intricacies of living in an old home and put roots down in this community, so volunteering seemed like a natural choice.
On my very first day helping at Significant Elements almost three years ago, I started out processing and cleaning donations with Work Preserve job training participants. I got to know them and Work Preserve Coordinator Karen Coleman. I was impressed by Karen and by the program that helps train young adults in retail and job readiness skills. I enjoyed meeting them and hearing their stories. I was sad when Karen announced that she was retiring, as I knew hers were big shoes to fill. Significant Elements and Work Preserve Manager Sara Johnson said, “Hey, Suzanne, why don’t you apply?” So I did, and I started as Work Preserve Education and Outreach Coordinator in February.
The job hits so many marks in terms of my interests. It’s being engaged at the front lines of historic preservation; it’s working with youth who want to transition to full employment. It’s encouraging creative problem solving getting the kids to initiate tasks and develop self-esteem and be able to dream a bit about their futures. It’s interesting to see how they grow and become more engaged in their community. It’s working with salvaged materials, and it’s inspiring every day.
Our involvement with Historic Ithaca hits all the marks for Tim as well. This summer Tim opened up his worksite for a visit from Work Preserve participants. They went out to the construction site twice and got to see what the addition to an older house looked like when it was just framed and then when it was finished. They talked about building materials and tools with Tim.
After years of involvement, both Tim and I understand Historic Ithaca’s vision more fully now. Like Historic Ithaca, Tim and I are tied into the brick and mortar of our community and are interested in building the brick and mortar of Work Preserve participants’ lives. Engaging people to help them build a better life and restoring an old house are related. Both are for the long haul. We’re not fixing up a house to flip. It’s going to take years to see it restored. And just like restoring an 1870s house, there’s never a one-off solution being involved with Work Preserve participants at a critical point in their lives. It takes a lot of care, it takes a lot of dealing with unknowns, a lot of nurturing.
Suzanne and Tim invest in our community in a meaningful way as preservationists and donors to Historic Ithaca. We’re grateful that you are also invested in our community and our history. I hope that you’ll join Tim and Suzanne in contributing by making a gift to Historic Ithaca today. With your help, we can ensure our community’s young people and its storied structures and sites will be nurtured and supported.
Contact Pat Longoria at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d be interested in sharing your preservation story.