"Live a good life, and in the end, it's not the years in the life, it's the life in the years."

The grand old Wells House hosts a grand new beginning — thanks to hard working volunteers

By on April 26, 2017 in Featured Homes with 1 Comment

Story by Susan Lagsdin

Photos by Donna Cassidy

Overheard in the Wells House foyer, April 5, 4 p.m.:

Project manager Kris Bassett: “Um… it’s been raining pretty hard for a few days. I was there yesterday, but…”

Volunteer Bob Otis, with a knowing look: “The turret?”

Kris: “Yeah, the turret needs….”

Bob: “I know, I know….” He turned to climb up to the bolted-closed trapdoor to the turret’s flat roof.

Most stained glass panels were stored for years after vandalism and theft threatened them; this 1932 lighting fixture, like many recently installed, were retrieved from a teardown in Chelan.

What the turret needed and what it got was a half hour of vigorous brooming that shoved a rainwater puddle into a solitary drainpipe situated just a bit above the water line.

What Kris and Bob have is shorthand communication that comes from months of working together, in the company of other equally savvy volunteers, on a seemingly never-ending project.

Kris said, when asked what she’ll do after this spring’s Grand Re-Opening of the historic Wells house. “Oh — I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life working on this place, in some way or another.”

Designed by C.C. Cross of Santa Monica and built in 1909, the much-loved icon deserves its historic legacy, retaining its special place among the fine old structures that have graced Wenatchee for over a century.

But it has developed a few flaws over time. (Actually, more than a few, but help is on the way.)

The elegant stucco, shingle and stone facade, the porches and patio, and the surrounding lawn for years conveyed the image of tranquil grandeur. From a distance, it was impossible to see hazardously outdated plumbing and electricity and the inexorable deterioration of roof, ceilings, walls and floors.

Fortunately, even with its decades of heavy use as both a private home and public venue (as well as periods of deferred maintenance) the house remains not only photogenic but sturdy, and as dozens of volunteers and donors would agree, eminently worthy of attention.

Wells House is getting that attention. Love and labor have been heaped upon it daily for the last 11 months, and on May 12, it will greet visitors once again in the style to which it was first accustomed.

The big story here is how dedication and roll-up-your-sleeves labor is gaining ground on the aging process.

The Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and its affiliate, the Wells House Committee, have officially been the owners since 1975.

Major work — like new roofing, a new boiler and electrical panel and repair of a vandalized drain system — have been implemented relatively recently, so this current two-year grant is for reconstruction of the interior. The budget of $78,000 comes equally from a state heritage grant, matching dollars from donors, and in-kind work and materials.

Kris, the committee’s president tasked with overseeing the work, is on intimate terms with the house’s history and problems, and spends most days working there. The secretary of the organization, Joy Castellente, is a prime planner and also does lots of literal hands-on work. Other volunteers and contractors have brought hundreds of hours of sweat and skill, a vital combination.

The first big job for this round of repair was replacing plaster on the ceilings and walls where both gravity and moisture had caused decay, and the settling of the traditional “balloon-framed” house had caused cracks.

As painter/wallpaper expert Chris Wood, who’s done work on vintage properties for 35 years, said “You can’t do anything about it — these old houses move.”

Modern sheetrock was not a look they wanted, and new wet “mud” created a messy disaster of falling chunks. Luckily, Kris scouted a mesh-like product that helped adhere new plaster to old subsurface and lathe.

Particularly daunting was the damage in the second-floor turret bedroom. From the outside, one day volunteers saw birds flying into a corner of the house and disappearing — they learned that possibly 100 bird generations had been entering where the turret had pulled away from the main structure.

A hole was punched in the ceiling and flashlights shone on a space filled with abandoned nests, copious droppings, asbestos-laden vermiculite, and dampness. Carpenter Steve Fries (and an abatement crew) went to work; cheerfully, he said about that kind of crisis at Wells House, “There’s never been anything tedious about doing this — it’s just a lot of problem-solving, and that’s the fun part of the job.”

Oak floors left uncovered remained remarkably blemish-free. But attempts to modernize — notably with glue-on products — were onerous to repair.

Bob recalled one time Kris said, “I’ve got a really bad job for you….” It took three people working over three days to peel and scrape rubber treads off the staircase. In the upstairs bedrooms, dark brown synthetic carpeting had adhered equally well to the original floorboards.

Unsightly electric conduit had crisscrossed the ceiling and walls; some of that system is updated with wireless, remote control switches (“It’s not ‘period,’” Kris explained, “but it keeps us from damaging the house with new wiring.”)

Bathrooms are receiving a total update, or backdate, with old-style tiles, a couple of ornate clawfoot bathtubs, pedestal sinks and cabinetry, all in hyper-sanitary white (a desirable 1920’s look). High wainscoting in one bathroom was moved to the original lower spot, and Steve creatively replicated the old wall “tiles” (or tile look-alikes) by measuring and scoring damp plaster in exact duplication.

Saved for a later date — Kris says it’s coming but it’s way down on the to-do list — is a refurbishing of the huge, hardworking, multitasking basement; currently it’s doing its necessary job as a storage area. The upstairs bedrooms, now safe from water, will also have to wait for their polishing touches.

The past 11 months have been strenuous and unpredictable. Kris said, “I can count on it — there is a surprise of some kind every single day… you find stuff you’d never expect. Why do I do this? Well, I love the house! And it’s right up my alley — I love getting my hands on the work.”

With guests coming in only a few weeks, there’ll be a bit of frenzy — any host wants the place to look as good as possible, and the Wells House Committee is a consummate host. But the work that’s left is bound to be less harrowing (cross varnish-stained fingers, knock on old wood).

Ironically, it was the tear-down of an old Chelan house that yielded early-century sconces and chandeliers, and Kris said that even she slowly exhaled a little the day those light fixtures were installed.

“It felt like the kind of thing you do right before you move in — there was an end in sight.”

The Wells House, despite its aches and pains and puddled turret top, which floods the basement, has borne its age graciously.

When the stained glass is all in place, the last rug has been rolled onto the floors and the valances hung, the grand old house will graciously open its doors and welcome visitors once again.

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  1. Gerry stevens says:

    Thanks to Kris and all her and everyone’s hard work
    The WellsHouse is once again becoming the diamond
    She once was.

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