‘We could see the sky through a hole in the roof — from downstairs’ – how one couple fixed up this stunning Victorian home
No3 St Peter’s Avenue Phibsborough, Dublin 7 Asking price: €595,000 Agent: Kelly Bradshaw Dalton (01) 804 0500
ouple buys old house. Couple moves into old house. Now that old house begins to reveal its serious flaws one at a time. One after the other, after the other, after the other… until the money is gone.
That’s the plot of The Money Pit, the iconic home buyer disaster comedy hit of 1986 starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as the unfortunate couple who land themselves with a home that starts to fall apart right after they buy it and eats all their cash.
But it’s not so funny if you find yourself in a starring role in your own version of this tale, as Michael Fichtner and his partner discovered when they bought an early Victorian home at 3 St Peter’s Avenue in Dublin’s Phibsborough in 2004 with plans to put their own stamp on it.
“We realised something was awry on the first night that it rained. We woke up to find water streaming down the bedroom wall.” Being severely limited in their funds, the couple had pushed the boat out to buy it, with plans to do it up bit by bit. Unlike The Money Pit owners, they had none left to spare after buying.
But every time they got involved in restoring one part, they uncovered deeper and more serious problems.
“I guess we were naive,” says Michael. “We did get a survey done but those guys can’t dig into the walls or the attic to find out what’s really wrong. We were told by the vendors that the roof had recently been done. Not long after that we were sitting in the living room looking at the sky through a hole in the ceiling above and another in the roof in the floor above that. We could see through two floors.” It wasn’t just the roof that was a problem.
When the couple went to sand and varnish the timber floors they discovered that they were thoroughly rotten. “All of them,” says Michael.
“We literally hadn’t a penny. Parents took pity on us as the rain came in and kindly wrote us a cheque to get the roof done.” But it would get worse again. “We needed to get the sash windows fixed. My dad knew this guy who was good enough to offer to help us out. It turned out he was well into his eighties. He took one look at the frames and said ‘you can throw them in a skip, they’re done.’ He had this wonderful lot of seasoned pine wood that he’d been keeping for 30 years and offered to make us a new set.”
But due to his age, their rural-based window maker Samaritan took a long time. “For 18 months we had to live in the house without windows. We couldn’t ask him to hurry up because he was doing it for free. It was at that point, with us sitting in the living room with plywood boards on the front windows that I really thought ‘what have we done?!”
It was a trying time for the couple who had a few squabbles because of it but they stuck with it and finally things began to take shape.
Their window maker was as good as his word and the beautiful new sash windows were delivered and installed. Bit by bit they began to address the other issues. “We had to strip out the interior walls. They had that old horse hair plaster. Literally there was nothing original we could leave behind.”
With new roof, new windows, new floors (rescued period wide boards) and new internal walls, they got the place rewired, replumbed and insulated. And alongside their newly purchased house the area, too, began to resurrect.
“The deeds of the house suggest it was built in 1837 and we think these were two-up two-down homes for railway workers.” The house overlooked the site of the old Phibsborough Railway Station when they bought the property, along with the abandoned Broadstone Line.
But in the intervening years the Luas was expanded and now stops, literally, on their doorstep. The row of houses at St Peter’s is accessed via a raised ramp which runs in a planted cobbled lane outside their door. Meanwhile the DIT began to develop its new centralised college campus at nearby Grangegorman.
Alongside the new sash windows, they installed working shutters which double as blinds and winter insulators as originally intended when first installed on these homes in the year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
“Most of the homes seemed to have a staircase up to the attic floor which must have been removed in ours at some point. So we reinstated ours and turned the top floor into a home office. I’m a graphic designer and it’s my home studio essentially. The internal look of the house has been achieved organically over the years. We didn’t really go out to buy stuff, we picked up stuff we liked along the way as we encountered it.”
They installed new bathrooms and a contemporary kitchen. A nice touch is a backlit row of vintage top hats and assorted headware suspended on glass stems atop the kitchen units.
“They’re actually sitting on Martini glasses. We have had a tradition that when we have a few people back for drinks and the music comes on that everyone who dances has to wear a hat.”
Another inspired choice is a huge marine aquarium built into the wall in the main bathroom from which the fish have been relocated following plans to move.
“We’ve had lovely clown fish in there and our fish are staying temporarily at Temple Street Hospital’s tank until we get sorted.”
Once the house evolved into a finished state they were free to enjoy its location. “It’s just been perfect for working and socialising. You can walk into town and it’s within reach of all the great restaurants, bars and clubs.” But now that the couple have matured, being city-centre based isn’t as attractive to them. “We’re looking around for something in the country for a more quiet life. So now we’re selling up. I guess the new owners are likely to be another couple in their thirties like we were when we first bought it.”
And so the house has been placed on the market through Kelly Bradshaw Dalton which is asking €595,000.
From the cobbled avenue, you walk up a short step into the hall with its solid wood floor and teardrop detail fanlight over the door. The living room comes with underfloor heating, an ornate open fireplace, upgraded sash windows with shutters, wall panelling and high ceilings.
The bespoke hand-crafted contemporary kitchen has dark units against a feature orange wall, an exposed limestone and brick wall and a coffee station.
There’s a family room with solid nine- inch board floor with a skylight and this also has underfloor heating as well as access to the garden.
Upstairs the master bedroom and bedroom two both have sash windows and underfloor heating.
The bathroom has a stone tile floor and a rainwater shower as well as some hidden storage.
Upstairs again is the attic room with enough space for a double bed and there’s a work station and lots of shelves. The house looks at the Luas Green line station although it’s 20 minutes’ walk to O’Connell Street and also within walking of the Phoenix Park, the Mater Hospital, DIT and Grangegorman.
So for Fichtner and his partner, it all worked out in the end. They were lucky.
The Makowsky family who bought the real Money Pit house from the movie at Lattingtown in Long Island in 2002 for $2.12m later reported: “We didn’t realise how bad it was.”
It cost them $6m to put everything right and they ended up selling it three years ago for just $3.5m.