LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — The boarded-up, two-story house on Wise Street clearly had seen better days, but there was something about its dormers that attracted Dabney McCain.

So when the house was entered into the Lynchburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority's Homesteading Program, which offered dilapidated houses of historical or architectural significance to buyers for $1, Dabney jumped at the chance to save it.

"When I came up and looked at it, I just fell in love with it," he said.

His new bride wasn't nearly as excited.

Estelle learned of Dabney's dream after the couple returned from their honeymoon in 1998.

"I thought he was crazy," she said. "...I cried for three months. I did. My mom looked at me and she told me, she said, 'You know, he's got a dream and you just need to back him up.'"

And that's exactly what Estelle did.

It took years of hard work for Dabney, who lost an arm in an industrial accident, and Estelle to turn that old house valued at $10,000 in 1998 into the inviting home it is today, worth almost $300,000, according to Zillow.

"Really, you could stand in front of the fireplace and look all the way out the ceiling it was so rotten, but I knew that I could do the work," Dabney said.

The 3,700-square-foot house was built in 1901 for the city's mayor — at least that's what documents in the city assessor's office reflect, Dabney said. But decades of neglect began as residents moved further out into suburbia, leaving these beautiful old houses in the College Hill area near Park Avenue to decay. Many homes were divvied up into small apartments and some abandoned.

The McCain house became the second on the 1000 block of Wise Street to be resurrected through the homesteading program. Two more houses later were saved, and all that reinvestment helped turn around a city block that once had a serious problem with drugs and gang activity.

"I can see the movement and I like it," Estelle said. "I really like it and I wish we could get more movement."

But change comes slowly.

Estelle recalls pulling up to her home when Dabney was out of town to find gang members loitering in her yard, and how the dusk to dawn light Dabney put up kept getting shot out. Several of the restored homes, the McCains included, now have alarm systems.

"They used to go into this house when we were working on this one," Estelle said, pointing to another house that underwent a similar revitalization. "...One young man looked at me and he said, 'Hey lady, you all bought that house? And I said, 'Yes, we did, and we would really appreciate it if you all didn't come over on this property.' They were nice. I guess they respected us because we didn't treat them any different."


The task of saving this particular house seemed daunting to Estelle, but not to Dabney.

He learned about construction by watching others. Dabney, who once lived in Chicago, was put on light duty as an elevator operator by his union after he lost his arm. He often felt bored, so he would stop on floors where construction crews worked to learn by observing.

"I never figured I'd apply it, you know, to something like this," he said. "...I figured out ways to do things myself with one arm. I used a lot of clamps. When I was doing the electric, I'd hold the wires in my mouth to twist them but it just came natural to me because I was so used to working with one arm. I shovel my own snow. I do basically everything. I'm too ornery to pay somebody to do it."

The McCains' home had been divided into apartments and somewhere along the line it had been stripped of almost all of its trim and wainscoting, though little elements such as the scroll pattern along the stairs remained.

Estelle readily admitted she couldn't see the potential — that is until the couple returned from a trip for their first anniversary. Dabney had sheet rock installed while they were away.

"When I walked in, it was different. I could see it was going to be a house," she said, describing how the couple sat in each empty room and mapped out a shared vision for their home.

The rotten back porch Estelle put her foot through when she first saw the house became an addition containing the first-floor kitchen and the master bathroom and closet, laundry, and guest bedroom on the second floor.

Of course, reconstructing a house wasn't always easy on the newlyweds.

Estelle recalled ripping out old plaster in the front bedroom while up on a ladder. At the time, she said, portions of the floors were missing, and one could fall from attic to basement.

"Something fell and, girl, I thought it was a rat," she said.

"It was a stuffed animal," Dabney interjected.

"It came from the attic and it fell down. I jumped off that ladder," Estelle said, adding she injured her ankle in the process.

"After I found out you were OK, I went into the other room and just died laughing," Dabney said. "We had a lot of fun doing this."

When it came to tiling the kitchen floor, Estelle said Dabney accidentally bought quick-set grout. Estelle found herself frantically scooting across the floor in a race to clean the leftover grout off the tile surface before it dried.

"I was on my knees. I was scooting on my butt. I did everything trying to clean," she said. "My mom was sitting there, in a chair, watching. She was like, 'If I could help you, I would but I can't.' . . . I told him I would kill him if he didn't read the box the next time."

The house originally featured clapboard siding, and the couple tried to paint it but within six months it looked just as bad as before. Clapboard, Estelle said, was far too expensive, and Dabney learned another house in the historic district had vinyl siding, so he successfully petitioned to use the same kind.

The second floor features three bedrooms, including the master that now has a beadboard ceiling. On the first floor, Dabney created a bedroom and full bathroom for Estelle's mother, who moved into the Wise Street house before her daughter. The once unfinished attic now is a cozy den.

The house is large for the couple, but Estelle said she loves having the extra space when they hosts their out-of-state families for the holidays.

Dabney is preparing to remodel the kitchen with granite countertops and new cabinetry and give the master bathroom a tiled shower and double vanity. Estelle said this time, they may hire a contractor for some of the renovations, but Dabney isn't keen on that plan.


In a way, the house has become a sort of living embodiment of Dabney and Estelle's lives together.

Much of the couple's furniture is family hand-me-downs, each piece brings with it a fond reminder of the family who have supported them along the way.

"I can walk through this house and think about all the memories that we have," Estelle said.

"I've got too much in this house. I'm not going anywhere. The feeling that I have for this house, all the furniture could be gone and I'd still stay here on a blowup mattress."

Dabney enjoys showing off just what the couple managed to accomplish in saving a piece of the city's past, and about the memories the couple made in the process.

"Some people say, 'Oh, that's bragging.' It's not bragging," he said. "We have done something here that's part of history. It will be in the history books of Lynchburg."

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