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House with a past An 1860s Lancaster home gets an eye-opening face-lift

Old and new. New and old. That's the recurring theme at the Village of Lancaster home of Robert Thill and Betsy Moll. The house -- built in the 1860s and renovated in the Queen Anne style at the turn-of-the-century -- was transformed again in the 1990s, this time by Thill and Moll.

What one sees now is a refurbished brick exterior with Queen Anne embellishments on the outside, a renovated interior with open floor plan on the inside.

Moll describes the renovation as "building a new house inside an old."

The wood floors, exposed brick, round-top windows and radiators are all old, but the open floor plan, modern kitchen and spiral staircase are anything but.

"Betsy and I decided early on we wanted light and open space," said Thill, who served as Town Clerk of the Town of Lancaster for 36 years, before retiring in 1999.

Gone is the old divided-up floor plan that included a front parlor, breakfast area and other small spaces typical of the era. Highlights of the new interior include a 20-by-50 foot great room; a new kitchen with stainless steel cabinets and pine cabinets, and an exposed brick wall that was an exterior wall of the original house. The spiral staircase connects the first floor to the second story and basement.

The original house, which was built about 1865, was smaller than the existing one. When the house was later renovated as a Queen Anne, rooms and two porches were added. The porches were built from porch kits typical of the kind Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered at the time.

The couple enjoys 3,200 square feet of living space, including a refinished portion of the basement. There also is an 800-square-foot second-floor studio apartment, and another 800 square feet occupied by Thill-Demerly Insurance Agency. The original agency was established by Thill's parents in 1932 and run for years by family members.

This is the house Thill grew up in. After the death of his mother, the former Agnes Demerly, Thill and Moll -- who married in 1992 and were considering moving into a new home -- decided to renovate this property instead.

"We financed the renovation for the approximate cost of a new four-bedroom in a modern suburb," Thill said.

The village location suited their lifestyle, the couple said.

They can walk to the bank, the Lancaster Opera House, church and they are close to a bus stop, if they ever want public transportation.

Moll also liked the idea of living in the community where her husband had served as town clerk for so many years.

"When we go to the grocery store, people know or recognize him and he remembers them," said Moll, who grew up in Kenmore and later lived in Snyder.

The couple -- who have seven children and 13 grandchildren between them -- both are retired.

Well, sort of.

Moll is volunteer construction site supervisor for Habitat for Humanity. Moll, who retired from Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, is a docent at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens and volunteer at a food pantry.

Moll and Thill took a couple years to complete the renovation. They developed the concept for the open floor plan; taught themselves how to use CAD (computer-aided-design) program; and did some of the renovation work themselves -- including the tear-out and refinishing of the windows and radiators.

Professionals were involved, of course. An architect offered suggestions before stamping the plan so the couple could obtain building permits and certificate of occupancy, for example.

Thill served as general contractor and hired the subs, including Bruce J. Mack Jr., of Woodcrafter Construction in Hamburg, and Tim Flury Kitchen and Bath, of West Seneca. John Stendahl, a local mason, repaired and regrouted the brick wall.

And it was work. Gone are the walls of old horsehair plaster on wood lath and the old "knob and tube" electrical wiring. Brick walls were studded out; insulation and dry wall installed. New molding designed to look old was added. Pine and oak floors refurbished. Plumbing is new.

It also was important to the couple to preserve floor space and natural light, a desire achieved by adding the spiral staircase, recessed -- and some track lighting, and a South-facing rectangular window overlooking the gardens.

But there are old elements as well. For the kitchen, Thill took one of the old ceiling joists, mounted it on the wall and drove concrete nails into it for holding pots and pans.

Thill's favorite spot to sit is at the head of the dining room table where he takes in the view of the great room.

"I am a person who likes angles and geometrics. I can sit here and see rectangles, squares, circles, triangles . . . and all in earth tones, brick and wood," he said.

Two pieces of advice to people considering renovating an old house:

Before beginning any renovation work, educate yourself on the hazards and seek professional advice and help. The Home Safety Council and others advise homeowners not to try removing lead-based paint themselves, for example. Removal requires strict safety precautions.

Take pictures. Before the dry wall went up, Thill photographed all of the infrastructure -- piping, wiring, etc. -- "so I know where everything is," he said.

In the end, Moll and Thill are right at home with their renovation.

"We knew we wanted to do this. We did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions and got a lot of help from a lot of people," Moll said.

"It was a lot of work. It's the kind of thing you want to do once -- but only once," she said.

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