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Reclaiming the past Empty nesters find pleasure in exploring and renovating 1920s-era city home

When John and Catherine Gillespie relocated to Buffalo from Rochester a few years ago, they made a move not usually chosen by empty nesters.

They didn't downsize. They upsized. No, make that super-sized. Their new digs include a 600-square-foot living room with 13-foot high ceilings and a fireplace Catherine said she stands in to open the damper. The 22-by-22 dining room will accommodate 40 people at Christmas, and a 50-foot-long hallway offers plenty of room for their two dogs to chase a tennis ball.

"Our kids say, 'What are you doing here,' " laughed Catherine Gillespie, who runs Chatham Pottery and is director of Artists in Buffalo.

When John Gillespie, vice president of corporate medical affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York, and Catherine began their house-hunt, they knew what they wanted.

"We were looking for a house with at least a three-car garage and a bit of a yard -- in the city," said Catherine Gillespie, who wanted ample garage space for her pottery studio.

What they found was a house built in 1924 whose first occupants were members of the prominent Buffalo family, the Goodyears. By the time the Gillespies bought it in 2000, it had been divided into two homes with co-owners -- plus apartments.

Today, the Gillespies have renovated the downstairs of the home to resemble the way it was some 80 years ago. And although the former servants' quarters -- plus two upstairs bedrooms originally used by the family -- are now part of two apartments, the Gillespies still enjoy about 4,000 square feet of living space. The old house they moved from in Rochester, where they raised three children, was about 3,000 square feet.

"What we have tried to do is go back to the original house," she said.

This included knocking down the walls -- 6-inch drywall -- in the front hall that were put up to divide the house -- a task tackled by John Gillespie and friends.

"Guys like knocking walls down," he said.

As part of the renovation, the Gillespies also tore up floors, including removing 3/4 -inch tiles plus plywood in the kitchen that had been installed over heart pine floors and dark brown ceramic tile in the foyer that was covering travertine marble.

"We had a guy come in and grind the marble down and seal it for us," Catherine Gillespie said.

In addition to replacing the furnace and chimneys, the couple also invested $50,000 into renovating a kitchen -- undertaking much of the demolition work themselves, devising a more workable floor plan and replacing everything except the original pantry cabinets at one end. One wall was eliminated, and the multileveled ceiling -- a remnant from the '70s -- also came down.

The original pantry cabinets are now painted teal, to complement the brickyard red walls. New cabinets that imitate the originals were custom-built locally by James Reddin, of Reddin Construction; these replace the lime green Formica ones the Gillespies found when they moved in.

The new counter tops are a veiny granite -- called "motion" in the industry -- and special features include a cabinet with a bin large enough to hold two 40-pound bags of dog food and another that opens to reveal a pull-out shelf that raises to counter level and accommodates a Kitchen Aid stand mixer.

As for furnishings, they haven't had to buy much -- with two exceptions being a bishop's chair and pew from Trinity Church, purchased at an auction.

Otherwise, upholstered pieces, a piano, Oriental rugs and more came with them from Rochester. Even the pool table, Ping-Pong table and arcade games have found a new home in the basement which, in the original house, also functioned as a game room. A narrow, circular stairway which leads from the living room down to the recreation space is not part of the original plan, however.

The architect of the house was Duane Lyman, whose works include the Saturn Club and Buffalo Country Club. The Gillespies are not exactly sure who its first occupants were, although documentation indicates it was built for a member of the Goodyear family. Charles W. Goodyear, a leader in the lumber, coal and steel industries, and his wife Ella Conger Goodyear, had four children. The Goodyears lived in a mansion at 888 Delaware Ave.; he died in 1911.

The Gillespies' house had subsequent owners until 1955, when it became a home for unwed mothers until the early 1970s, when it again became a private residence. In 1978, the house was divided in half and occupied by co-owners, plus room for apartments.

One resident was the late Joan V. Hilliers Pemble, who ran the Buffalo interior design firm Joan Hilliers & Associates. Known as the grande dame of commercial interiors, she lived and had offices in the house.

Other interesting facts about the house:

Servants had their own rooms with a courtyard. The house was built so there was no direct access to the kitchen from the family living area, only from the servants' quarters.

Eight fireplaces are found throughout. Among the rooms drawn on the original plan are two "wood closets" for storing firewood and a "bicycle room," with access off the servants' courtyard. One wood closet is now a powder room. A hallway with original green marble floor measuring just over 50 feet long was labeled the "gallery." The wall of leaded glass windows offers a view of the back yard where, on one recent day, the couple's two dogs -- Thunder and Monzi (short for Monsoon) -- engaged in a frisky game of tug-of-war.

Leaded glass windows, most of them colored, are found throughout the house.

"We are told that the windows were brought back from Europe and predate the house," Catherine Gillespie said.

As for the matter of heating the place, the Gillespies say the most economical approach is to shut off the radiators in the rooms they don't use and keep doors shut in the warm rooms they do, such as the den.

And wear layers.

e-mail: smartin@buffnews.com

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