Little House and a Prairie

At first glance there may not seem a lot in common between Midewin and an historic Pullman rowhouse. Midewin is a 20,000-acre natural area. A rowhouse – like the one I just finished rehabbing with the help of two gifted loved ones – is 1,100 square feet of, well, house. In their original conditions, however, both were exceptionally beautiful. But after more than a century of alterations, both were in pretty poor shape. And it takes far more time to restore them than you might think.

My initial guess was that it would take us six months to restore the rowhouse. That was back in 2008. Two and a half years later, we finally finished.

What took so much time?

Well, let’s start with the bathroom. In building what the Times of London described as “the most perfect town in the world,” railcar magnate George Pullman provided indoor plumbing in each one of the 900 rowhouses he built for his workers and their families. As far as I know, however, there exist no pictures of any original bathrooms.

But it’s safe to say they didn’t look anything like the disaster we inherited. What we ended up doing was gutting the entire bathroom – every groady fixture, every jerry-rigged pipe – and then building everything brand new.


So, too, for instance, with Grant Creek restoration at Midewin. There are no photographs of the landscape in its original condition (although there are solid hints in historic survey reports, topographic maps, and the like.) But certainly we know the pasture forage on site was non-native. Like the rowhouse bathroom, restoration of Grant Creek began by wiping the slate clean; herbiciding all of the non-native vegetation and removing the underground drain tile, which had altered the original hydrology. This has been followed by planting new seed and plugs.

110516 unloading plants 2


Room by room at the rowhouse, out went the non-original alterations. In went the new and the restored. New hardwood floors. New kitchen. New downstairs powder room. New roof. New electric. New plumbing. New windows. New heating/AC.

I realize all this may not seem like much if you’re not familiar with doing the work yourself. But, let me tell ya, it takes a long time to disassemble an original oak banister, strip 10 coats of paint from its intricate millwork, followed by repairing the breaks, sanding everything smooth, applying several finish coats of oil, and reinstalling them.

It takes time to ascertain the dimensions of the original vestibule that someone had torn out, and rebuild it, using a salvaged original door, which likewise had to be stripped of countless coats of paint, sanded, and repainted with primer and two finish coats.

Just as it takes time – exponentially more time – to undo alterations on a landscape scale, and begin to put back in place the correct and correct balance of hundreds of different plant species. At least with the rowhouse, we didn’t have to worry about someone coming in and undoing our work. At Midewin, even well restored areas must be regularly managed to keep invasive species from taking over again.

Two and a half years it took us to restore an 1,100 square foot home to its original splendor. Midewin is 871,200,000 square feet. It’s going to take a little longer.