In 2013, the single-story brick house on Kentucky Avenue looked like any other vacant wreck. The windows were boarded up, the brickwork was crumbling, and it had been uninhabited for years. Still, when Ted Swider bought it for $1,000 from the city's Land Reutilization Authority, he didn't think he'd be sleeping in the basement.
On a recent afternoon, Swider, now 22, gestures around the area where he once kept a dusty mattress. Today, instead of being dotted by dirt pits, the floor is smooth concrete. A shower head hanging off the wall remains the last vestige of the bathroom he installed shortly after moving in.
"I just really enjoy doing things hands-on," Swider says during a tour of the now fully rehabbed house in the Grove neighborhood. "I like being able to look at your work at the end of the day and feel like you accomplished something."
After more than four years of work, the house is transformed — and aside from some key plumbing and electrical work, Swider says he accomplished much of that transformation by hand. He tuckpointed the structure and rebuilt parts of the brick walls inside and out. He scrounged work sites and dumpsters for usable wood. He built his own kitchen cabinets and furniture, as well the tall fence of dark wood that now encloses the front yard.
He did most of it before he could even legally buy a beer. And it wasn't like Swider had grown up surrounded by contractors. He taught himself skills, he says, and blundered down plenty of dead ends along the way. But this was his dream.
"I messed up a lot, I had to redo a lot of things," he admits. "I was aesthetically ambitious."
COURTESY OF TED SWIDER
An LRA wreck transformed. To the left, the house in 2013. The right shows the house today.
How Swider wound up living in the house's basement is somewhat complicated. A Colorado native, Swider became fixated on the idea of buying an LRA home after visiting a relative in St. Louis in 2012 — at the time, he was still in high school. He returned to Colorado, and, after a summer of late-night shifts washing dishes, he raised the $1,000 he needed to buy the property.
Shortly after moving to St. Louis, however, Swider says his living situation fell apart. But he had a house to finish, and so instead of moving back home, the recent high school graduate (and his dog) moved into the house on Kentucky somewhat earlier than anticipated.
COURTESY OF TED SWIDER
A photo from the perspective of Swider's basement mattress shortly after he moved in.
He estimates that building costs ran around $70,000 over the four-and-a-half years it took to turn the hovel into a home. He burned through the savings he'd earned as a busboy in Colorado, and although he did pick up several odd jobs in St. Louis, he credits his parents for their financial assistance along the way.
Still, it was hard going.
"I didn't know anybody out here, I was living out of a toaster oven and mini fridge," he says. "I did not think how long this would take me."
The work and time paid off. Here's a side-by-side of the previous and current living room.
Here's another shot of the finished living room, showing a wall Swider says he rebuilt from bricks that once comprised the fireplace. (Today, the brick arch is merely decorative.)
And of course, the basement is no longer Swider's ad-hoc bedroom, but rather a workshop filled with tools and stacks of lumber he's stockpiling for future projects.
These days, Swider says he's working on establishing a business selling handmade furniture made of recycled wood. And while he's enjoying the results of his work, he's not entirely satisfied. He hopes to eventually sell the house on Kentucky to make money for other projects — for, yes, he has ambitions still unmet.
After a tour, Swider pulls out a notebook where he's been sketching out floor plans for his next aesthetic ambition — a house just off Cherokee Street. Earlier this month, he finalized the $1,500 purchase with the LRA.
This time around, one hopes, he won't have to sleep in a basement.
See also: Filling St. Louis' Vacant Homes, One House at a Time
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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