In the midst of a renovation at 720 W. Birch Avenue, a series of notes appeared near the home’s front porch. On the doorbell and mail slot, someone had stuck two pieces of masking tape, each with the word “SAVE” written in all caps in black marker. These small signs for the contractors stood as a metaphor for the whole project.
The two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow is a modest affair, but loaded with history, charm and potential. It bears resemblance to a home that might show up on an HGTV renovation special. Tagline: Cute property in need of love, nestled in the heart of a historic district near the downtown of a small and vibrant city.
“A lot of Flagstaff residents, the people who helped build and establish this town, lived in modest homes like this,” Duffie Westheimer, board member and acting executive director of the Townsite Community Land Trust, said. “Most of the beautiful mansions are gone. This is what remains because it’s what is relevant and needed in this community. It represents the aesthetics and materials available to the people who lived here.”
The Land Trust has embarked on ushering 720 W. Birch into its next success story. The Trust has already restored four historic homes in Townsite Historic Overlay District, though locals might know it as that charming neighborhood west of downtown. Sandwiched between the downtown library and Thorpe Park, the city blocks here feature homes that are more than a century old—though Westheimer explained how the area has struggled to maintain character given some of the less historic properties and buildouts constructed in recent years.
“We needed a local historic district to preserve the character,” Westheimer said. “The district has been really good for the neighborhood. We need a way to have regular folk live here. So, I learned about the community land trust model, and I started it. Otherwise, we might end up with nothing but rentals and vacation properties … And then you have a community where you don’t know your neighbors.”
The Townsite Community Land Trust essentially holds a property as part of a trust, meaning the land itself is under the nonprofit’s ownership while they find a first-time buyer to purchase the home. The buyer, following an orientation class, agrees to terms that both keep the house owner-occupied and affordable.
The Birch Avenue home sits one block east of Thorpe Park, by the trails and forests of Mars Hill. The small home that’s big on charisma dates back to the 1920s. A Mexican family that immigrated to Flagstaff in 1919 became its most long-term homeowners. As many as seven people lived in the two-bedroom residence at one time. Westheimer said the descendants of the family are excited to see the home preserved and remain owner-occupied.
The layout places the living and dining area up front in a large open space that features a fireplace and multiple windows looking out onto the street. To the right, a doorway leads to the east side of the home and its two bedrooms.
On the west side, the home’s kitchen is cozy but practical. The Trust added cabinetry and sturdy fixtures and features. They also plan to retain some of its historic aspects, such as the fold-away ironing board built into the wall and the wall contour built to accommodate the kitchen’s original range. Behind the kitchen at the back of the home is a sun room that also offers the space and setup for a laundry area. The space opens up to a backyard filled with original apples trees and “plenty of space for a garden,” Westheimer noted.
The garage offers one of the more curious features of the property—and one of the more challenging projects for the contractors. The family built it from stones likely gathered from nearby forest lands. The structure also included recycled windows thought to have been removed from another home when it was demolished or remodeled, as the windows appear to date back to the 1880s or 1890s.
“[This garage] shows that, at one time, you could go out in the woods and pick out stone and build whatever you wanted,” Westheimer said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to save this garage. You notice it’s leaning a little bit. They did not do any reinforcement of masonry structures.”
Westheimer said the project is the result of support from members of the Trust as well as its generous donors including Flagstaff Wholesale Flooring, which donated materials, HomCo Lumber & Hardware, which provided roofing at cost, and special deals on paint from Sherwin Williams; Arizona Central Supply provided fixtures.
“We are not going for luxury, we are going for longevity. We want a good, stable home that is energy efficient,” Westheimer said.
She and the members of the Trust hope to keep the home sturdy and thriving for another hundred years—a place that local families can call their own.
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