House & Home

Father-son restorers turn ugly homes into historic gems

Ken Personett (left) and his son Kenny rehabbed this 1890s Victorian home in south Hyde Park for Ken’s daughter. The Personetts kept the original brick fireplace in the living room, as well as another in the master bedroom.
Ken Personett (left) and his son Kenny rehabbed this 1890s Victorian home in south Hyde Park for Ken’s daughter. The Personetts kept the original brick fireplace in the living room, as well as another in the master bedroom. tljungblad@kcstar.com

If walls could talk, the newly restored Victorian home at 39th and Holmes in Hyde Park would be thanking Ken and Kenny Personett for saving its life.

“It was time to knock it down,” Ken remembers, which is precisely what attracted him to purchase it last year. “I want houses that are uninhabitable, which is what this house was: no running water, no electricity, no gas. There were huge holes in the floor and other structural issues that made it unsafe to even enter.”

Built in 1890, the house had been vacant for some time and had even deterred Kenny and his wife from purchasing the house next door around that same time.

“I thought; ‘Nobody’s gonna fix it up. Nobody’s gonna buy that house. We are not buying this house with that one next door,’” Kenny says. “When my dad bought it, I thought, ‘Well, that makes sense.’”

The father-son team has been restoring historic homes together for several years, first in Liberty and now in Kansas City, where some 7,000 vacant buildings have been a citywide concern for years.

Thanks to these two, there is now one fewer to worry about.

“We knew the house was in bad shape. What we didn’t know was that the city was targeting it. Within a week after we bought it, we were getting threatening letters from the city saying something needed to be done here,” Ken says. “We don’t blame them. Something did need to be done.”

So Ken and Kenny got to work, first seeing what they could salvage, which wasn’t much beyond the ornate trim on the stairs, the fireplaces and the floors. They raised ceilings, added bathrooms, and opened up walls to join the living room, kitchen and dining room. The house also received all new wiring, plumbing and HVAC functions.

Along the way they found treasures, little remnants of history, like a canceled check from 1906 and shoes in the wall, once thought to be good luck.

“We’re taking hundred-year-old homes and giving them another hundred years,” Ken says of their efforts, which are also, apparently, contagious.

“Restoring historic homes like this — it inspires the neighbors,” Kenny says. “Every time we start working on a house, neighbors start doing little things on their houses, and then the whole neighborhood starts to look better.”

“Neighbors actually come by and thank us,” Ken says, clearly delighted that this passion he and Kenny have for giving new life to dilapidated houses is inspiring others.

It’s also earning him recognition. In 2013 Ken received the Outstanding Preservation Award from Historic Liberty Inc., an honor that may come again this year.

“I remember the first house he got, and I jokingly called him a flipper,” Liberty city Councilman Harold Phillips recalls. “He took proper offense at that.”

A longtime advocate of historic preservation, Phillips lives in a newly constructed house that Ken Personett built to fit in with downtown Liberty’s historic district, which Phillips represents.

“Ken started realizing these old houses have charm, that they’re special. Now he’s branched out to the point where if a house is in disrepair, neighbors are hoping Ken will buy that house, because they know it will look significantly better when he’s done with it.”

Such was the case with the 1920 duplex-turned-nine-bedroom apartment building just off the square in Liberty. Known as the Doniphan house, the building had once served as a residence for honor students at William Jewell College. Brandon and Johanna Tiesing had their hearts set on it, despite the fact that it was in terrible shape and had complicated structural issues.

“We wanted to restore it, but every contractor I brought in just didn’t know what to do with it,” Brandon Tiesing says.

Then Ken Personett purchased the house, and he and Kenny again went to work, this time with much more to salvage, including the dark brown wood floors, hidden for years under carpet and an excessive amount of glue, and built-in ironing boards and shelves. Since the house had been divided into apartments, Ken and Kenny tore down many of the walls and removed a second-floor kitchen to make room for the master bathroom, part of a master suite that runs the entire length of the house.

The end result? Some 4,500 square feet of stunning, open space that would have cost the Tiesings double had they purchased new construction.

“The good thing about this was that the major stuff that could go wrong — foundation, roof, electrical, plumbing — it was all taken care of. We may have some minor stuff problems, like gutters or something, but nothing other houses wouldn’t have,” Brandon Tiesing says. “I’ve talked to friends with new houses, and they have more problems than we have. We have the best of both worlds: newer guts with old charm.”

With several houses awaiting their time and attention, Ken and Kenny have an unofficial waiting list for their upcoming projects — just a welcome side note in a venture that is also saving bits of history, one old house at a time.

SHARE YOUR HISTORIC PRESERVATION

May is Preservation Month, a time when the National Trust for Historic Preservation showcases how communities are celebrating and saving historic places throughout the year. The organization is encouraging communities to get involved and share their own historic places on social media by using #thisplacematters or by visiting savingplaces.org/thisplacematters.

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