Monday, May 27, 2024

Building up beats tearing down

| August 28, 2022 12:00 AM

We moved to Helena during the affordable housing shortage of 1970. Our family rescued a 2,200-square-foot 1890 Victorian. 

Thirty percent of every home movie from those years depicted our peeling away stained wallpaper, shearing layers of paint off the woodwork or sledgehammering flimsily erected walls from when the home was divided. 

My brother and I were pressed into the project: schlepping buckets of plaster chunks, clearing out crawl spaces and Brasso-ing doorknobs. 

As an adult, I continued the family tradition. Over 20 years I rehabbed six vintage houses, all of modest size and most no bigger than a bungalow.

So this spring when I listened to Jasmine Morton describe the plans for the Somers Mansion, I couldn’t help but feel awe.

The project includes a 9,600-square-foot, 14-bedroom, three-bath home from 1903, plus structures such as a carriage house. The six-acre property sits prominently off Highway 93 in Somers. Alluring as these facts are, the place looked ripe for the bulldozer.

“This is our passion project,” Jasmine said, who with husband Justin purchased the place in 2020. I asked Justin about the legions of subcontractors who must be involved and he happily answered, “It’s 90 percent me and one other guy,” a fellow firefighter at the Somers Volunteer Fire Department.

At that time, a pavilion with a new roof attached to the carriage house took the priority, to capture the seasonal wedding business. Despite the work left to do, Jasmine said the space already was completely booked for the summer.

“This is my third full-time job,” Jasmine said with a smile. Chronologically ordered, the first is working as an attorney, the second sits on her hip — 6-month-old son Thane, and the third is the property that she’d had her eye on since she was a little girl.

Where many prospective homeowners might see irreducible headache: water damage from 12 years without a roof, a single electrical outlet for a third floor and code-defying additions, the Mortons saw promise. They saw a home built on bedrock, irreplaceable old-growth materials and character for miles. 

In the first walk-through before purchase, “I kept expecting to see something awful,” Jasmine said. “But there was no deal breaker.”

Fast-forward to last month, and a mid-project open house. Neighbors traipse into the mansion from all over the valley. Many wince at the knob and tube wiring, the graffiti and the missing windows. Contractors or people with renovation experience admire the perfectly keyed lath and plaster, now exposed in many rooms; solid framing lumber; and the transoms above almost every door. 

Steps away is the carriage house, where modern bathrooms and a food prep area have been completed, and simple, elegant chandeliers show off the handsome original balloon framing.

On this occasion, it’s Justin who’s juggling Thane, a few months older and presumably an interested observer of this transformation. He gurgles with delight and works the crowd, diverting their construction questions. “Oh, Thane, you’re not so much a help,” Justin kids him. “But you definitely raise morale.”

Audience development director Margaret E. Davis can be reached at 406-758-4436 or