Behind a vibrant green door and a red brick wall, a Washington family is prepping for the holiday season. Lute and Liz Cain moved to Washington in 2005, but this will be their third Christmas in their historic home on East Main Street, where they are raising their 9-year-old son, Gunnar, their rescue dog, Roscoe, and their cat, Tillie. 

A well-lit Christmas tree and several holiday-themed wall hangings decorate the space, but it’s the home’s other details that make it stand out year-round, from its door frames to its wood-paneled walls and original wood floors, all of which helped the Cains earn a 2020 Missouri Preservation Award. After the April reception was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple was honored via a Zoom awards announcement Tuesday, Dec. 8 for their transformation from 2016 to 2018 of the Mrs. John Isbell House, which was built around 1928 and is part of the Locust Street Historic District.

“It’s a huge honor, and that’s part of the payoff,” said Lute Cain, who grew up in Sullivan. “We took something that most people would have demolished and turned it into something that will be here forever, hopefully.”

This Old House Made New

The Cains purchased the home in January 2016 from Franklin Financial Corp., a St. Clair-based real estate agency which bought the property on Collector’s Deed in 2013, after Liz Cain saw a For Sale sign in the overgrown yard and realized the trees and brush were obscuring a house.

“I always loved this street,” said Liz Cain, who is from St. Charles. “I would just periodically drive up and down it. One day I was driving home and saw it. That weekend we walked through it, and by the end of the next week we had an offer on it.”

No one had lived in the house for almost 15 years, the Cains said, and they could tell. The basement was flooded due to a broken water main and the upstairs had a tree growing through the floor and out the roof. The walls were in danger of falling down, the windows were sealed shut and the historic charms of the home were barely visible.

“If anyone had told us the amount of work it would have been, we wouldn’t have done it,” she said. “We didn’t know at all, whatsoever, what we were getting into.”

The Cains hired a team and started renovating and rehabilitating from the bottom up. First was the basement, where through a window not much bigger than two sheets of copier paper, they and their construction staff dug up the floor and removed five dump trucks’ worth of materials before repouring the concrete foundation. The team also dug a trench around the outside to fill with tar so it wouldn’t leak. 

Next was the main level, where nearly every wall needed to be reframed and reinforced. Because the original windows couldn’t be opened, the couple added windows on two sides of the house to bring more natural light into the home. The Cains brought in 6 tons of steel beams to strengthen the structure.

“We pretty much built a house inside a house,” Lute Cain said of the finished 3,700-square-foot home. After a thorough sanding and refinishing, the original wood floors and doors survived in the kitchen and dining room, and the living room fireplace mantle and original bookshelves were salvageable with some TLC. 

The kitchen also features the house’s original exterior brick wall, which now includes a converted window that looks into the dining room that was added on around five years after the structure was built. Walnut ceiling beams that came from trees at Lute Cain’s family farm near Princeton, Mo., a town in northern Missouri, provide a personal touch to the space.

Up the original wooden stairs is a bathroom with authentic cabinetry and a cast iron bathtub that they resealed. Also upstairs is their son’s bedroom, which is decorated in army green, and a small guest room with original light fixtures leading to the Cains’ office. The room, which was formerly home to the overgrown tree and visiting racoons, squirrels and probably snakes, was completely redone as a minimalist, light-filled work space. Liz Cain, who is director of stores at Salon Service Group, has been working from home in the room during the pandemic. Lute Cain is an area manager at Performance Food Group. 

Beyond another flight of stairs is the master bedroom, which is tucked away in the attic like a treehouse. The room’s walls are the resanded wood beams from the structure’s original roof, and a stained-glass decorative piece is hung against the window that overlooks the newly constructed back deck and patio. 

The renovations of 205 E. Main St. are comprehensive with the Cains touching, preserving, protecting and transforming the home into a modern living space full of rich colors. 

For example, the home’s green front door, a modern spin on a nearly century-old piece of wood, is not the only splash of color in the living room. Liz Cain said she just liked the color, but the shade of green she selected for the front door happens to perfectly match one of the standout details from the home’s past — two small stained-glass windows, nestled in the wall behind a cozy fireplace with the original mantle While it provides color and a stamp of history to the living room, the color green is also used in traditional stained glass in churches to symbolize rebirth. 

Preservationists say the color choice is appropriate for a home that has been reborn. 

The Cains did not disclose the cost of the renovation, but said they are hoping a state tax credit offered through the Missouri Department of Economic Development will alleviate some of the financial burden. The credit is available to Missourians whose home renovation projects meet certain criteria. For their home, the Cains partnered with Missouri Preservation’s Karen Bode Baxter, a historic preservation specialist based in St. Louis. 

“She was a godsend throughout all of this,” Liz Cain said of Baxter. “The woman knows so much, it’s unreal.”

Baxter explained that the tax credit, which is worth 25 percent of the cost of historic rehabilitation costs, is available to owners who spend 50 percent of what they paid for a home on renovating it. 

The goal, she said, is not to preserve the home exactly as it was, but to preserve as much of its character as possible while still making it functional in the 21st century. 

“We consider, ‘does what they’re doing preserve the historic character?’ ” Baxter said. “We want the houses to reflect how they looked 100 years ago. On the inside, we want to keep the principle historic spaces so it still reads like it did when it was built.”

If These Walls Could Talk

One person who can confirm the Cains met this requirement is George Bocklage. Bocklage is a longtime volunteer at the Washington Historical Society, but his knowledge of the home on East Main runs deeper. 

Bocklage’s uncle, Leander Bocklage, whose name is included on the Franklin County Veterans Hall of Honor, was a bachelor when he returned from serving in World War II and purchased the house from Mrs. Isbell. He soon sold the house to his brother, Theodore Bocklage, who along with his wife, Agnes, would raise their three children in the home. One of those children was a young George Bocklage. His description of the floor plan in his child room still offers accurate directions around the first floor of the Cains’ home.

Bocklage remembers growing up in the home with his two sisters, Inez and Sharon. He enjoyed spending the night on a sleeping porch, near where the Cains built their office.

“There was no air-conditioning then, but if you put a fan in every direction when it was stinking hot, you could get a reasonable night of sleep,” Bocklage said. 

The family owned Bocklage’s Menswear at 219-221 W. Main St. near what is now the Gary Lucy Gallery.

 He remembers returning for a quiet Sunday afternoon following Mass at St. Francis Borgia and taking turns struggling through a tune on the family’s piano. 

“Our parents wanted us to know music,” Bocklage remembers. “From the dining room you could hear music being played poorly by teenagers.” 

A walnut tree he planted in the backyard, when he was around the age of Gunnar Cain, still grows today.

A Neighborhood of Historic Homes

For the Cains to qualify for the tax credit, the structure also must be included on the National Register of Historic Places. This part of the process already had been completed for them.

The home was part of the Locust Street Historic District of Washington, more than 100 buildings added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The district, which runs east-west from Lafayette to Locust streets and south-north from Front to Fourth streets, boasts some of the oldest homes in Washington, many going back to at least 1869. Down the street from the Cains is one of the oldest houses in Washington, 401 E. Main St., which was built for the founder of Washington — Lucinda Owens — the same year the plat for the town was filed, 1839. 

The buildings showcase three phases of architecture design in Washington — the early development of Missouri-German architecture of 1839-1870, the Missouri-German style in the Victorian period from 1871-1904 and the national popular architecture of 1905-1950, during which the Cains’ house was built.

The Locust District’s register application describes the period when the Cains’ home was built as a marked shift in the cultural and architectural development in Washington that still showed the town’s German heritage.

It reads: “Washington’s business and industry, like its community, aimed for a healthy mix of the old and the new and, in most cases, succeeded. During the first decades of the twentieth century, Washington boomed. The town’s population grew so fast that there was a shortage of houses. The Locust Street neighborhood, like other areas of town, experienced its largest period of growth in the early twentieth century. More houses were built in the district’s third period of development between 1905 and 1950 than in both of the two earlier periods combined. The area remained the choice of Washington’s more prominent citizens rather than its working class citizens.”

Not all the homes built during this time remain, but of the ones that do, the Cains’ home is a gem among them, Baxter said. After working with the couple during their two-year project, it was she who nominated them for the Preserve Missouri Award. 

“I don’t nominate many of my projects, but they did such a wonderful job,” Baxter said. “They took that house from sitting there in really a decrepit condition and brought it back to life.”

It’s the only house being recognized this year. Baxter explained that because houses are usually competing against large, multimillion-dollar restoration projects in Missouri’s big cities, it’s rare to see a home win. 

The Cains know some people won’t understand why they’d put so much work into restoring a home instead of building a new one, but for them there was never any other option.

“We like old stuff,” Lute Cain said. “For us to take (a house) and bring it back to something you can live in again, that be a house for the next 100 years … sure, there were times when we thought, ‘This is horrible,’ but at the end of the day we knew this would be our forever home.”