This is the second of three stories in a series examining residential historic district in downtown Greenfield. Thursday's story was an overview of the district. Today and Saturday, stories will profile special homes in the district and the people who own them.
GREENFIELD — Ken and Joyce Benbow always wanted an old home with character.
So when they moved their young family to Greenfield in 1978, they found a gem – at least in their eyes.
A 1½-story home on the corner of Grant and East streets had been divided into six tiny apartments. The lot was overgrown with shrubs and weeds, and the Benbows had to put on their rose-colored glasses to see the potential of bringing the home back to its former glory.
“There’s no way you can make this back into a dwelling house,” one elderly tenant told them, hands on her hips.
That, Joyce said, was the challenge she was looking for.
The couple became enchanted with the idea of restoring a historic property, and decided to take a chance. After years of renovations and a discovery of the building’s significance to Greenfield’s past, the Benbows have been in love with the 1869 Italianate-style home ever since.
Today, 34 years after the Benbows purchased the house, they can fondly look through a scrapbook of memories. Pictures of handiwork and old newspaper articles remind them of their years together in the home.
As they discovered bits and pieces of the home’s history, they also made the structure their own by tying in furniture and pictures from their ancestors.
But it wasn’t easy.
“The second night we were here, I’m lying in bed thinking, ‘What the heck have we done?’” Joyce recalls, describing bugs flying around the ceilings.
The couple took up the work themselves, renovating one room at a time over the course of 10 years. The constant construction zone became a norm for the family.
“You just put up with it until you can get to the next project,” Ken said.
The Benbows are originally from Muncie, but jobs brought them to Hancock County. Their children, Cary and Kyle, were 8 and 5 when they moved to Greenfield, and after seeing a few newer homes they knew it was time to fulfill their dream.
They didn’t even know the age of the fixer-upper at 110 E. Grant St. when they bought it. The real estate listing described it simply as “old,” so they had to search for clues to its past.
They opened the front windows that had been stuffed with newspapers from 1929. They soon discovered the property had been divided into six apartments in the 1930s.
They also discovered the home was built in 1869 by George Randall, a businessman and real estate investor. It was the first house on the block and remained the sole house there until 1887.
George Randall’s father was a tanner in Greenfield in the 1840s, and George established a business in the 1860s making leather goods. He then turned to real estate and built the Randall Building on the northeast corner of State and Main streets around 1890.
The Benbows like to think George Randall would be proud of the work they’ve done. But then again, Joyce adds with a smile, “he was into the temperance movement, and we’ve had some parties here he wouldn’t approve of.”
Turning the six-unit apartment building back to a single-family dwelling was no small feat. They put old furniture and multiple toilets into the yard for an auction. Slowly, the 2,500 square-foot structure was transformed into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, single-family house.
The three upstairs apartments became bedrooms. The three ground-floor apartments were turned into a parlor, dining room, living room, kitchen and small library – which was probably the area men gathered in during social visits in the 1800s.
“I’m glad I was only 40, because it took a long time,” Ken said.
Ken had a career in design and Joyce was an art teacher at Mt. Vernon, so they were both creative enough to see the potential. Joyce took an extended break from being a teacher, so during the renovation years she stripped plenty of wallpaper and made the house a home.
The parlor is painted teal, like it could have been in the 1800s. Back then, parlors were used for formal occasions and even funerals: the Benbows found a newspaper article that a funeral of a well-known pharmacist was held at the home.
New kitchen cabinets were made to look historic, and details were added throughout the house such as ceiling medallions and molding. The Benbows say the renovation process would have been easier today, because 30 years ago there was no Internet to look for historic doorknobs and fixtures. They had to rummage through antique stores or simply ask around.
But they also say George Randall was thrifty. Some windows, for example, only have one decorative edge instead of two. There was also no molding around the ceilings like many historic homes had.
While the house has a lot of quirks, Joyce said, “That’s what’s nice about an old house.”
Filling the stairway of pictures of their own ancestors and the house with pieces of furniture that were handed down through generations, they said the home has a lived-in feel.
“It’s not a museum; everything has a story,” Joyce said.
The renovation bug hit the Benbows again in 1998 when they purchased a vacation home in the southern Indiana town of Vevay. It took only a few years to remodel the small house with a riverfront view.
“It’s a newer house,” Joyce joked, because the home is only six years younger than the one in Greenfield.
To this day, the Benbows will still run into people in the community that tell them a relative lived in their Greenfield home when it was apartments. But for the Benbows, it became the family home they always wanted.
Now decorated in red, green and gold, the Benbows will celebrate the holiday with a traditional German feast Christmas Eve with their children and grandchildren.
Living in Greenfield’s residential historic district, the Benbows hope others will take a chance and bring a home back to what it once looked like.
“We want to encourage people to restore houses, be realistic about it,” Joyce said. “Don’t say, ‘Well, that’s a snap,’ because it’s not. It’s a labor of love.”
Coming Saturday: It’s more commonly recognized as part of the Riley Home and Museum, but the Mitchell house on Main Street in Greenfield has a history as interesting as its neighbor next door.