Donna Thomas and Jennifer Carman are on a mission to save Little Rock’s Central High School Neighborhood Historic District one rehabilitated home at a time
Photography by Sara Reeves
THE CANARY YELLOW HOUSE at 1509 S. Summit St. smells of varnish. Fresh paint and varnish. It’s a new-house smell, which, when you catch a whiff of it as it wafts out the front door, almost confounds the senses. Because this is not a new house. Instead, what you’re seeing as you cross the threshold is an elaborately carved oak mantelpiece, seven-panel pocket doors and transom windows with their pulleys still intact. You’re seeing a floor that dips here and rises there, an aging stained-glass window bending sunlight across a penny-tiled floor. You’re seeing a house resuscitated, brought sputtering back from the brink, its century-old eaves sighing with relief.
What you’re not seeing is what the house, estimated to have been built around 1907, looked like before July 2014, when Donna Thomas came to own it. But looking out over the neighborhood from the window-lined conservatory perched on the southeast corner of the house’s second floor, you see hints of what it might have been. Surveying the scene, it’s a patchwork of ivy-choked structures plastered with “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING” signs, multiunit apartments and construction sites. To the left of the house, for instance, scaffolding covers a long-abandoned three-story foursquare that’s currently undergoing renovation. Paint peels from once-grand decorative cornices, and splintered wood-framed windows dot the side of the house like crooked teeth, their glass crackling like spider webs. A sign staked in the front yard notes that the project is an Arkansas Historic Preservation Program building rehab project, “funded by a grant from your real estate transfer taxes.”
And to stand in front of the yellow house on Summit Street and take it all in, the tinkering sounds of construction, the crooked “For Sale” sign, the army-green dumpsters primed to haul away the blight, it’s a scene you might imagine unfolding throughout the 445 acres that comprise the surrounding Central High School Neighborhood Historic District. Especially when Donna and her friend and business partner, Jennifer Carman, an art advisor and appraiser by trade, tell you that the house has been on the market for two days and might already have an offer, fingers crossed. But driving south along Summit, it’s not two blocks before you pass a pair of ramshackle houses with plywood covering their windows, red “THIS BUILDING IS UNSAFE” signs plastered on what would have been their front doors. You pass neighborless houses. Empty lots.
That is, until you reach Summit Street’s 2300 block.
DIRTY MATTRESSES, rumpled mounds of clothes. Hypodermic needles. Hundreds—thousands, really—of staples peppering the wooden windows, embedded deep in the frames to keep the trash bags up and the cold air out.
“It was…well, it was disgusting,” Jennifer says, wrinkling up her nose at the memory. Jennifer, Donna and I are having mid-morning coffee at Boulevard Bread Co. in Little Rock’s South Main neighborhood, just a couple of miles from Summit Street, chatting about the first house Jennifer bought on the 2300 block. And to hear her tell it, to hear her talk about the holes in the floor and the piles of pornography, it was a scene in which most people would be hard-pressed to find “dream home” potential.
But most people aren’t Jennifer.
She’d seen the gray house at 2315 S. Summit St. years before, back when she was barely a teenager, stumbled upon it while navigating the streets surrounding the State Fairgrounds, searching for a place to park. Even then, the 1912 foursquare was falling into disrepair. She paused on the sidewalk, thinking, When I grow up, I want to live in a house just like this. She could see past its shabby siding and sloping porch. She liked to imagine what it had been, what it could be.
A decade later, she found herself on the inside. The house was for sale, but it was uninhabitable. The toilets didn’t flush. There was no heat, no air. Windows were missing. The floor was giving way.
She loved it immediately. She made an offer; it was quickly accepted.
Thinking back to those first years in the gray house on Summit Street, Jennifer says it’s surprising how much sleeping with one foot in a metal mixing bowl of ice water can cool you off in the summer. A Windex bottle filled with ice cubes and tap water doesn’t get you very far, though. Nor does sleeping on a sleeping porch, windows open to the summer breezes. She knows this because it took her five years to get the house even livable. In the dead of winter, she hooked up an electric blanket to an extension cord and penguin-walked from room to room, only as far as the cord would reach. In the heat of summer, she’d collapse into the only working bathtub—an original claw-foot—after spending hours working on the house, clumps of paint chips and grass and filth forming islands on the surface of the water around her.
“I had no money, but I had big dreams and a stack of books from the library, like Tiling for Dummies and You Can Paint! and Basic Carpentry. I just sort of started,” Jennifer says. “And fortunately, my parents took pity on their young idiot daughter. It was definitely a shitshow. Not how you should fix a house. Not how things should happen. Like, I rented a drum sander from Home Depot and had a library book on how to refinish floors. That poor house—Donna would recognize it immediately. All through that house are, like, stripes from the drum sander.”
“I haven’t heard any of these stories!” Donna exclaims from across the table, her newborn baby girl in her arms.
“The missing part of the story is that I had no neighbors, and I was putting every moment and every cent into this thing, and was surrounded by empty houses that were falling in,” Jennifer says. “Anytime I saw a car driving by slowly, I would run outside and be like, Are you looking for a house? And one day, a guy was like, I kinda was. He was a retired truck driver who worked part time, and I convinced him to buy the worst house on the street. He was like, I don’t know what to do; I don’t know how to make it old, and I said, I’m an art historian; let me show you. I’ll tell you what to do, and you can just do it.”
“See, she ropes people into things,” Donna says with a laugh. “She totally duped me, too, back in 2008.”
Donna goes on to explain that when the economy tanked, so did the janitorial business she’d been running. She needed a job and had some carpentry skills, and she thought, I’m just going to buy an old house and flip it. She’d seen her friend Jennifer do it, after all, and had even lent a hand. So she bought 2110 S. Summit St. for $27,000, just two blocks down from Jennifer and, with her help (Jennifer’s the one who typically draws up the layout, chooses the finishes and manages the historical-accuracy side of things, drawing on her art-history background), set to work.
“That one wasn’t that bad,” Donna says.
“In retrospect, compared to what we’ve done now?” Jennifer says. “Not really.”
“Until we fell through the kitchen floor. And then I was like, Oh my god, this is bad. What did we do?”
“Somehow, things only go wrong after you buy it.”
It took about eight months, start to finish, and sold before they’d even finished, before they even thought to put a “For Sale” sign in the yard. It had been an experiment, a will-this-work? kinda thing, and darn it if it did. So Donna bought another one, quickly, one of the vacant homes next door to Jennifer.
“Annnnd that one took a year and a half to sell,” Donna says, shrugging. “It was also infinitely nicer, larger. It’s a gorgeous house, and it was at a price point way higher. And spending over $200,000 for a street that has three houses that are lived in—that’s a hard sell.”
Thing is, six years and six restored houses later, Summit Street’s 2300 block is no longer a hard sell. When Jennifer moved into her home (which she now rents to tenants) in 2004, there were eight vacant houses—three of which faced the threat of demolition—as well as an empty weed lot. Only three of the houses on the block had owners. These days, all but one of the houses are inhabited. People are on their front porches; children are playing on sidewalks.
And while that seems a revolutionary, tide-turning milestone—particularly when you turn right on 23rd Street and then left on Battery, where Jennifer now lives, and see the red signs, the roofs caving in, the empty lots where homes have been cleared from their crumbling foundations—it’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the reality facing the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District. In order to maintain its historic designation, the district needs to maintain a majority balance of “contributing structures,” those homes and buildings that “contribute to the historic character of the district,” and maintain its “historic integrity.” As of the the last official count, in 2013, contributing structures accounted for 50.55 percent of the district.
Without the historic designation, rehabbers like Donna and Jennifer (whose work has been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas and the Quapaw Quarter Association, it should be noted) won’t be able to access the state’s historic rehabilitation tax credits, which allow renovators and long-term residents alike to claim 25 percent of pre-approved rehabilitation expenses on a contributing structure. (Owners of income-producing structures, like Donna—who flips the houses to sell—can claim up to $125,000 per project.) And since many of the vacant contributing structures are in dire straits, not having that financial incentive could send would-be investors (Donna knows three or four other rehabbers offhand who’ve restored homes in the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District) to other parts of town where the tax credits stand.
“A lot of the houses we’ve done, they would have been torn down. One could argue that they should have been torn down,” says Jennifer, who created a Facebook page called “Stop the Demolitions, Little Rock” in 2013. “But we believe there’s an alternative. There is an alternative. We’ve kind of beat the drum tirelessly with the city—they see us coming, and they know. They say, You can fix anything with enough money, but there aren’t very many of you doing this, and that’s problematic because we can do a couple a year, and there need to be like 30 a year.”
“What it comes down to is time,” Donna chimes in. “I don’t have the time—trying to track down the 12 heirs listed on the title of a vacant property could take weeks—and the houses don’t have time, either, because they’re in danger of coming down.”
With that, both Donna and Jennifer are silent for a moment, contemplative. They’ve got big ideas. Donna could self-finance a rent-to-own program for some of the smaller houses she could restore in the district to give low-income residents a chance at owning their own home. They could band neighbors together and try to do what the Governor’s Mansion Historic District accomplished a few decades ago: Create a pool of money that rehabbers could tap into, and then replenish upon the successful sale of a troubled property. The city could hire someone to help clear titles for homes on the unsafe and vacant list. Or they could just stay the course.
“It’s a very frustrating endeavor because it seems that change is slow,” Jennifer says. “And it seems like the thing that’s making the biggest change is us just sort of pecking away.”
It’s clear that Donna and Jennifer are aware, though, that what they do, on however small or large of scale that they’re able to do it, does not exist in a vacuum. “You can’t talk about what we do without talking about race, without talking about poverty, without talking about gentrification—it’s definitely a ball of yarn,” Jennifer says. “But the same two neighbors I had in 2004 are the same two neighbors who are still there now, and not only are they still there after a decade of ‘gentrification’ on their block, they’re fixing their houses, too. Both of ’em have gotten loans, put on new roofs. There’s no way they would have done that before. Not to diminish this, because gentrification is real and these long-term residents need help, but I think there’s a little bit of misunderstanding. We have people saying to us: I’ve lived here 30 years, 50 years, and waited and prayed for something to happen.
“And I guess what it comes down to, at the end day, is that someone needs to decide: Do you want this to be a weed lot filled with used condoms, or do you want this to be a place where a family is making memories?” Jennifer says. “Those are the two choices. There’s no other choice.”
“WE SHOULD take her to the one you just bought,” Jennifer says, standing on the porch of the yellow house on Summit Street.
“Yeah, but we’d have to watch our steps—we’d fall through the floor,” Donna says.
“Typically,” Jennifer says to me, “when we buy a house, we deal with, like, bathtubs full of poop, dead possums—”
“Um, the sorts of things people do in vacant houses,” Donna cuts her off.
“Yes, that’s a better way to describe it: the things people do in vacant houses.”
“You should drive down there and see for yourself. It’s bad. Like, bad bad,” Donna tells me. “Probably the worst one yet. You won’t be able to miss it.”
And she’s right, because as I pull onto the 2200 block of South Summit Street, I can spot it immediately. It is bad. For starters, you can see clear through the gaping hole in the side of the structure to the house next door. The few windows that remain shake when the wind blows, and gnarly dead vines snake up the bare-brick chimney and through the holes—of which there are many—in the moss-covered roof. It’s one of her most recent acquisitions, a dilapidated house on the northeast corner of 23rd and South Summit streets. (She also bought the weed lot next door.) Her plan, she’d told me, is to turn the crumbling house into a garage, and construct a new home from the ground up for her growing family on the empty lot. It’ll be her first infill project, and, if all goes well, it might be the start of something new for her. A new business endeavor. A new dog in the fight. And the start of something new for the house and the garbage-strewn patch of grass beside it, which, before falling into Donna’s hands, didn’t have much of a chance at all.
Soon, Donna and Jennifer will start work on a pair of houses on nearby Marshall Street. A fellow rehabber, Paul Dodds, bought the one next door, on the corner. They’ve learned a few things from the work on South Summit: how important it is to secure the corners of the streets; how integral it is to rehab in batches.
“I come home and tell my wife I’ve bought two more houses, and she’s like, Um, no, you can’t buy any more houses—not until you sell something,” Donna told me back at the yellow house on Summit Street. She winked. “We’ll see.”
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