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Updated 11:00 AM September 27, 2004




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Spotlight: Keeping up the house

We've all seen it happen: A gorgeous, old Victorian home (or schoolhouse, town hall, bank) sinks into dilapidation, or worse—undergoes a sloppy renovation. Cedar siding slowly sloughs off or gets covered by cheap aluminum. Rich mahogany doorframes rot or get a coat of thick paint. Stained-glass windows chip or get replaced by something more energy efficient.

To many, it's a tragedy. But to Barry LaRue, it's more than that: It's a call to arms.
(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

LaRue, senior house technician for University Productions, has been preserving turn-of-the-century buildings and homes in and around Ypsilanti for nearly 30 years. It's a passion, says LaRue, that he can trace back to his childhood, when he spent most of his time in his grandmother's Victorian-era home in Ypsilanti.

"It was full of old furniture, old photos and old tchotchkes. There were 1920's toys—tinker toys and Lincoln logs and cool nooks and crannies," LaRue says. "I was bitten by the bug of finding things that were old [to be] fascinating."

In 1977, after buying a deteriorated 1894 Queen Anne home just a few blocks away from his grandmother's, LaRue rounded up his power tools and steel-toed boots and settled into his new hobby.

"I probably made a lot of mistakes in the beginning," he says of his earliest restoration efforts. "But you learn from people, you ask a lot of questions and the next time you do it better."

Since then, LaRue has puddle-jumped to homes in need around the area, making miracle restorations along the way. And though retaining some quietude in a home coated in dust and peppered with projects seems all but impossible, there is a trick to making a construction site livable.

"I try to keep three rooms uncluttered and finished with pictures on the wall and everything. They come to be a sanctuary," he says.

After his election to Ypsilanti City Council in the early 1990s, LaRue began to work with the city to renovate some of the more deteriorated facilities around town. Although he helped to find the finances needed to restore the former
Ypsilanti Savings Bank and other buildings, LaRue says it wasn't long before plans to restore Depot Town's railroad station were halted due to lack of funds.

"We're a cool city, but it's hard to be cool when you're broke," LaRue says, citing the scant taxable land in the area.

More recently, LaRue has been awarded the Ann Arbor News' Ypsilanti Heritage Fellow award for his ongoing historical preservation efforts in his community, including his extensive work on the Riverside Arts Center, a facility he helped to restore in downtown Ypsilanti.

Despite renovations to his hobbies over the years, and though the tinker toys and Lincoln logs from his grandmother's house may have given way to whole buildings and homes to play with, LaRue says some things never will change.

"You have to live in your house. I use my family's heirlooms," he says. "I've always loved being around the stuff that belonged to my ancestors, and that's not going to change."

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