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Houses of Instagram: 5 St. Louis-area homeowners share their renovations on social media

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These homeowners aren’t necessarily doing it for the ‘Gram (or Facebook, or YouTube or TikTok). They’re renovating their homes for their families and to preserve history, and it just so happens you can follow their progress online. We contacted the owners behind five local homes who were more than happy to share why they open their virtual doors to the world.

Kaleb Higgins restores an old house, while YouTube watches.

Kaleb Higgins is working on restoring an old Empire-style home in St. Louis Place to its original 1890's glory, and he's got a large following on YouTube watching his progress. 

The 2nd Empire Strikes Back

@the_2nd_empire_strikes_back, more than 112,000 subscribers on YouTube; 8,200 plus followers on Instagram

Home • An 1899 second empire-style house in the St. Louis Place neighborhood

Owner • Kaleb Higgins, 31, owns the home with his father, John Kennamann. Higgins works on the home with the help of his girlfriend Kimberly Smith, 33. Higgins used to do editing for reality television and game shows, but now lives off revenue from his YouTube channel, as well as rental income from his other home in Dutchtown.

Higgins started documenting the process of renovating his home soon after buying it in October 2020. He produced and published a video on YouTube, called it “I Bought an Abandoned Victorian Mansion! House Tour Time” and within two weeks it got 10,000 views. It now has 3.4 million views. Higgins now produces at least one new video a week — tours, restoration progress, show-and-tells of basement and yard finds, and live question-and-answer sessions. “I didn’t expect it to go as well as it did at all,” he said. “I thought maybe I would get a thousand people who would watch me, but then it went nutty. And now I can’t keep up.”

His father helps him manage his social media inquires, which come from all over the world, and they sell branded swag like T-shirts, hoodies and mugs.

A house history • The home was built by Charles S. Brown, president of the Hall and Brown Wood Working Machine Co. in St. Louis. Higgins is having some of the woodwork restored by local companies that still own Hall and Brown machinery. Sometime after the turn of the 20th century it was occupied by a veterinarian, Joseph T. Jennemann, who had his office in a tiled basement room. He or his family members lived there until the 1960s, and the home was then owned by a preacher and last occupied around 2008.

As Higgins makes discoveries, he documents them, picturing finds like silver teapots, a mummified squirrel, model airplane plans, rabies vaccination dog tags and tin can lids patching up holes in the wood floor. And while some woodwork remains unfinished in the house, he’s spent hours removing layers of paint, proudly sharing before and after pictures.

Why he thinks his YouTube channel is so popular • “I think a lot of people think it’s just a dream they want to take on, or they never had the time or the money, or they live in a country where those houses don’t exist. They’ve all seen horror films, right? And second empire homes are in horror films.”

People stuck at home because of the pandemic have grown to love his videos, and he even heard from a woman who was recovering from a kidney transplant and watching the videos made her feel better. “I didn’t set out to do that, but I’m glad I have a positive influence on people. People really like it.”

He likes making the videos because he gets quick answers to questions and links to resources. “I get people who are massively respectful and push me to go further and make sure this happens. Now I really can’t mess up, because I have a lot of eyes on me.”

The Onion House

An image from @theonionhouse, an Instagram account documenting the restoration of a late 1890s late Victorian home in Tower Grove South.

The Onion House

@theonionhouse, 21,000 followers on Instagram

Home • An 1892 Queen Anne Victorian in Tower Grove South

Owners • Patrick Kohm, 38, a marketing manager, and Kirsten Kohm, 31, an interior designer. They have sons Rylan, 3, and Juniper, born in December

Origin of the home and its nickname • This home, one of the first wood-framed homes in Tower Grove South, was built as a single-family home by a German cabinetmaker named Gerhard Ludewig and has Moorish revival, Queen Anne Victorian and classic German characteristics.

In the 1950s it changed hands from the original owner’s family and at some point was converted into a three-family residence, with various owners not properly maintaining it and making cheap fixes with different types of materials. “Part of that includes the many layers of siding on the exterior including wood, faux-brick tin and asphalt shingle — all with varying levels of deterioration and patchwork,” the Kohms wrote to the Post-Dispatch. “Because of the many layers, the prominent onion dome atop the turret, and ‘the propensity to make you cry’ with the amount of work it needed, it was nicknamed ‘The Onion House’ by the neighborhood and previous owners.”

How far they’ve come • Patrick Kohm bought the home in 2014 while looking for a fixer-upper, something that didn’t frighten him because he grew up in one. But he met Kirsten the same week he accepted an offer on the house. As their relationship grew, they worked on the home together and decided they would convert it to a single residence and start a family there. They hosted their wedding reception in 2017 in the adjoining lot and finished interior demo on the house the next year. They reopened the main staircase, which had been enclosed, finished the attic space, and refinished historic wood floors and doors. The house is now just over 4,000 square feet with six bedrooms and 3 ½ bathrooms in the main house, with another bedroom and full bath in an attached guest suite, which they hope to open as an AirBnB in the new year.

Uncovering surprises • “A lot of our unexpected joys came during the demolition phase, because we took our time in case we would find anything we wanted to save or repair,” they wrote. “We found lots of treasures throughout this messy and arduous process like original woodwork detail pieces, historic newspapers in the walls from the early 1900s, hand-painted Victorian wall covering, and even hidden openings in walls and floors making the house feel full of secrets.”

momomoneypit

An image from the Instagram account @momomoneyoit show the restoration of this 1972 midcentury home in Crestwood.

MoMoMoneypit

@momomoneypit, 2,000 followers on Instagram

Home • A 1972 midcentury home in Crestwood

Owners • Anna Weiss, 41, owner of MoModerne Design Shop and Luby Kelley, 49, owner of MoModerne Estate Sales. They have two children: Samson, 13, and Harper, 10

Origin of the home • The home was designed and built by Jack Tyrer, who also helped design Southminster Presbyterian Church across the street. The couple bought the home in September 2019 after living nearby for about a decade and always keeping an eye on it. They knew an elderly man lived in the house and put letters in his mailbox a few times expressing their appreciation for it. They did a complete gut rehab on the house while maintaining the integrity of the design, leaving the floating staircase and the fireplace lava rock wall intact.

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A post shared by Anna Weiss (@momomoneypit)

Floating staircase conundrum • “The biggest headache for me is the foyer staircase,” wrote Anna Weiss. “Originally they were carpeted floating stairs, but we removed the carpet and had them refinished, but it still looks a bit industrial and stark to me. We are still trying to figure out what to do with them to warm up the space.”

While the home is modernist, their décor isn’t necessarily. They mix items in to keep things updated, displaying a few items in each room to keep things minimal.

Midcentury challenges • “Buying an architect’s house sounds like a dream to MCM enthusiasts. And it is, actually,” she wrote. “But the nightmare parts are the things that look great but just don’t always work. I can’t believe we haven’t fallen down these open stairs yet. The climate control on the second floor is … difficult. A flat roof is amazing, but we have four of them and they are three times the price of a pitched roof. We love it all the same, but it’s something to think about.”

The Brick and Maple

An image from @thebrickandmaple, an Instagram account created to document the restoration of a 1887 Victorian home in Belleville.

The Brick and Maple

@thebrickandmaple, 14,700 followers on Instagram and 18,200 on TikTok; thebrickandmaple.com

Home • A Queen Anne brick Victorian built in 1887 in the Old Belleville Historic District

Owners • Ash Smith, 36, a major in the U.S. Air Force working in operations at Scott Air Force Base and Emily Smith, 34, a freelance writer and blogger. They have two children: Bennett, 12, and Weston, 9.

The Smiths bought the home in September 2017. Previous owners had done a lot of work on it after being nearly condemned by the city in 2012. The work was about halfway done, which was fine with the Smiths, because they wanted to add their own touches. They have refinished hardwood floors, saved original plaster, uncovered pocket doors and generally follow their rule to never remove an original feature. They are slowly restoring the plasterwork of the third floor, which is more than 1,500 square feet, to use as an entertainment space and extra bedrooms. They refuse to go into debt as they work on the house. “Some days it feels like we haven’t gotten anything done, or that we can’t keep up with everyone else who works faster than we do,” Emily Smith wrote to the Post-Dispatch. “But then I have to remind myself that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.”

An unusual home history • “The history of our home has actually become my biggest passion here,” Smith wrote. “We started the blog after uncovering some really incredible (and sad) stories about the families that used to live here. I’ve come to admire Peter Romeiser, our home’s original owner, and his character. He opened The Romeiser Co. on Main Street here in Belleville in 1878. His store was the first in the area to put fixed prices on the labels, so you no longer went into the store to haggle over what you’d pay. His store was the first in town to have interior electricity, and he also purchased an ornate Otis Elevator from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. (The first elevator in town.) It’s still in the building today and still works. ...

“We were able to uncover tragedies that happened here, like their 17-year-old son dying on our third floor and their 23-year-old daughter’s reaction to Roland’s death. Her name was Petra, and she ended up jumping from our third-floor window. Her older sister, Emma, grabbed her foot to stop her but couldn’t hold on. It slowed Petra’s fall and so when she hit the ground, she ended up with a broken arm and severe concussion. Emma tried to care for Petra over the next few years, but Petra ended up attempting suicide again in 1908 by jumping in front of a train. Unfortunately, she did die. Emma would go on to marry a St. Louis man named John Pannes. He worked for the Hamburg American Lines scheduling steamship and zeppelin travel. In 1937, they traveled to Germany specifically so they could fly back on the Hindenburg’s first flight of the 1937 season. Again, tragically, Emma and John were two of the victims that perished in the fire when it crashed. Their love story is sort of epic to me … John had the chance to save himself, actually. A German photographer tried to urge him to jump out of a nearby window but John insisted he go find Emma who had returned to their room to get her coat. Neither John nor Emma was seen again.”

The Lion House

Images from the Instagram account @lionhousestl document the restoration of this Soulard home built in 1873.

The Lion House

@lionhousestl, 800 plus followers on Instagram

Home • Italianate brick home built in 1873 in Soulard

Owners • Mitch Goist, 31, and Amanda Ramcharan, 34, both data scientists

A house history • This home, known for the two lion statues flanking its front entrance, was first owned by Max J. Feuerbacher, who built the nearby Green Tree Brewery at around the same time. He died in 1884, and his wife, Minna, lived there until she died in 1925. At that time, Soulard wasn’t considered a nice part of town, and the house was then divided into several rooms for a boarding house. The lions, made of Indiana limestone, are supposedly the first stone lions in front of a residential house in the city.

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A post shared by M and M (@lionhousestl)

The lions are in rough shape, Goist says. “The biggest problem with the lions is both their jaws got knocked off at some point,” he said. “The bottom jaw is not original. When people look at them, they’re kind of making a funny face. They don’t quite look right. We’ll do jaw surgery — it’s going to be later down the line. It’s not pressing.” They have named the lions Max and Minna, after the original owners.

While the house is generally square, the rooms inside are shaped like octagons. And the doorknobs inside are custom-made with a six-pointed brewer’s star from Germany. And while the basement has lagering cellars, they haven’t found a cave entrance.

More work to do • The house had been restored a bit in the 1970s and ‘80s, with the first floor restored to “decent shape,” including a fresco on the ceiling and a pipe organ installed in the music room — the pipe parts are a facade, but the electronic part of it works. The couple bought the home in December 2020 while looking for a pandemic project that they could open up to family.

The couple plans to update the HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems. The house needs a new roof and repairs to brickwork, and they plan to tear down the brick vestibule added to the home’s entrance in the 1970s. They’re on a 10-year plan, they said, and hope to do much of the work themselves trying to keep things as authentic and original as possible while relying on the know-how of specialists.

“For example, we have a guy who knows how to restore windows, and he’s teaching us. We’ll do the first couple with him,” said Goist. The house originally had wall-to-wall carpeting and they will return it to wall-to-wall carpeting, hopefully from weavers who make them in historic patterns.

A good spirit • If there are ghosts in the house, there are nice ones, and the energy inside feels good, said Ramarchan. “The house was loved and the owners tried to take care of it. Minna was there a really long time — I think she would be happy that we’re here.”

Goist points out that Minna stuck it out in the house during a time the neighborhood was deteriorating and she could probably barely see sunlight because of the smog outside. “She stuck it out, and it got imbued with that kind of positive spirit,” he said.

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