ST. LOUIS • For years, Marcia and Tim Dorsey always found an excuse to drive by the group of little stone houses between South Broadway and the Mississippi River in the city’s Patch neighborhood, just south of Carondelet.
“No matter where we were, it was on the way home,” Tim Dorsey quipped.
Marcia Dorsey’s grandparents, Nazarena and Romano Cogo, were Italian immigrants who lived in one of the stone houses. Dorsey’s aunts lived in a house on the back of the lot. Dorsey herself lived in the front house until she was about 7 years old, and she was close to her Nonni, who became a widow a year before Dorsey was born. For Dorsey, the houses evoked warm memories of tomato sauce simmering all day on the stove, homemade pasta rolled out on a metal worktable.
But the houses were crumbling. They dated to the mid-19th century. The front house, where her grandmother lived until the late ’60s, was razed around 1995. The back house, where her aunts lived, had lost its roof and was covered in underbrush.
Still, the Dorseys dreamed about it.
Two years ago, they bought the house at 124 East Steins Street to save it. And, of course, they opened a Twitter account for it, called @MioNonnisCasa.
“That’s what we do,” said Tim Dorsey.
If the Dorsey name sounds familiar, that’s because their son, Jack Dorsey, is the founder of Twitter. The very first tweet from the house’s account reads:
“Hello I’m fun, inspiring, 160 years old (very least), loved by many, and on the way back!”
For the past two years, the Dorseys have chronicled their preservation efforts on Twitter. They assembled a cast of preservationists and craftspeople who seemed excited to work on the unique project.
According to a historical study of the property prepared by the Preservation Research Office, a private company, there are 17 similar stone buildings still standing in the neighborhood, some in better shape than others. Carondelet historian NiNi Harris thinks more stone houses are hiding under stucco and siding.
The Dorseys’ building had been a source of heartbreak for Harris, who spotted it more than a decade ago along with Neighborhood Improvement Specialist Brian Kolde under thick underbrush.
The city stopped a developer from knocking it down, and eventually the city acquired it. But the house deteriorated as it sat there, and then, the Dorseys appeared “out of nowhere,” and bought it, said Harris. She had no idea they had such an emotional connection to it.
“The Dorseys doing this project, it’s more than saving this building,” she said. “It’s changing attitudes. People see somebody investing in what other people say, ‘That’s just a pile of rubble. Clear that away, build something nice and new.’ Just somebody saying, ‘This has value’ — that alone is worth a fortune.”
Carondelet was founded in 1767 by Clement Delor de Treget, who built his own stone house in the village. The earliest record for the parcel where the Dorseys’ stone house sits dates to 1851, when a bricklayer named John Bohrer bought it and afterward likely built the house. The city assessor lists a house construction date of 1854, but there are no records to support that or who built it. Harris thinks it could have been built earlier, perhaps in the early 1800s by the French or Creoles, since it had a basement entry below the front porch.
The one-story house is about 22 feet wide and 18 feet deep, with a front porch that needed to be restored and a basement that needed to be dug out – again. The debris in the basement was about chest-high. A fireplace in the basement has a unique stone hood, which Harris thinks may have been used by a blacksmith.
Their first order of business was to tuckpoint the house. The roof had collapsed long ago, bringing in moisture and taking out much of the mortar, even though the walls are about 18 inches thick. Lee Lindsey, owner of Stone Works, has restored similar homes, including a group a couple of blocks off the west side of Broadway dating from 1851 known as Stein’s Row. He determined the mortar was mostly clay and sand and probably came from the site. He worked on the project for just over a year, replacing stones that had fallen off near the roofline, mortaring others that bore dimples from the original workmen’s chisels.
He’d find bits of pottery behind some stones, and on each wall he’d find one or two pieces of yellowish rocklike sandstone. “It was kind of like a signature stone, like, ‘Well, I’m going to stick this in the stone and maybe somebody will find it and wonder why we put it there,’” said Lindsey, who wondered exactly that.
The Dorseys used mostly reclaimed materials, such as window panes from a Civil War-era log home and roof lumber from a mid 19th-century factory in north St. Louis. They redid the electricity and plumbing, adding a sink and toilet in the basement, and installed heating, cooling and security systems.
Most recently, they had a fence installed, placing the back fence 140 inches from the house in a nod to the 140 characters allowed in a tweet.
They also own a set of stone row houses at the front of the lot, and a house with siding behind the one they renovated. One day, they hope to renovate those houses, and turn the spot into an art gallery or event space, or perhaps a complex where artists can work and get ideas from one another.
The Dorseys live nearby in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, overlooking the Mississippi River the first Carondelet settlers traveled. Their gas analysis business, MA Tech Services, is in Soulard. Tim Dorsey thinks of himself as handy, and Marcia Dorsey considers herself more crafty. While they loved this project, they weren’t simply doing it to give back to the city, they said.
“We love the city, but we were really doing this for ourselves,” said Marcia Dorsey, laughing. “I almost cry every time I come. When I stop and think about it, you know? It was such a shell.”
Now, when they drive by Mio Nonni’s Casa, they can imagine it as a neighborhood anchor, which their family and others can enjoy once again.
“It’s always been here,” said Tim Dorsey, “and it will never leave, we hope.”