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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Overcast and Windy
The Paper


Homestead dreams
A new old house arises at Baldwin and Spaight

Kris Nonn: Building his own luck.
Kris Nonn: Building his own luck.
Credit:Andy Moore
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There's something about standing in the presence of a man who knows exactly what he's doing. It's a reminder that many of the rest of us get by on dumb luck, muscle and grit. Kris Nonn has muscle and grit. He's building his own luck.

You've seen him if you've passed by the corner of Spaight and Baldwin streets just about any day since last spring. That's when the rural Cross Plains native began creating a new home from the skeleton of the one built on the lot back in the 1860s. The original home was nothing special. A clapboard with chipped paint that looked like it belonged on an Appalachian mountainside.

Those of us in the neighborhood looked at the old, scrubby house and saw nothing more than a pile of boards stacked in the weeds. Nonn looked at it and saw every frame of his future. He saw it as clearly as an architect's blueprint, which is exactly what he rendered.

"I've talked about living here for a long time," he said. "We plan to be here for the rest of our lives."

A 2006 graduate of the architecture program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Nonn is currently employed by Kee Architecture. He spends an average of 30 hours per week on the Baldwin Street house. Mostly weekends and nights. Like the night I stopped by to talk with him.

It was dusk. It was one of those mind-blowing, beautiful evenings we enjoyed in October. Those were precious minutes on the clock for Nonn. "Gotta make hay while the sun shines," he said.

He was in constant motion. His movements, those of a craftsman. A swivel, a reach, a carpenter's pencil appearing in his fingertips from thin air. He's used to curious neighbors stopping by. After all, a farm silo is part of his new city property. More on that in a minute.

I asked him where he and his wife, Helen, were living during the construction. He looked up from his saw board and pointed to the tiny driveway. "Right there." A little camper, an ancient, beat-up Jayco travel trailer, was right there, curtains pulled closed.

Nonn does most of the work himself, though he subcontracts help for some of the specialty labor and heavy stuff. He could have remodeled the old home in a conventional way three times over by now - if, that is, his approach were conventional.

He said he's working, "not to abolish the old but to learn from it. We've salvaged so much stuff. When you come in here you'll see the old original. Then you'll see the new and how they go together."

The original framing, for example, will still stand. Nonn recognized the unusual timber framing of the first carpenters. "I think it's beautiful. That's why we wanted to sandblast it and expose it. To not hide this story."

The house will be warmed through tubes buried beneath the concrete floors. The pipes will be connected to solar hot water panels on the roof. Old and new.

And what about the silo?

"There's an element of whimsy or historical fiction in the silo, too," said Nonn. "These old silos. They're out there, so lonely, waiting for their time to go."

Nonn tore the silo down last winter on a defunct farm property outside Columbus. He cleaned it up, block-by-block, and reassembled it at Baldwin and Spaight.

I asked him why he thought a silo could work in the city. "A silo is not so different from a chimney," he said. "Kids can see a silo now on their way to school. Right in town. It's preserving history. This one was made in Indiana. None of them are the same."

The silo will serve as the bathroom. Light will flow down from the top, just as it did on grain all those many years ago.

If there's a difference in 2011 between a home and a homestead, Nonn is surely close to finding it. He talks about his respect for his future neighborhood with the same reverence as he talks about his future home. Indeed, even as he's built his spot in the community, he's given to it, volunteering in the schools through his connection to Junior Achievement.

But winter is coming. Fast. The windowless house is now dressed all in plastic. Last week the wrappings crinkled loudly, as if they were alive, fighting off November's shifting winds, protecting the womb within.

There are other deadlines. Helen, living with Nonn out in the camper, is eight months pregnant.

"I guess we really know how to take on a challenge," Nonn reasoned. He stopped his sawing and looked at me. "If you waited to be done with one thing to go on to the next thing, you'd never get anywhere."

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