Restoring a home; rebuilding a soul

DANSVILLE — One woman is working to restore a local historic home, and in the process has rebuilt her soul.

The 120-year-old house that has stood firm at 9 Greenmount Avenue has a grand story. Its story began with the ones who built it. The Shaw Family built the home in all Hemlock wood to ensure it would withstand all of life’s storms. The entire interior of the home was built with the most beautiful Chestnut wood. When they ran out of that they used Pine wood for a small cabinet over a children’s bench by the dining room.

There are plenty of things unique about the home that makes it part of the fabric of historic Dansville.

On a tour of the home, Sonja Bates, the lady in charge of the renovations, informed this reporter about all the intense detail that goes into rebuilding a historic home.

Bates has been renovating historic homes since her family bought an old farmhouse when she was 10-years-old. Her father didn’t want to hire extra help, so it became a family project to restore it themselves.

“I learned a lot from my father when I was 10 years old. I was always interested in old homes even before that. When I was seven years old I recall being very interested in historic homes. My father didn’t see the need to hire anyone since he saw the family as free labor. We renovated the farmhouse all by ourselves,” she said. “I went on to buy my own home in Maryland when I was older, and I renovated that all by myself. I worked for various investors flipping properties over the years. I designed kitchens for five years and designed bathrooms for two years. Most of the work I am doing on this house I have done all by myself. I had some help with the front porch from a local company.”

Bates, of New Jersey, first became aware of this Dansville home when her best friend, Bobbi Bernstein, purchased the home a few years back. Bernstein needed some help restoring the home after it wouldn’t sell on the market. Bates stepped in and asked if she could be the one to renovate the house.

Bates began working on the home in July 2017, just getting an assessment of what was needed to be done. She has worked two years straight on the project after taking a few breaks to get supplies and things for the home. It has been a healing project for her since she has openly expressed that she suffers from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or CPTSD, Depression and Anxiety. After losing her home and everything she worked so hard for in Maryland, it caused a series of court battles. A law was passed in her name to keep this injustice from ever happening to another homeowner in that state. It caused a wound in her life that turned into CPTSD, which controlled her life for a long time.

“You get Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when you have to relive the trauma multiple times. It is worse than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is more common in women and children. These are the most common victims of intense abuse. Women and children are victims of physical, sexual, psychological, and verbal abuse. Some cases are if children are horribly abused, seen someone die, been a burn victim, or in a terrible accident. There are over 20 people a day who commit suicide because of this disease,” Bates said. “People are trying to get what they need in support groups, but are still hurting. The brain needs to feel normal. There is a higher risk if you are raised in an abusive home.”

Bates continued to explain the effects of this disease in her life.

“I have been resilient my whole life. Even though I suffered from depression and anxiety I had to bounce back a lot. When this trauma happened to me, I found out I couldn’t bounce back. This trauma had defeated me, and it was terrifying. I was completely out of control. I felt my brain was committing mutiny against me. I felt I was in a fog all of the time and a huge burden on everyone. Having this disease is like having memory loss. It takes away huge junks of your life. The drugs and therapy never helped so I had to find something to bring me back. I tried yoga, dance, prayer, reading, painting, mindfulness, artwork, and anything to bring myself back. Not every person who has this is the same, and they can’t be treated the same way. You have a lot of bad days where you feel like you can’t save yourself, so how can you save anyone else.”

Bates suffered a lot from “flashbacks” that would take her to places she did not want to go.

“I couldn’t turn off my flashbacks. I was unable to sleep or turn off the tape inside of my head. I would turn on the TV for hours and have that white noise to help me fall asleep. Finally they gave me the same drugs they use to help the military that suffer from this disease. It was able to put up walls to my flashbacks,” Bates said. “The reason why the brain cannot think about anything else but the trauma is because the brain can’t make sense of it. It is in constant shock and anger over what happened. The brain is arguing with the trauma over and over. It can’t accept the trauma. You live in fear all of the time. I fought with my past all of the time, and I got into a brain trap. You can’t measure the years lost to this disease.”

Bates wants others to know that no matter what you struggle with in your life you can battle your demons. You can find something that brings you back. Renovating this home has saved her life.

Bates walked this reporter through the beautiful Victorian Era home to show what she has done, and what still needs to be done in a few months. The homeowner is hoping to have it on the market by early Summer this year.

There is a secret nook that stored important documents in the entertainment room. The original wood is all there since wealthy people never painted their walls, but they would cover it in wallpaper instead to show high class. There are large wooden antique doors that will be put in place in the entertainment room. The paint used on the interior needs to be mixed very carefully and used in that time period. The kitchen ceiling had to be removed to reveal the original Tin Ceiling from the home. It will need a lot of work done. The dining room, bathroom, and kitchen have these old Tin Ceilings. Since the entire home was built with Hemlock wood there is not a single drafty spot in the home.

The Pine Cabinet that was made above the children’s bench was made by a local 120 years ago named C. A. Aman. Bates will turn it into chestnut to match the rest of the home, and the little nook area will become an adult corner with wines and coffee.

Bates knew how rare Chestnut wood has become so when a man donated some of it to her to restore the home, she was pleased. Much of that has been used in the kitchen. She is repurposing everything in the home.

Bates had to bring some modern things into the home such as a brand-new stove, fridge, kitchen sink, plumbing, heating, electric, and laundry facility.

“I am going to have a hard time leaving this home. It has become a huge part of me. My best friend is literally the reason I am still alive. She has helped me recover as I live with CPTSD. I am doing something extraordinary for her life since she did something extraordinary for me,” Bates said. “I am investing my time and life into rebuilding this home. It has given me back my life. I first saw the home in 2017 and got an idea of what needed to be done. It needed all new plumbing system. I designed the laundry room and it came out exactly the way I wanted it too. I put in a brand-new HVAC. I brought in four chandeliers to add character to the home. Most of what I find is at the ReHouse Architecture Salvage Store in Rochester. Some of it is from Pinterest or Ebay. I got a lot of my artwork from local antique stores, garage or yard sales.”

“I brought love back into this home. I put my entire heart and soul into rebuilding it. It is going to be very hard for me to leave it. I put my whole life into this home. I am completely a part of it,” Bates continued. “I remember getting a wooden piece from the Salvation Army in town I thought was beautiful. I really loved the design. When I was able to see the original ceiling in the kitchen, I was amazed that the design matched the original ceiling. I have kept that piece of wood in the kitchen to remind me of that.”

Bates thinks about every small detail when she works on renovating a historic home. She has special paints, cleaning solutions, and things to look for when she is at the ReHouse store or antique stores. It is not a simple job. It takes a lot of time, energy, passion, and keen eye for the bones and heart of the home.

There are three rooms down in the basement. One is for the laundry room, the other is used for the heating pipes and has a nook easily used for a wine cellar, and the last looks like a skateboarder’s paradise with all the slopes. It is where we find the real treasure of the original homeowners marking memories in the foundation. We find that Made Christmas, 1913, H.F. Shaw is by the brick chimney, on the edge of the slope is Aug. 26, 1913 H.F. Shaw, May, 13, 1910, H.F. Shaw. These marks are made in what was used for the coal in those days. This part of the basement is different since it would hold all the coal for the home. Bates still finds coal down there as she is renovating the home.

Bates has created a warm feeling in the basement with heating, nightlights, and cleanliness that gets away all the spooks that may still lurk behind.

When it comes to artwork showcasing the home, that is a whole other ballpark of home marketing. Bates must find the right vibe to go with the home before it is presented to any potential buyers. She does what is called a staging. She collects things from her own personal life and artwork around the town to present the home. The dragonfly lamp is all she has left of her home in Maryland, and it symbolizes something much deeper for her as she renovates this historic home. The P. Adams Stitch work is older than the home, and it is suggesting a call back to this artist’s native land. The painting of a bridge is from a native of Dansville, and came from a local garage sale. Every single piece of art in this home has a story to tell, and it all connects to the story of the one who purchased it.

“My dragonfly lamp came with me to this house, since it is all I have left of my home in Maryland. It is my most prized treasure. I like having it with me here, since it makes me feel like I am back to my safe place. It makes me feel like I am back to the place I was before it all shattered. I got this as a gift for myself when I moved into my Maryland home. It is a reminder of wherever I go now it will be perfect sails ahead. I have brought the past and present together in this home,” Bates said.

By purchasing an historic home on Greenmount Avenue, Bernstien saved the life of her best friend, Bates, who little by little is finding her way back to rebuilding her soul.