Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ravenwood: A West Ward Tale of Love and Labor

By Christina Georgiou

Ravenwood, as it is today, off the corner of Ferry and
Walnut streets in Easton's West Ward, is the result
 of a lot of labor...and love.
If you're familiar with the Easton's West Ward, you've probably noticed “Ravenwood”, that rather stately townhouse the oozes yesteryear charm just off the corner of Ferry and Walnut streets, in what was once one of the city's poshest neighborhoods.

And, if you're not a life long city resident, it's easy to believe that this beautiful home has always been this way. However, that is not so.

While originally built in Easton's late 19th century heyday, Ravenwood's amazing old world charm and beauty is actually more of a survivor's tale, and the building's story in the past 30 years reminiscent of that of a phoenix rising from the ashes after near destruction.

For nearly destroyed it was. In the early 1980s, Easton was still reeling from the effects of the federal “urban renewal” projects that swept America following World War II, reaching culmination in the 1960s and '70s.

The concentrated federal pressure to declare city neighborhoods “blighted”, even thriving ones like Easton's Downtown commercial district, drove much of the urban middle- and upper-class out to suburban developments, leaving the surrounding neighborhoods to suffer from severe economic and social decline.

Earl Ball in front of Ravenwood, in the mid 1980s.
Faux brick tar paper covered the exterior clapboard,
windows were missing glass, the electrical and plumbing
systems needed complete replacement, and rooms
were strewn with trash when architect
Timothy Hare purchased the property. Below, the house
is shown as it continues to undergo renovation,
more than a year later.
  In 1984, when current owners Earl Ball, a minister, and Timothy Hare, a certified architect, came upon Ravenwood, it was in an utterly dismal state of genuine blight and disrepair. A friend had pointed out the property, up for sale for a low five-digit sum. But even at that price, and compared to the sky-high prices in New York City, the couple hesitated, rife with doubts about the work involved to make the property liveable.

“It was condemned,” Hare said. “So you couldn't get a mortgage or fire insurance for it.”

Earl Ball in the 1980s, removing
trash from Ravenwood's yard.
“Every room was filled with garbage,” Ball said.

“The yard was even worse,” Hare said. “There were just mountains of garbage and debris.”

The surrounding homes were not any  better off. Revitalization in Easton was barely in its infancy, and a row of nearby abandoned vacant homes was being auctioned off by the city for paltry four-digit sums under the “Old Homes” program of the time.

In the early 1980s, Ball and Hare were living in the Village in Manhattan but had met at Easton's first Heritage Day celebration in 1976. They fell in love at first sight, both agree, and they have been partners ever since—legally married in the several states that allow it, as well as in Canada.

Living in New York was losing its appeal, but neither saw the suburbs as an ideal haven. So despite a number of reservations about the property, Hare took the plunge and bought it.

Tim Hare and Earl Ball, with Fluffy,
in the front parlor of Ravenwood,
talking about the work that has been
put into their antique
townhouse's restoration

Earl Ball shows off the woodwork on
the home's fireplace, in what was originally
the house's kitchen.
“We came in with snow shovels every weekend and shoveled it out,” Ball said. “I could see the potential though, even though there was no glass in the windows, and the wood was hatcheted.”

Getting to the point where they could even move in took a couple of years of steady hard labor, they said.

The plumbing and electrical wiring were not only outdated, but essentially destroyed from the many years of vacancy and neglect the property had suffered. So it all had to be replaced.

And, even when they finally moved in, the house was still a constantly ongoing project.

Earl Ball holds a photo, shown below,
of  how the room he's standing in
appeared , in the mid- to late
1980s before work on the house
was complete.
 Many rooms had pink walls over layers of wallpaper, and in others the plaster was badly damaged. The townhouse's original clapboard had been covered over with tar-paper with a faux-brick pattern at some point, which all had to be removed and the staple holes in the wood filled prior to the exterior being painted.

Ball spent countless hours and days, meticulously working room by room personnally to restore details in the wood trim that had been hacked and damaged and fixing damaged plaster work, as well as painting the exterior himself, twice now in the time the couple has lived there.

The process has taken many years to complete.

“I enjoy the process of restoring (old things) and bringing it back,” he said of what many would label tedious tasks.

A number of the house's details had been removed during its decline, such as doors, and had to be replaced, however. Not willing to compromise the house's historical details, Hare scoured curbsides near old house cleanouts both in Easton and in Harrisburg where he was working at the time, and brought home architectural details appropriate to the house to be incorporated into the restoration.

 It saved a lot of money, Hare said, and was also in keeping with the couple's goal of revitalization and renewal for the antique home.

Today, 28 years after Ball and Hare started its restoration, Ravenwood may well be more grand than it was when it was originally built. The two have additionally added an enchanting garden, and bought the adjacent vacant lot, which they have also improved by cultivating more garden space.

Having tracked down its history, Hare said the house was built for Easton blacksmith and carriage maker Eli Oberly and his family, and probably completed in 1871. Oberly, he added, was prosperous but not a very rich man.

The "servants' staircase"
The main staircase
“So while this was a big house, it wan't a fancy house,” Hare said.

Still, the house has a plainer, second staircase for servants' use leading to the second floor in addition to the grander staircase off the foyer, and while converting the third floor attic space into an open floor plan, there was evidence this space was used at one time for servants' quarters, an indication Oberly was probably doing fairly well.

The attic space also yielded some bits of history that were preserved despite the house's near fatal decline prior to its restoration and hint at previous owners' lives.

A trunk hidden away in the attic servants' quarters contained clothes, including an apron, a late 19th century corset and bust enhancer.

A woolen cap, typically the type a workman or young boy would wear was also found by Ball in the walls, along with a stash of beer bottles from an old Easton brewery.

And, in the yard, bottle and pottery shards, along with the “prize” of finds—a belt shield from a Union soldier dating back to the Civil War.

Ball has carefully kept and preserved these and other artifacts he's found, labeling them along the way. They're part of the house and its history, he says. 


But while Ball and Hare happily live among the fruits of 28 years of patient, meticulous labor and still love the neighborhood, they both have recently retired and say it's nearing time to pass their historic home to the next generation.

“This house needs someone younger, a family, perhaps, to carry it forward into the future,” Hare said.

To that effect, an ad on the Manhattan Craigslist appeared last week, declaring their intention to sell to the right buyer. The adjacent garden lot they will keep for now, but intend to allow first-option rights to whoever purchases Ravenwood.

They intend to stay in Easton, they said too, adding that they're not sure where they will move, but it won't be College Hill.

“We like the diversity of this neighborhood,” they said. “So wherever it is, we're not giving that up.”

Ravenwood is only one of a near-countless number of unique, one-of-a-kind historic buildings in the City of Easton, and The Easton Eccentric would like to highlight more of them. Are you currently restoring one of the city's numerous architectural gems? Do you own a house or other building that you'd like to highlight? Or, perhaps there's a structure you feel deserves some attention so it can get the love it deserves to further the mission of revitalizing our city?

If so, please email us! Your suggestion could very well be next on our list!


  1. Great post! Its good to know about how hard these folks have worked at making the West Ward a better place. I hope it gives some insight to others as to why homeowners like these (and there are many others) are vocal and vigilant in their expectations that the City of Easton and the County of Northampton do their part to protect and preserve the good bones that we all have inherited from the hard work of previous generations.

  2. Great story, thanks for doing it. I'm glad to hear that Tim & Earl will be staying in our fair city. But where can they find a place that won't require a lot of work to match Ravenwood?
    Would it be crass to ask a question about rehab cost vs. asking price?

    1. Glad everyone enjoyed this piece. I enjoyed doing it. In addition to the comments here, we've gotten some excellent feedback on this, and it looks like there will be more articles in this vein in the future. At least, I'm hoping so.

      tachitup - I'm really not sure what Time and Earl's plans are--house, apartment, or what. While the house is now being advertised, I didn't get the impression they're in a huge hurry to move out tomorrow. I'm guessing they'll be taking the time to find the right situation. There's a lot to choose from in Easton though, more than meets the eye, so I'll wager they'll find something that suits them.

      As for the second question, if one were to ask nicely, privately, I don't think it's an unreasonable question to ask, especially if one were actually interested in possibly purchasing it or has a similar situation they'd like to be able to compare to. Getting into it publicly though, probably would be crass.

      We didn't really discuss rehab costs when I did the article, and I didn't even know they'd rehabbed it themselves when I approached them about doing a bit on Ravenwood back in June. One thing that did come up during the interview that didn't make the article though, was that at one point they decided they'd have the exterior painted professionally that second time around. They changed their minds when the estimate for a one-color-only-no-scrape paint job came in at $27,000. Earl did it himself instead.

  3. Again, Earl and I thank you Christina for the incredible article about our beloved Ravenwood! It sold our house! (to us - so we've taken it off the market!)