Last year on Nov. 17, Teresa Aitchison got home from work about 3 p.m., just as the predicted windstorm was really beginning.
All day she had worried about the large ponderosa pine in front of her house a few blocks from Manito Park.
“We knew it was vulnerable,” she said.
Her son Jaden Zastoupil, now 12, was in the living room playing a video game, and as the wind grew stronger, she sent him down to the basement.
As Aitchison went to get older son Colby Aitchison, now 18, from his bedroom, the tree fell, hitting the brick chimney and smashing through the roof. A limb broke through inches from where Jaden had just been sitting.
There was so much dust and debris in the air that Colby, who’d been taking a nap, thought it was smoke and that the house was on fire, Aitchison said. He couldn’t understand why she wanted him to go into the basement.
Aitchison called 911, but there was nothing emergency responders could do for them.
The family gathered necessities – including the dog, cat and rat – and got out, spending that first night at her parents’ house few blocks away, along with their neighbors who also had a tree fall.
“I just felt like it was kind of unreal,” said Aitchison, 37.
“I was just thinking about what I need to survive.”
‘Lemonade out of lemons’
The ponderosa knocked down the chimney stack and came to a rest on the base. That likely saved the structure, Aitchison said, as it kept the tree from going down into the main part of the house.
Right away she decided she’d rebuild. “Jaden’s lived here his whole life, Colby’s been here since he was 5. It’s their home,” she said.
She also decided that acting as her own contractor would help her get the most bang for her buck.
“We did that in order to make lemonade out of lemons,” Aitchison said.
It helped that her stepfather, John Prosser, was selling his electrical contracting business that month and transitioning to retirement, freeing up his time to help her. And, he had been through a similar experience a few years before when heavy snow caused the roof to collapse at his business, Patriot Electric. He and his wife, Gail, rebuilt that building, which is now home to Wisconsinburger.
Plus, both Aitchison and Prosser were worried about who would be available to do the work, with so many homes needing repairs, and how long a wait it would be.
But first, they had to protect what was left. That meant getting the tree off the house and tarping the roof. With rain and snow, they were struggling to keep it dry inside, so within two weeks, Prosser started ripping off a section of the roof to better secure the tarp.
But water pooled on the tarp, Aitchison said. At one point, they poked a hole in the tarp and drained the water into 5 gallon buckets.
“We were trying to save the basement,” which they had finished about 10 years ago, she said. “We actually kept water out of it for a few months.”
It also meant getting everything out of the house. The insurance company declared everything in the living room – furniture, entertainment center, rugs, etc. – a complete loss. A company was hired to pack up what was left.
“It was really overwhelming to think about packing up your house when everything is covered in dirt,” Aitchison said.
The family – including the animals – stayed in hotels for about three weeks, then moved into a rental. And Aitchison, a clinical microbiologist at Sacred Heart Medical Center, got to work on planning for the renovation.
“She had limited expertise, but she had willingness,” Prosser said.
Renovations were something Aitchison had dreamed about for her late 1920s house. And, she understood that by doing most of the work themselves, they could stretch the insurance money.
“I was excited about that, it seemed like a great opportunity,” she said.
For one thing, “I always hated my kitchen. Only one person could work in it,” she said.
And for another, the house is small – less than 900 square feet on the main floor – “and you’re all living on top of each other,” she said.
She already had ideas about what she wanted to do. To turn those ideas into plans, she got help from her mother and “Pinterest, lots of Pinterest,” she said.
They went down to the studs on the main floor, filling five or six roll off dumpsters during the demolition.
“She’d put her mask on and just go to work,” Prosser said of Aitchison.
All of the family members worked on the project. “You name it, we were there as a team,” Prosser said.
“It was exhausting,” Aitchison said. “I’m still trying to work, I’m still trying to deal with the insurance. It was exhausting, but I just stayed with it. I did the best I could.”
Practical and sentimental
Some of the design decisions were practical ones. Others were mandated by building codes or other rules. Some were fulfilling dreams. And yet others were sentimental.
“I had always envisioned, instead of that wall being there (between the kitchen and the living room), an island,” Aitchison said. And so, the walls that created the living room, dining room and kitchen came down.
Now, it’s an open space, with vaulted ceilings and an L-shaped quartz-topped island in the middle. The stove is on the island, and stools wrap around one corner. The sink, however, is in the same spot – to save money Aitchison kept all the plumbing in the same location as before. Custom cupboards include pullout shelves.
“Just little things get me excited, like I have one of those pullout garbage drawers,” she said.
In the section of the main room that was the dining room, she took advantage of the area that was the built-in china cabinet. It’s now a desk, and the computer is on a pullout shelf that tucks away behind a cupboard door when not in use.
The roofline changed from hipped to gabled, allowing for that vaulted ceiling in the main room and storage above the bedrooms. Plus, it was more economical, Prosser said.
As she chose materials, Aitchison tried to make everything low maintenance and kept an eye toward sustainability, she said. There are new windows, insulation, electrical and plumbing. The exterior is now HardiePlank.
Aitchison decided to make closets bigger, even though that meant taking a bit of space from the bedrooms.
There’s no longer a fireplace in the house – she’d never used it, she said. But, Aitchison added a front porch, something she’d always wanted. The porch’s pillars have a brick base.
“The bricks came from the chimney and I cleaned them all,” Aitchison said, adding it took her hours to prepare the 330 bricks needed to build the pillars.
The house was finished in August, though when the family moved back in they were still waiting on tile for the bathroom.
Aitchison said it’s nice to be back in the neighborhood where she grew up. “I just really like living here.”
And, she’s happy with the changes she’s made.
“Everyday we all sit in here,” she said, while standing at the island earlier this month.
Before, she’d be in the kitchen while the kids were in the living room, “now we all sit together in the same room.”
Son Jaden agreed. “I like to be able to be with everybody else,” he said while sitting at the island doing his homework. “But sometimes I’d prefer to be on my own.”
For Aitchison, there’s a relief in no longer having to make constant decisions. In fact, she’s using a couch and chairs borrowed from her parents for now – she’s not ready to commit to anything yet.
“I was planning on doing something before this all happened,” she said, “but I never would have been able to go to this extent.”
She has “a new house now instead of a repaired house,” Prosser said.
He’s happy he and his wife were able give their time. “What I gained was the knowledge that our daughter and grandsons were back in their home before the next school year began and life was beginning to normalize again.”
It was a really hard year for Aitchison and her boys, she said.
“So much happened in the past year that came on because of the tree,” Aitchison said. “Me and the boys just kept doing what we needed to do.”
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