From garbage to glorious

Two recent college grads rehab a Wedge garbage house to start their business

Nate Smith and Tom Menke, two 26-year-olds, say they want meaningful careers in Minneapolis. They say that means making a buck while helping the community.

So the duo poured their ambition and months of hard work into a Wedge neighborhood garbage house, turning it into one of the block's more beautiful homes.

The vine-covered house at 2717 Emerson Ave. S. was built in 1900, but had long been an eyesore. The basement and two stories sported several feet of reeking garbage; the roof had decayed into the upper floor, becoming home to more than 50 pigeons. The house was condemned for more than a year before Smith and Menke came along to save it.

Residents had long urged the City Council to take action, and the home's elderly owner was given until last September to sell or leave. With a lot of coaxing, Smith and Menke said the

owner sold it to them so they could

start a rehab project -- the first chapter in their business, which they call the Urban Project.

Prologue to Chapter One

Smith and Menke, who now live east of I-35W in South Minneapolis, were roommates at the University of St. Thomas. Smith graduated in 2000 with an entrepreneurship degree and Menke with a planning degree in 2001.

They immediately put their education to use, building businesses -- in Smith's case, Home Coaters Painting and for Menke, Springborn Sprinklers. Still, both said they wanted to do something different with their lives. "Tom and I had aspirations of doing something great," Smith said.

While working in the area, Smith came across 2717 Emerson. He said it was a challenge for him and Menke to look past the horrid condition of the house and see what it could be.

From the outside, Smith said, the house merely looked neglected, with shrubs and vines overgrown. Inside was a true nightmare. Recalling the scene, both men grimaced, rolling their eyes and rubbing their faces when describing how gross the interior had become.

Garbage packed the house, piled so high that nearly every chair and couch was buried and people literally walked on three-foot-high bed of trash instead of the floors. The overpowering stench of cat urine, mixed with rotting meat from a faulty basement freezer and pigeon poop on the top floor kept even a city police officer out. "We couldn't enter the house without an industrial-strength gas mask," Menke said.

Still, a careful eye could see potential. When they could get enough garbage cleared away, Smith and Menke found the hardwood flooring was particularly distinctive -- a Victorian style built using face nails instead of tongue-in-groove.

The first floor was laden with other beautiful and largely intact woodwork, and the second floor was big enough for two spacious bedrooms.

Smith and Menke soon sold their businesses and devised a plan to purchase and rehab the house.

The occupant's family had owned the home since the '40s. Not surprisingly, others on the block described their neighbor as difficult. Menke and Smith said they worked hard to woo her into selling -- which, despite the city's looming demolition threat, wasn't easy. They eventually agreed to a contract for deed -- meaning the house still belonged to the woman until they paid off the sale price.

Smith and Menke purchased the home for $165,000 last September, just in time to save it from the wrecking ball.

The ultimate makeover

Menke said they had to keep gas masks on for a month while they cleaned out the home with the help of some (very nice) college buddies. "My wife wouldn't come look at it until it was clean," Smith said.

In all, the two filled two 40-yard dumpsters with garbage before starting on the actual rehab.

The first priority was a new roof. Smith and Menke said it was a task to get rid of the "pigeon zoo" on the roof, adding that many times the urban pests plagued their rebuilding efforts.

"They're kind of our mascot," Smith joked.

Once the roof was done, they replaced the plumbing, heating and electrical systems; remodeled the kitchen; and added forced air. They also built a new garage, since the previous one had a distinctive slant.

Smith and Menke said they didn't feel comfortable talking about the renovation's cost but said they paid for it using savings and by taking out a line of credit on Smith's house with Franklin Bank.

When the city granted them permission to rehab the house, Smith and Menke said they'd have it done by May 1. The week before deadline, they were putting on the finishing touches just as the new owners began moving in. Smith said they sold the house to his wife's aunt for $358,000.

They paid themselves $5,000 each for the seven months of rehab, living frugally so they could put the rest of the money from the sale into their company for working capital.

Neighborhood onlookers

Smith and Menke said residents have seemed very excited about the rehab. Rebecca Glasser lives across the street and said she and many other neighbors were excited to see the work Smith and Menke put into the home.

Glasser said she was amazed at how quickly they transformed the home. "It's been a real positive thing for our block," she said, adding many assumed it would be demolished. "I'm a firm believer that if you can renovate, you should," Glasser said.

Another neighbor, Jennette Lee, said Menke and Smith impressed her the most. "Those guys are just so young and have such a great attitude," she said.

Lee said some people thought the house should have been bulldozed, but [Menke and Smith's] work has been really impressive. "I was personally really happy to have them save it," she said.

Smith and Menke said they hope to rehab other homes, working in green building practice, historic renovation and boosting affordable housing initiatives. They plan to pay themselves more next time, now that they have some working capital.

They said they're excited about finding a career that meets their nonmonetary goals. "This was a way to better the community," Smith said. "We do it because we're passionate about it."