The Devil Queen

How my wife and I sold our souls to the Queen Anne Victorian we tried to save.

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Location: Crow Mountain, Arkansas, United States

Synopsis: This is a cautionary tale. A seriously disturbed couple find the charming, old ruin of a Queen Anne Victorian in Russellville, Arkansas, and buy it for $1.00. They tore the roof off, cut it in half, and had it moved to some land they owned sixteen miles away because they didn't know any better. Since then, they have hired and fired contractors, had all of their tools stolen, re-wired, re-plumbed, insulated, and essentially rebuilt the entire house. Their only problem is that after four years it still isn't finished. Now they are tired, broke, and wonder what in the hell it is they've done to themselves. And, it's haunted.
(Last updated on April 3, 2008)

Press: Russellville Courier Article - December 2003, HGTV website article, AP story - October 2006, and Victorian Homes Magazine - February 2008 (link coming soon).
Art: From time to time, I receive requests for my art. If you would like to look at more of my art, go to The Failed Artist. If you would like to buy my art, email me. I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Thanks!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Slings, Arrows, and Idiots

If you want to make your life exponentially more difficult, do something atypical. Nobody wants to do anything different than what is expected, particularly banks.

My wife and I are not independently wealthy, but we have good credit. Trying to get a construction loan for moving and renovating the Queen was like living in Kafka's head. My favorite bank interview (minus the one where someone was willing to do business with us) is the one where the banker told us, "you have excellent credit, but we just can't make a loan for moving the house. However, once you move it, we'd be more than happy to refinance your mortgage." Isn't that helpful?

Even though we have no proof, my wife and I suspect that part of our problem is that we are young and look even younger. I guess when virtually everyone you deal with is 20+ years older than you, you must seem ridiculously young to them by comparison. I soon discovered that wearing a suit helped me look my actual age, but I'm not sure how much it helped. It did cut down on some of the condescension, which was nice.

This phantom youth-factor wasn't limited to bankers. Contractors were even worse in some ways. Since I work in Little Rock (70 miles away), my wife dealt with the contractors. She is also a shrewd, hard-ass negotiator. I am not. Most contractors saw her and thought, "young, woman, and bank loan - stupid with money." She got some truly obscene bids on our project. One man told her that it would cost $25,000 to demolish the roof. We did for about one sixth of this amount.

My wife wrote a feature story about moving the Queen in late 2003. The Russellville Courier-Democrat ran it as their front page story one weekend. I am planning to post her story because is quite good. She is a much better writer than me. One thing that she writes about that I will mention here are the thieves.

The Queen's original location in Russellville is surrounded by commercial buildings and a couple of vacant houses. After 5 PM the streets are deserted. Once James and James had started pulling the roof down, people assumed that the Queen was being demolished. As such, they felt free to help themselves to whatever they wanted. Fortunately, the manager of Eskimo Pie started driving by the site in the evening after work. He stopped more than one person loading up their pick up truck with bricks or foundation stones. I started coming by at night a few times a week to make sure no one was driving off with our materials. My wife called the Russellville police and they started patrolling the area too. We posted "Keep Out" and "No Trespassing" signs all over the property.

During the day a local woman came over to talk to my wife about the project. She had an old house in Russellville too and was very interested in it. My wife explained that we were moving it and restoring the Queen. The next day while James and James were working on the roof, she came back and started fishing wood out of our salvage pile.

Talking James asked her, "What in the hell are you doing?!"

"I need some wood for my house," she replied.

"You can't have that, they're reusing it."

"Well I need it, I've been paying $8.00 a linear foot for this kind of wood."

"I don't care, put it back!"

"Well, I'll send my carpenter over!"


"I'll send him over."


She jumped into her car, slammed the door, and drove off leaving the wood behind.

I found it interesting that none of the people trying to steal from us were poor. They weren't taking it to resell so they could feed their families. They drove nice cars, had nice homes, and had money. It could make a good piece of social commentary I suppose.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

James and James

If you take I-40 west from Atkins, you'll reach Clarksville in about 45 minutes. My wife and I go there occasionally, mostly for peaches in the summer. Main Street (aka Highway 64) snakes through Clarksville east to west. Not too far west from the county court house, Main Street is bracketed by two large Victorian houses. The one on the northside of Main is Clarksville's Century 21 office. The one on the southside is blue and a private residence the last I saw it. They both have the distinction of being May Houses. They are called May Houses in honor of their architect, one Mr. May, that designed four or five grand Victorian in the Clarksville area.

The Blue May House has a past similar to the Queen. Both were kept in a single family until recently, and both fell into disrepair and were deserted in the last 10-15 years. My wife and I had considered buying it several years ago. We took a tour of it, but, being just out of college, we couldn't afford its price of $90,000. A woman from Texas bought it as a side project. She wanted to restore it to its original appearance. What she planned to do with it after that, I do not know.

On a trip to Clarksville a year or so after she purchased it, we noticed that a lot of work was being done on it. A huge dumpster was sitting in the front yard and tools and lumber were scattered about. My wife wanted to take a look so we walked in and started looking for the workers. There were only two men working on the May House, James and James. One James was bearded, long haired, very quiet, and thin. The other James was a big, talkative Texan with short curly hair. They let us take a look around the house though they seemed perplexed by us. My wife and I are both baby-faced. Though in our mid-20's we look more like 14 year olds. If two 14 year olds showed up at my house and wanted to talk about historic home restoration, I suppose I'd give them an odd look too.

James and James had done beautiful work on the house. After inspecting it from top to bottom, we asked them, "Are you doing anything in August?" They seemed even move surprised by this, "Why?" Then we told them about the Queen and how we needed the roof removed and rebuilt. Texas James gave us their card and told us that he'd come down to give us a quote on it.

My wife dubbed them Talking James and Non-talking James. She never called them this to their face though. They gave us an excellent quote and we hired them.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

House for a Dollar, Anyone?

Eskimo Pie was thrilled to talk with us about the Queen. Us moving the house solved a couple of problems for them. First, they got rid of the house at no cost to themselves. If they had hired someone to demolish the house and clear the lot off, it would have cost them thousands of dollars. Second, they were getting rid of the house without demolishing her. That was definitely good PR with the historic preservation crowd in Russellville.

None the less, it took us nine months to get a contract negotiated and signed so we could begin work. The matter was complicated by the fact that Eskimo Pie had to send the contract up to their corporate headquarters so their counsel could look at it. Aside from the fact that we were very anxious to begin work on the house, it really didn't end up too badly. The house cost us a dollar. In return we agreed to move the house within 6 months. If we failed to do so, we basically lost all rights to the house and we had to pay them $5,000.00 to cover the cost of clearing the site. We weren't too happy with the 6 month deadline.

We'd hoped to have a year to move her. We'd started the negotiation process in 2002 and signed the contract in April (?) of 2003. If we had year to complete the move, that would give us the rest of the year to prepare the new house site and to the house. Then we could wait out the winter and move it in the spring of 2004. But, if we only had 6 months, so be it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Getting Started

A little bit of knowledge is dangerous.

My wife and I have both worked in the real estate appraisal business. As one might expect, we've seen a lot of houses of every description. On one appraisal of an old farm house, my wife noticed that the house had a very new foundation. Curious, she asked the head appraiser why that was. They responded that the house had been moved from its original site.

That is when the cartoon light-bulb lit up above my wife's head - "If they could do it, then so can I!"

For several years, we watched with dismay as all the old houses in our area slowly disappeared. We wanted to do something to save these old homes but were clueless as to what we should do. After we looked at the Queen together, my wife asked me if I thought that we could move the house.

"I don't see why not. A few years ago they moved a three story Victorian in downtown Little Rock," I said.

So, we started calling around. It was both an amusing and frustrating process. Locally, house movers apparently specialize in moving mobile homes or ranch houses very similar to mobile home - that is long, narrow rectangles. The Queen was neither. Some said that it was impossible to move her. The most honest one said that he figured that it could be moved, but he didn't figure that he could. One fellow told us that it couldn't be done and then contacted the folks at Eskimo Pie. Apparently, if I understand it all correctly, he was interested in obtaining the property for himself.

Having exhausted all of the local leads we expanded our search. I tracked down the article the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had run on the moving of the three story Victorian. They mentioned the name of the house-mover that had overseen the project so we contacted him. They didn't service our area of the state, but he had a friend that did.

His friend, Dub Swink, runs a house moving business out of the Ft. Smith - Fayetteville area. I never figured out where the name came from, but the name of the business is Covey Home Movers. It is family business, so I also wondered why the business wasn't "Swink Home Movers."

Mr. Swink came out and looked at the house. He liked it. As my wife put it, "he just kept petting it." He gave us a quote on moving it (it came down to about $1000 a mile) and told us what all would need to be done to prepare it for the move. First, since the Queen's hip roof is so high, we would need to tear the roof off. Second, we needed to strip the brick skirting off the crawl space. Third, the plumbing, electricity, and natural gas lines all needed to be cut. Fourth, the front and back porches needed to come off. They were too rotten to be moved in his estimation. Once that was all done, he'd come out with his crew and cut the house in half and move it in two sections.

That list would probably be enough to scare most sane people off. Not us. We were overjoyed. It actually cost less than we'd expected (approximately $15,000.00 less) and we liked Mr. Swink. Armed with Mr. Swink's quote, we started negotiating with Eskimo Pie for the house. We also started looking for a construction loan. But, more of all of that later.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Why the Devil Queen?

So, why is this house called the Devil Queen?

The house my wife and I currently live in was (and still is to a degree) a fixer-upper. Once we got the Devil Queen, we had trouble figuring out which house we were talking about when we were discussing house work. We started calling our current house Mr. Blue (it is painted blue) and our Victorian house was called Queen Anne. As this project became a voracious money pit, Queen Anne became the Devil Queen.

When we first started this project, we were hoping to get the house onto the National Registry of Historic Places. The main incentive for this was saving the home and obtaining government grants to help repair and replace her extensive gingerbread trim. I spent nine months researching the house's history for the National Registry application. According to their naming system, the Devil Queen's proper name would be the "Ransom "Van" Newton Vandorn Boswell, Jr., House." Hell of a mouth full.
The following is an excerpt from our National Registry application:
The Boswell House was built in 1890 at 514 West B. Street in Russellville, Arkansas. The house was built on Lot 6 of the Mary A. Russell Sub-division. . . The house was built for Mr. Ransom "Van" Newton Vandorn Boswell, Jr. Mr. Boswell, Jr., was the son of Ransom N. V. Boswell and his wife Elizabeth C. Higganson. Mr. and Mrs. Boswell, Sr. were originally from Georgia. They moved to the Russellville area in 1868 after spending several years in Monticello, Arkansas, where Mr. Boswell, Jr., was born.
Mr. Boswell, Jr., was a prominent business man, was a contractor, merchant, farmer, landowner, and member of the firm Luker Brothers Manufactures. Luker Brothers produced steel running plows, wagons, and buggies. He also organized the Russellville City Band.
Most of the above was found in the History of Pope County, Vol. 1.
To continue, Mr. Boswell was married three times. He out-lived his first two wives. The third survived him by 25 years. The Devil Queen, upon Mr. Boswell's death passed to his eldest son, Van Boswell. Van died two years later at the age of 33. The house then passed to his youngest brother, Vestal Boswell. Vestal owned and lived in the Devil Queen until he died in about 1987 or 1988. During the time that the Boswells owned her, the house was a well maintained and loved house. She was remodeled in the 1920's. At this time, indoor plumbing was added, a kitchen and dining room were added, and a portion of the back porch was enclosed to make a bathroom. Additional remodeling was done throughout the 1950's-1970's. It wasn't pretty. Lots of wood paneling, most of the base boards were removed, and the color schemes were awful. I've seen some other "remodeling" jobs in older houses and it could have been a lot worse.
Lois Tuttle Boswell, Vestal's wife, sold the house shortly after his death. The Devil Queen began a rapid decent into decay, passing through several owners before Sugar Creek Foods Inc. (i.e. Eskimo Pie) end up with the house.
Hopefully, if I can work some bugs out of our virus protection software, I'll get some pictures of the Devil Queen when we found up and on this blog.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Our project in short

In the fall of 2002, my wife and I began negotiating to buy an 1890 Queen Anne Victorian in Russellville, Arkansas. Sounds simple enough, people are buying homes everyday. Why should this be any different? As it turns out, it was anything but simple.

The house was owned by the Eskimo Pie Factory. They had bought the house in the late 1990's for the lot. Their intention was to demolish the house to make additional parking for their 18-wheelers. Once they acquired the house, they became aware that Russellville's historical societies and like minded individuals were very interested in making sure the house wasn't demolished. One historical society approached the company with the proposal that they make the house into a museum. All the company needed to do was buy another lot in town, move the house, refurbish it, and give it to the society. The company decided they weren't interested. Instead they decided to do nothing. If they did nothing long enough, time and the elements would eat away at the house until it collapsed. Then, they could bulldoze it with a clean conscience

My wife has always had a fetish for the house. She grew up in Russellville and the neighboring town of Atkins. Her mom owned a flower shop (Ms. Scarlet's Flowers) in Russellville, and they often drove past the house on their way to and from the funeral home while delivering flowers. In the 1980's the house still had some of its old charm. The gingerbread trim was intact and the exterior was well maintained in general.

By 2002 the house was in sad shape. The gingerbread trim was rotting and falling off in chunks. The paint was peeling and the roof was caving in over the front door. Someone had broken in and stolen most of the door knobs, locks, miscellaneous hardware, a claw-foot bathtub, and one of the two fireplace mantels. The house sat two blocks away from a coffee house we frequented. One Saturday afternoon in the fall my wife took me to see the house. We found the back door unlocked and toured it inside and out. If you could see past the neglect and the injury, it was a beautiful house. After some discussion, my wife decided to see if we could buy the house.

If I knew then what I know now, there is no way that I would have agreed to be a willing participant in this project. As of today, we have spent the last two and a half years working on this house in one way or another. It'll probably take another 6 months to get it into good enough shape that we could live in it. Currently, that isn't an option. There are no working bathrooms, no electricity, and no heating or air conditioning. What started as a project that we willingly poured ourselves into became an infernal enslavement.

Remember, be careful of what you wish for.

For good or ill, it has been an interesting ride. I've been thinking about writing about this ill-conceived venture for a while, and now seems to be the time to do it. I hope to be able to post some photos and the history of the house in the near future. Once I do that, I hope to bring our story up to the present. Hope you enjoy.

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