This 1927 arts-and-crafts bungalow is better than ever

Emily Ruth and Chris Cannon live at this house on Clinton. Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

The house at 405 S. Clinton had exactly the qualities Robert Romano seeks: neglected, poorly renovated in the ’70s, listing foundation, a total mess.

“I look for those kinds of houses,” he says. “When you transform the worst ones, it makes the neighborhood transform all the more.”

Romano is not a typical builder, and he finds the term “house flipper” offensive, although he could fit loosely under either of those categories. He and brother Rex Romano own a company, Pro-Seal, that preserves exterior wood, such as decks and fences.

Restoring old houses is their hobby, and they’re really, really good at it.

The house on Clinton is the fourth one they’ve renovated in our neighborhood.

Much of the home’s original arts-and-crafts details were stripped in the ’70s remodel, and a roof leak damaged the floors and ceilings. A 450-square-foot addition on the back of the house was unsalvageable and had to be torn down.

Chris and Emily Ruth Cannon now live in the house with their 3-year-old son, Sawyer. Entering through the solid-wood front door, which looks original but isn’t, one would never guess their house has been completely renovated, from foundation to ceiling beams.

The Romano brothers hired carpenters to fabricate built-in shelving, crown molding, door trim and other details appropriate for the 1920s cottage, on site.

They built a fireplace in the home’s 850-square-foot addition, which includes a family room and master suite, and they didn’t use a firebox, the way most builders would. They built it the old-fashioned way, brick-by-brick with no prefabricated elements.

“I want to do everything my own way,” Robert Romano says. “I want it done right.”

He says he doesn’t care whether a house has a usable air-conditioning system or hot-water heater, for example. He wants his houses to have energy-efficient systems. The Clinton Avenue house also is wired for sound, with hidden speakers throughout the house and on a patio off the master suite. The Romanos would rather recoup less profit and make the house perfect to their standards, he says.

“My Realtor scolds me,” he says. “She says, ‘You’ve got to make some money!’ ”

But renovating houses truly is a hobby. Romano says they do make money, but it’s not really about that.

The Romano brothers grew up in the Northeast, where they lived in old houses all their lives. Robert Romano says he’s always admired architecture.

“It’s a true passion of mine,” he says of renovating. “I don’t think I’m very artistic, but that’s my little artistic outlet. I like to detail them and get them right.”

While the home’s new details are true to its age, some aspects are appropriate for the modern age. The kitchen features light-gray marble countertops and a stainless-steel version of a farm sink. Instead of ceramic subway tiles, which a builder in the 1920 might have used as a backsplash, the Romanos installed glass tiles that are similar size and shape to subway tiles. It’s reminiscent of the 1920s without seeming outdated.

The homeowners’ personal style is modern and artsy. Their dining room table is long and rectangular, made of recycled wood and flanked with molded fiberglass chairs. They replaced a café-style light fixture in the dining room with plainer, more modern pendant lamps.

Emily Ruth Cannon says she appreciates how thoughtful the Romanos were in recreating the house. A pocket door at the back of the master closet opens to the laundry room, for example. A breakfast nook between the kitchen and family room, which might’ve been nothing more than a hallway, with less imagination, is where the family spends the majority of their time. Everything in the house is perfect, she says.

“There are all these little things that you can tell were difficult or inconvenient for them to accomplish,” she says. “But they did them anyway. Everything is perfectly consistent. You can’t catch him in an error.”