At first, they didn't know what to do.
"We'd come here, stand and stare," Chris Thompson said. "At first, it is overwhelming. There is so much wrong, where do you start?"
Chris and his wife Lisa Thompson have taken on the gargantuan task of restoring the William A. Mackay House. Located at 304 N.E. 4th St. in Madison, the Neo-Classical Revival home was once a showpiece and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sometime between 1976, when the nomination form describes it as "a single-family residence in excellent condition," and 2020, when the Thompsons purchased it, the house was hacked into apartments and stripped of any glory it once possessed. Hints remain in the stained glass windows and built-in warmer in what might have been a dining room, but those hints are few and far between.
"I think it was unfortunate it was turned into apartments. It took away some of the grandeur," Lisa said.
According to the nomination form, Alvin B. Olmorr built a small house on the site in 1886. The Thompsons have identified the area that would have been part of this structure by the wood framing and square nails.
"It was a one-room cabin that they built around," Chris said.
Experienced in home renovation, having both flipped houses and renovated the home in which they previously lived, the Thompsons are attempting to decipher what was done to the house by evidence that remains. Their first step was to strip the lower level to the studs.
"You can tell what was done where," Chris said, noting the difference in the wooden framing of the inner walls. Unfortunately, they have not been able to determine where one important feature would have been located.
"Our first project is to figure out where the staircase was," he indicated.
Thus far, they have not found evidence on the hardwood floors, though they suspect where it might have been. Chris -- an appraiser with Midwest Realty -- has a strong working knowledge of older homes, and the location of some windows is suggestive to him.
They are hoping to have their suspicions confirmed or disproved when they remove the sound insulation from the ceilings on the first floor. The location of the staircase will help to establish how they will reconfigure the lower level.
"It will set the tone, how things can be arranged," Chris said.
If they could find floor plans for the original house, that would help, but it is unlikely. According to the nomination filed with the National Register of Historic Places on March 3, 1976, Mackay purchased the site in 1889 "and contracted with Ed and Bert Reeves, early local builders, to construct the Neo-Classical Revival style home around the original Olmorr building. The Lake County Assessor lists the completion date as 1893."
More than 100 years later, stories remain, but little else. Since they began working, people have stopped by to talk with them. They have learned, for example, the house may have had a chandelier. One man reported a family member purchasing it after seeing it laying in the yard when the apartments were being fashioned.
"What's interesting is the amount of people who stop by and say, `We're so glad you're doing this'," Lisa said.
She admits that her love of the historic home inspired them to tackle the project. Having been raised in Madison and having graduated from Madison High School, she grew up entranced by the exterior of the house.
"I knew what the interior could be," Lisa noted, and added after a brief pause, "with lots of work."
"I wouldn't have bought it if it wasn't for Lisa," Chris confessed. The house needs so much work that it will be at least a year before they can move into it.
The nomination for the National Register describes a "pedimented portico" supported by "giant fluted Corinthian columns" with balustrades "on the ground floor porch and above it." The porch wrapped around the house, extending across the front and curving to partially cover the west wall. That porch has been removed for safety purposes but will be rebuilt.
"If you stood on it, you'd go through it," Chris said.
"Modillions decorate the cornices and pediments," the nomination reads, making note of the ornate brackets placed along the roof line. "A semi-elliptical window lights the large pediment covering part of the front porch."
"Fluted Corinthian pilasters are seen on the corners of the house," the nomination continues. A pilaster is an ornamental feature which gives the appearance of being a supporting column and may have an ornate capital at the top, like a column.
"Fenestration varies," the nomination reads, making note of the windows and doors, "from stained glass windows on the front facade to semi-elliptical and rectangular windows. A porte-cochere" -- or covered entrance -- "extends from the east wall."
"One hundred percent of this house is exterior," Chris said, noting the contrast between the exterior, which remained relatively unchanged when the home was repurposed, and the interior.
Because the house is listed on the National Register, the Thompsons have been in communication with the South Dakota State Historical Society about their efforts. They have learned they will have complete freedom to remodel the interior but will need to be historically accurate in restoring the exterior.
Their challenge at this point isn't so much to undo what has been done as it is to envision what the house will be for future generations. Part of this simply involves removing what was installed for the apartments.
"We don't need all those bathrooms. We don't need all those kitchens," Chris said.
Part of the challenge is making necessary repairs. Leaking plumbing has caused damage throughout the house. As they work to address those problems, they are finding other peculiarities -- such as unused pipes -- in walls and ceilings.
Most heartbreaking, though, is knowing how much must have been stripped from the lower level when it was cobbled into apartments. The woodwork on the second floor -- which in most houses doesn't match the quality of the first floor -- suggests that ornate baseboards and other woodwork were probably removed.
"There is nothing original to this," Chris said, standing in what might have been a spacious foyer.
The Thompsons are doing much of the work themselves, with the help of their children, Emily and Ryder. At this point, they are not revealing their vision for the house. They are not being secretive, simply practical.
"We have a fair idea of what we'd like to do. What we can do is to be seen," Chris said.