American Gothic Revisited

The couple you see in the photograph would win my award for Topekans of the Year for at least the last four years. What they have done to revitalize the neighborhood in which we all live is a story worth sharing. Doug Jones and his wife Barb Quaney reside just two blocks from us. Doug has been a friend for most of my life and still lives in his family home on Western just as Laura and I live in my old family home on 9th Street.

Barb Quaney and Doug Jones in front of 825 Western

Growing up, the Jones’ family home always was a wonder to me. The house is huge and spreads over three remarkable floors. A stunning stairway that rivals anything you’d see in a classic 40’s movie soars upward to a gorgeous stained glass window before splitting and turning back on itself in two separate staircases leading to the second floor. The living room stretches from front to back on one side of the large main floor. On New Year’s Eve, Doug and Barb host their popular party that is noted for the grand living room being filled with jamming bluegrass musicians.

When Doug and Barb bought the home from the family estate after Doug’s parents had passed, little did they know just how big a revitalization project they were undertaking. In short order Doug and Barb brought their home back to life with modern touches integrating perfectly with classic looks. The only problem was that after all their work, they came to realize just how rough the old neighborhood had become.

Across the alley on Fillmore was a house made infamous by an incident on November 22, 2005 when a man wielding a machete attacked three people. Yes, a machete. The house was well known for its drug trafficking. After the machete incident mercifully shut the house down, Barb and Doug took a leap of faith in their abilities to make a positive change. They bought the house at auction.

Walking into the house they began to immediately question their sanity. It was a disaster. “I felt we both should have been wearing Hazmat suits,” Doug said recently. The interior had to be completely gutted. Not an easy task for the couple with full-time jobs. However, their persistence paid off. The renovation brought positive neighbors to the block. Both admitted they liked the feeling of accomplishment and soon house after house was purchased and brought back to former glory.

Today the couple owns eight homes on the block between 8th and 9th streets and Fillmore and Western streets. They also own another house on 8th between Fillmore and Clay.

Their latest investment has presented a different set of challenges. St. John’s Lutheran Church at 9th and Fillmore owned a two-story home just south of the church that featured upstairs and downstairs apartments. Back in the early 60’s, the upper apartment was home to a mother and two attractive daughters. All were sun worshipers. The young boys of the neighborhood were always on alert for the women to climb out of a back window to sunbathe on the flat roof of the back porch. I’m still not sure who enjoyed the show more, me and my friends or the three women who always delighted in offering us just enough skin to keep us coming back for more.

When the show finally ended with the daughters going off to college and the mother still tan but dried, the upper apartment became the home for the church’s vicars and the lower apartment became the church youth house for various activities. When St. John’s built an extensive addition to the church, the house was doomed until Doug and Barb stepped in again.

They were able to buy the house for $1 if they moved it and saved the church the cost of demolition. Next to their home on Western was a vacant lot owned by the school district and used as a parking lot. Doug and Barb negotiated a price for the lot, and early one morning the youth house made a short trip to its new home. It fit perfectly in its new location. Today, Doug and Barb have brought the house back to life with detailed paintwork that has made it a true beauty and an instant success as a corporate rental.

When I visited with Doug and Barb and shot the photo for this story, Barb said, “Painting over the hand prints in the youth house was very sad.” I realized one set of those handprints were my youngest daughter Kelly’s. However, that is a small sacrifice for the beauty of the house in its new location and what it means to the neighborhood in which we live. “Old Town” has some wonderful homes that just need the same attention Doug and Barb have given theirs.

That is why I posed the two for a takeoff on the famed “American Gothic” Grant Wood painted in 1930. Wood was inspired by a cottage he had seen in Iowa and painted a man and woman in front of it because they were “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.” Most think of the couple as man and wife when it fact it is an old farmer and his spinster daughter. Nevertheless it has become one of the most parodied paintings in history. My interest in doing my own parody is that the painting during the Depression came to represent the “steadfast American pioneer spirit.”

Doug and Barb aren’t the first to buy old homes and renew them, but their efforts, at least to me, represent that same true pioneering spirit. These aren’t slumlords looking to make a few fast dollars on cheap rentals. These are wonderfully renewed homes. Our old neighborhood hasn’t looked this good for many years. Doug and Barb’s efforts should be applauded by all Topekans and represent a symbol of what civic pride means.

On September 3 from 5:00 to 8:30 p.m., you can visit an open house in the old Colonial Revival home built in 1908. Please stop by 825 Western that night. Besides the open house, the artistic work of some outstanding “Old Town” artists will be on display. It will be well worth your time to see what two inspiring people have done to make Topeka an even better place to live. Take the time to thank Doug Jones and Barb Quaney for their vision of a better neighborhood and a better Topeka.


About jeffjacobsen

Thank you for reading my blog, Here I Stand. You can read all about me, my wife and my family on the Family page. God bless and keep you.
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One Response to American Gothic Revisited

  1. Barb Quaney says:

    We do not recognize ourselves in this beautiful article! Thank you for taking a moment on our behalf. We are thrilled that you and Laura decided to dig in and stay within the neighborhood. Working together we will all take back what has been taken from Topeka.

    Thanks again,
    Barb and Doug

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