COLUMBIA — In 1958, Brian Gill and his family moved from their home on East Broadway to one on Westmount Avenue in the Old Southwest neighborhood. Shortly after moving in, he went exploring with his four brothers and their Weimaraner, Fritz. At the end of Lathrop Road, they found woods that, at the time, included the MKT train tracks and Flat Branch Creek.
Gill would play in those woods every day until he was 15.
“I knew every inch intimately, as did my friends,” he said.
The land and the house on it had belonged to the Smarr family since 1920. When Gill was growing up, Robert Smarr Jr., his wife and their children lived there. They were private people, Gill said, and Smarr often chased the neighborhood children off the property for trespassing.
“We used to get kicked out of here; they wouldn’t let you in here,” he said. “But we played all around here, and so we would trespass every day. And we would get caught with great frequency.”
Now, 30 years later, all 3.2 acres of the land are Gill's — and he is delighted.
Step into the backyard with him and he’ll eagerly point out the 350-year-old oak tree that Gill heard is one of the oldest trees in Columbia. He’ll show you the redbuds, which are now dead but which he will leave standing because of the birds living in them.
And this time of year, something new blooms every week.
“It’s one bonanza after another,” he said.
His big project is completely renovating the old house that sits on the property. The sellers thought the house should just be torn down, but where everyone else saw age and wear, Gill — a semi-retired carpenter who fixed up homes in Chicago for 30 years — saw an opportunity.
'Diamond in the rough'
Last fall, Gill and his wife, Peg, started thinking it would be a nice idea to buy a small house for their daughter, Dorothy, to live in while she continues going to college.
When Peg Gill came to Columbia in October for a visit, she and Libby Gill, Brian’s mother, looked at various houses around town.
Libby Gill still lives in the family's house on Westmount Avenue. She did not think they would be interested in the Smarr house, prefacing their visit with a warning that it was not in the best of shape, Peg Gill said.
But Peg Gill immediately saw its potential.
"As soon as I walked in, I was like, 'Oh, my God, this place is sound,'" she said. She knew Brian Gill had been fixing up homes for a long time, and she thought the house would be "completely doable" for them.
"This was the diamond in the rough," she said.
Upon her return to Chicago, she said, "Unless I'm nuts, Brian, you have to get down there and see this."
He came down from Chicago as soon as he could and locked up his purchase of the house and half of the land. The other half was set to be separated and donated to the city, but Brian Gill said he would be glad to buy all of it.
“It was like the opportunity of a lifetime,” Brian Gill said. “We couldn’t believe our eyes.”
He worked with Westmount Neighborhood Preservation LLC to make the purchase, a process that took about six months.
Eventually, it all worked out, and Brian Gill bought the property on March 14. Work started on the house around March 21.
Every detail conceived
It’s obvious this is more than a simple home renovation for him: It’s a complete labor of love.
In the beginning, he and the other workers stayed with Libby Gill, but since it warmed up and the plumbing was installed they have been sleeping on cots, mats or sleeping bags in the house. Brian Gill's two cairn terriers, Brinkley and Piper, sometimes live there, too, as well as Dorothy Gill's puppy, Bentley — a Weimaraner, just like her father had when he moved to the neighborhood as a boy.
Brian Gill has the whole home planned out already: what color he would paint the sun room, where each appliance would go in the kitchen. He shows off every detail with pride, quick to point out small details that visitors might not notice, including the art deco style of the doorknobs and the old electric wiring running through the bathroom walls.
He has already converted the house's four small bedrooms to two larger bedrooms, a bathroom and a home office. What used to be a porch is becoming a laundry room.
As much as Gill plans to change, he’ll keep a lot of it the same, too. He has saved several of the old light fixtures — made in about 1928, he can tell you without hesitation — and plans to rehang them in the kitchen and dining room. The master bathroom will retain its original porcelain tub and sink.
When Gill was growing up, Robert Smarr Jr. operated a flower shop in the basement of the home, selling flowers grown in greenhouses in the backyard or bought from nearby sellers. While attending Hickman High School, Gill bought all of his corsages for dances there.
Now, he plans to convert the area that used to be the shop into a workshop where he can keep up carpentry and pursue other interests, such as gardening. The coolers that were part of the flower shop are still in the basement, and he intends to keep them there; one could become his beer cooler, the other a wine cellar. The old flower display case could become a refrigerator.
'New chapter in my life'
In Chicago, Gill was a carpenter and a landlord, buying, selling and fixing up houses, so he said the work here is just like doing that again. A lot of the renovations are being done by a group of friends he worked with in Chicago.
The project has been a learning experience for Dorothy Gill, too. She said she enjoys doing hands-on work, and her father has been teaching her everything he knows.
“I never understood how he sees it in his head, and I still don’t,” she said, but she enjoys watching and learning how to use power tools, fix floors, plaster and more.
She hasn't had a chance to do much yet, but she can help with the painting and in cleaning the yard.
“I’m happy to help him because he enjoys it and it’s something we can do together,” she said.
When the house is finished — at the beginning of June, they hope — Dorothy Gill will move in, and she and her roommate will live there.
Brian and Peg Gill will stay at the house when they need an escape from Chicago, and there will be room for their son, James, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, to stay when he wants to visit.
For now, Brian and Peg Gill will continue to live in Chicago while Peg Gill continues her position as an advertising executive. When they are ready, they hope to retire in their new home in the Old Southwest.
Moving back to the area feels like turning a page, Brian Gill said. “It’s a new chapter in my life.”
There have been a few changes to the area since he left, including the construction of the MKT Trail. “I’m real happy about that,” he said. “We had a lot of fun growing up there in the woods, and so I’m glad to see people are getting to share what I had.”
For the most part, though, not much is different.
“I feel the same as when I left,” he said. “The land here is the same as when I left. The only thing that’s changed is my body’s getting old. And I’ve gotten wiser.”