Young Preservationist: Pre-Teen Prodigy Nate Michalak Does "the Whole Shebang"

Posted on: October 18th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 5 Comments

As part of back-to-school season, we’re featuring several impressive young preservationists who are saving places all around the country. This is the second profile in the series.

Forget history class: At just 11 years old, Nate Michalak is learning the stories behind his Historic Old West End neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio firsthand as he helps his family restore the three historic houses it owns. The sixth-grader and budding preservationist is so knowledgeable and passionate, he caught the attention of Heritage Ohio and has been writing a column in the group’s quarterly magazine.

We caught up with Nate and asked him his favorite thing about restoration work, what he wants to be when he grows up, and what it’s like to be a magazine columnist before he’s even a teenager.

Your family is working to restore three historic houses, can you tell me about that?

The house we live in is from 1903, it’s the Julius G. Lamson House and when we got it, the earlier owners had totally gutted it and made it sort of modern, they modernized the kitchen and modernized everything. We’re working on the second floor, we’re almost done with the first floor.

And then we own a house next door (dating to 1904) where I’m planning to live when I grow up, and that was turned into an eight-unit apartment including the garage from 1913. The past owner painted the house rainbow colors, I mean literally pink, yellow, and green.

What we’re doing right now is there was a two-story addition that looked like a big rectangle that was on the back and they also put on a side porch. And just recently we took that off so we’re working on that and there were some really cool rafters that hung out, so we’ve got scaffolding up there, literally like 50 feet in the air, and it’s really fun to go up there. So we took all that off and the past owners, when they added the addition on, they took off about six rows of the green tile on the roof and we found somebody that tore down a school that had the exact same tiles so we going to get some of that and redo it.

The other house across the street (c. 1911), we’re trying to get my grandpa to move in. The house is really nice, it has a nine-car garage, we like hot rods so we’ve got a 1940 Willys and a 1953 MG TD. The house is stucco, it was painted brown originally, we’re painting the inside window [sash] green. There was a house next door but it had a fire and they tore it down, so it’s got a big side yard, which is really nice.

The original oak staircase was painted white when we got it and the people who lived here before were really big smokers so everything they had that was white is just yellow. In all of our houses all the radiators are painted white so we sandblasted those and painted them gold as they had originally been.

When you’re working on this, who all is working with you?

I work with my dad and my grandpa mostly. Every once in a while my mom helps out.

What kind of stuff do you get to do personally?

I get to do the whole shebang. I do the woodwork with my grandpa because the house next door has these pieces that hang off the roof and are really detailed. They have this swirl on them. My grandpa redid all of them in about a week and they were totally identical.

What’s your favorite thing about restoring old houses?

Tearing it apart, if you tear out the plaster on walls, let’s say, then you can see what the original wallpaper underneath that was like. So I think my favorite part of doing this, two out of three of our houses we have the blueprints to, and you just look at it and you think oh my gosh this is amazing and you think how could anyone take this house that’s amazing and turn it into an eight-unit apartment?

I told my mom it’s like finding buried treasure, there’s diamonds, there’s gold, there’s everything.

What do you like about history?

I like the architecture. Today everything is so plain, if you look at a fireplace today, it’s just a big hole in the wall.  But I’m sitting here right now and I see an oak wall, beautiful brick [fireplace] with a beautiful oak mantel coming over off the top, with beautiful scrolling that comes down. I think that’s not right that a lot of these kinds of houses are being torn down to make new houses or shopping malls and I wonder, why? Why would you tear down a beautiful old house and make something brand new?

What has it been like writing the column for Heritage Ohio?

It’s pretty cool. [The Heritage Ohio group] came here and we went through one house and then another and another and I was guiding them and then finally [Heritage Ohio Executive Director Joyce Barrett] said “Do you want to write articles for us?” and I said “Well, I’ll think about it.” But now that I think about it it’s pretty cool to be able to express my feelings about these old houses and just maybe some people will start to believe you don’t need to tear down these houses to put up a new modern one. Buy it and restore it to its original form.

The house next door is the house you’re planning on living in when you grow up. How did you choose that? Why do you like that one best?

I just like that one best because it’s a beautiful house and that way I can remember when I grew up that I fixed this and I did that. With the house we live in right now, I didn’t do much of this stuff, my parents did. And when I have kids I want to be able to say, “Look at this, I did this.”

Is this something you want to do when you grow up?

To be honest with you I have no idea. I look at how my grandpa does all this stuff and I might want to be a carpenter; I might want to design things. I’d love to do this for a living, it’s just I think it’s really cool to be able to live in a house that goes back 110 years ago.

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5 Responses

  1. Karen Van Etten

    October 20, 2012

    Math, Science, English are such important subjects in our schools today, but along with health class maybe we should instill the need for compassion of our history. That if someone doesn’t step up to the plate our historic sites will be just that a memory
    Kids like Nate are our future so lets encourage them to get involved early and applaud their steps into preservation

  2. james baker

    October 20, 2012

    It’s always great to see a new generation coming up that values the past, but I’m also glad to see that he still has five fingers. Working with sharp power tools like saws can be dangerous, and I would not recommend that children do this, even in the presence of an adult. As an orthopedic surgeon, I would counsel parents not to let their children work with sharp power tools, even in the presence of grandpa.

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  4. Natalia

    October 31, 2012

    This is truly uplifting and inspiring. I hope his dad and grandpa are using (and teaching) lead-safe work practices when they remove paint, tear apart walls, etc. Lead poisoning is bad for anyone, but it’s a huge hazard for kids, with lifelong consequences.

  5. Kathleen

    November 1, 2012

    Seriously, I want to arrange a marriage to my daughter with this kid! How adorable is he!! And the way he talks about preservation… I have had graduate school interns that don’t “get it” the way he does. Well done, parents, well done.