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By Sean Pendergast
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Countless planks of wood forming various geometric shapes sprout into the sky like skeletons, leading up into a 40-foot-high observation deck. A small circular wooden staircase winds past a pit of workmen's leftover trash: buckets, tarps and old tools. Four wooden poles pop up next to a huge deck; that's where Charlie wants the Plexiglas elevator to go.
The overgrowth of wood is an extension of Charlie's home on Wichita near Dowling in the Third Ward. But Charlie hasn't just been building more rooms onto his house. He likes working with the original structure too. He took advantage of the time Hurricane Alicia dumped trees on his roof by taking the top of his house off and adding a third floor. Then, he figured he would finish that off with two turrets, turning his home into a sort of urban castle. Charlie designed and constructed the turrets himself. His main influences? A courthouse in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a subway stop in Queens.
"This house is the love of my life," says the reserved but friendly man, a 54-year-old retired nurse. "I don't know how to live in a house that's finished."
Charlie's love affair started in 1980, when he purchased the two-story brick home with $35,000, against a realtor's warnings.
"The agent thought I was crazy," he says.
The house, built in 1935, had been converted into two duplex apartments and then transformed once again into a day-care center in the early 1960s. When he moved in he counted 115 small cubbyholes in the walls that the children had used to stow their belongings. The home had been vacant for five years, was riddled with termites and had no air-conditioning. People thought Charlie was nuts, but Charlie knew better. He might have had a hell of a living situation on his hands, but he also had a vision. Twenty years later, the vision keeps growing. So does Charlie's house.
It started innocently enough. Charlie began working on the inside of his home, repairing the basic structural problems the house had. Even then, he tried to add little touches: detailed molding in the dining room and stained-glass windows from an old church in the bathroom.
When Charlie moved in, the neighborhood was rougher, and drugs and crime were a bigger problem. While he was in the process of installing some much-needed air-conditioning, a few neighborhood teenagers crawled in through the ducts and stole several of his tools. Junkies used his property as a convenient place to shoot up.
"When I would go out and mow the lawn, I would find syringes," he says.
But most of his neighbors were pleased to see someone taking the time to fix up the property. A next-door couple, who died a few years ago, approached Charlie when he first arrived, nervous that he would rent the place out to several people.
"They said, 'Are you going to make apartments out of it?' And I said, 'No, I'm going to fix it up,' " recalls Charlie. "Then they asked, 'Then are you going to sell it?' And I said, 'No, I'm going to live in it.' And the wife started clapping."
But the fix-up project took a strange turn when Hurricane Alicia blew two trees onto Charlie's roof in 1983. In the process of getting the roof repaired, Charlie realized he couldn't just stop at that. He sketched a pair of turrets on a pad of paper, then got carpenter friends to help build them.
"I've always loved Russian architecture, and I wanted one of them to be an onion dome," says Charlie. The other turret's windows mimicked those of a courthouse Charlie had seen in Wisconsin, and the structure came to a strange peak at the top that Charlie dreamed up from memories of a subway stop in Queens.
"I get inspiration from all sorts of things," he says. Charlie, who has traveled extensively, tells of visiting Europe. A tour guide would be explaining the history of a building and, Charlie says, "I'd be off looking at some molding."
After the turrets, Charlie realized he couldn't get enough. He had never done extensive work on a house before, but he wanted to try. Perhaps he was reverting back to his childhood in North Carolina, where he would spend long hours constructing elaborate buildings out of Popsicle sticks, only to burn them down, put out the fire with a toy fire truck and rebuild the structure again -- each time adding more Popsicle sticks. Perhaps it was the attention the unusual turrets received ("Once when I was working on the turret one woman walking by started genuflecting in front of it thinking she had found the Lord Jesus Christ," he says).
But whatever it was, he had to build. He started to sketch the extension of the house to include a huge circular deck 40 feet off the ground, an elevator and a tall glass atrium with French doors. The plan eventually grew to include a separate back apartment and another large deck.