A Home Depot exploded all over Charlie Fondow's backyard. Or at least that's what it looks like.
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.
Contractors wouldn't touch the project, says Charlie, because "they could never give it an estimate." So he hired two independent carpenters to help put together his dream. The city required Charlie to have the project monitored by a structural engineer, who checks up on the work every six months.
But the work is slow going. Much of the major construction began around 1995, and Charlie's vision is still made up mostly of wooden beams that loom so high they are visible from across nearby Highway 288. The house's outline is so unusual, says Charlie, that he has witnessed passing motorists drive into curbs while craning their necks to get a better view. Even though only the frame exists, Charlie says he will keep at it one day at a time.
"I would really love to get it finished before I die," he says, only half joking.
Charlie figures he has already spent about $300,000 on the house, which is valued at little more than $100,000 on the tax rolls. Most of his funding has come from loans, some inherited money and good luck in the stock market. Despite the elaborate job, Charlie hasn't stopped visualizing further into the future.
"Right now I'm standing here thinking about what I could add on over there," he says, motioning to the edge of the deck.
Despite his perseverance, Charlie is modest about the large amounts of time and money he has put into the home. When a photographer comes to take a picture of him for this story, he initially shies away and wants only the house to be photographed, as if he considers himself only a minor player in this building adventure.
The adventure has not been without sacrifice -- and not just the financial kind. Charlie estimates he has fallen off the house five times, breaking eight ribs, cracking his pelvis and tearing a rotator cuff.
"I was on the roof and it had started to drizzle and it was just slick, and I went off it like a slide and landed on a sawhorse," Charlie says of a fall that ended in five cracked ribs. He credits the sawhorse with saving his life.
"It protected my head from hitting the concrete," he says calmly and with a smile.
He says he just wasn't paying attention once when he stepped off the roof into mid-air, cracking two ribs when he hit the ground. Doctors who don't know his history see his X-rays and "go ballistic."
John Miller, a carpenter who works for Charlie, confirms that Charlie has a bad habit of injuring himself. But at the same time, he also thinks his boss has quite a creative brain to make up for those broken bones. And the work John gets to do at Charlie's house is different from anything he has ever done before.
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"It's a constant learning experience," he says. "It's a constant experience in problem solving."
When asked if he thinks the project will ever be finished, John just laughs and says, "God, I hope so."
Charlie's neighbor Earl Nash wonders the same thing. Earl lives next door to Charlie and owns the shoe repair and shine shop across the street. Even though Earl politely describes Charlie's house as "different," he says Charlie is a "good neighbor."
"Would you rather he do something or nothing?" reasons Earl. "There are some houses in this area and they don't do anything but live in it. At least he has a vision."