When the "for sale" sign appeared at the boarded-up house at 20th Street and 8th Avenue in Rock Island, life-long resident Michael Matherly was curious.

He decided to take a look.

Pushing through the front door of the 1870s house into the interior, about all he could see beyond years' worth of accumulated debris was the staircase newel post and, across the room, the fireplace mantel.

The home's owner invited him to make an offer, and when Matherly proposed $500, the owner countered only $500 more before accepting Matherly's original proposal.

Seven years and many thousands of dollars later, Michael and Jessica Matherly are living in their totally rebuilt "forever home" with a new interior floor plan designed by Rock Island architect Lo Milani.

For their efforts, they will receive on Monday a historic preservation award from the Rock Island Preservation Society, one of 10 citations made this year  in celebration of National Historic Preservation month in May.

In announcing the Matherly award, the society describes the property at the time of purchase as "vacant and seemingly abandoned for at least 50 years, inhabited only by wildlife," a property that "nearby neighbors assumed ... would be demolished."

But the Matherlys, who now include 3-year-old daughter Millie, were willing to give it a go.

Not only could they see the potential with plenty of room for entertaining, but "I'm pretty dedicated to Rock Island," Michael Matherly, 35, said. "We believe in the city, we believe in Broadway and we're happy to be able to invest in the community."

The work was phased in over the years, beginning with the construction of a two-story garage, similar to a carriage house, on the back of the property so that they'd have a place to put construction equipment and materials when work began on the house.

Exterior house work included sandblasting and repainting the brick in a shade called "pink elephant" and the addition of a deep front porch with Craftsman-style newel posts. "This is what we thought should have been here," Matherly said of the porch.

The Matherlys also built deep, navy blue metal overhangs off the roof of the home and the porch.

The front sidewalk and steps were reconstructed, and a tumbled concrete block retaining wall was built on the front and north side. "We think the retaining wall adds a nice statement," Matherly said. And there's a black metal fence that creates lots of romping space for their Great Dane.

Open floor plan

But the outside work nearly pales in comparison to what they did inside.

While most people who renovate historic homes update the interior, particularly the kitchen, the Matherlys removed walls and installed a new support system to create an entirely different space. They adopted the open floor concept found in contemporary homes in which the living area, dining area and kitchen all blend into one.

"We tried to remain true to the historic-ness, but bring it forward to a newer look," Matherly said.

Walk in the front door, and the newel post and fireplace mantel are still focal points. But even they have changed. Instead of refinishing with the orangish undertone common to oak, they opted for a grayish wash suggested by Jessica's "gifted sister" who operates a home decor shop called Blush Vintage in Lombard, Illinois.

In fact, when asked about anything unusual in the home, Jessica Matherly replies, "that's my sister."

Floors throughout the living area of the house are wide plank engineered maple, while the bathrooms have slate floors set in a herringbone pattern. Furnishings are modern to eclectic-antique and the kitchen is white, punctuated by a bright red range hood atop a bright red gas stove.

"We enjoy cooking and entertaining and thought they brought a little contrast pop," Matherly said of the red features.

The quartz-topped island is about nine feet long and contains two dishwashers. Sometimes the Matherlys wish they had a third.

In back of the great room is a one-story addition that contains a playroom for Millie, an office for Michael, a full bath and a mud-room/laundry with a door to the back yard. This addition sits on the same footprint of an old addition they removed.

Upstairs, the two bedrooms and two baths have walls, but they've been moved around to suit the family's needs.

"What would have been a third bedroom is my closet," Jessica Matherly said. Then, after a pause, amended that to "our closet."

Almost everything is new

Aside from the staircase and fireplace mantel, virtually everything inside is new. The home's original walls were plaster on three courses of brick, so the couple had all new framing, insulation and drywall installed, thereby building a new house within the shell of the old.

They also had all the millwork — trim around the windows and baseboard — remilled according to the original pattern at Carver Millworks, of Milan.

Window openings were moved and new ones created where there were none.

Between the original house and the new one-story addition, bricks were "laced in" so there is no glaring start-stop line.

When asked what motivated them to undertake such a big project, Michael laughs that he was "bamboozled" into it by Jessica and his dad, Marty.

Jessica recalls that when she and Marty saw the house, "we got these looks on our faces..."

"When I saw the newel post and the fireplace, I visualized this being our forever home."

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