A grand but worn-out old house is brought back to life in a way that thrills the new owners, takes the former owners back in time and becomes a proud showpiece for those who renovated it.

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Wayne Melonson slowly climbs the front steps of the big, old house in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood.

For nearly 50 years his family owned it. They don’t anymore and it looks as if it’s really been fixed up. So Melonson feels like a visitor, treading carefully, not knowing what to expect. Stacey Kryman comes to the door and welcomes him in.

“Hey, they kept the old doorknob,” says Melonson with a smile, pausing to place his hand on the familiar, well-worn piece of brass.

They kept a lot of things in the 100-year-old house, which has become a showpiece for Kevin O’Doherty, who likes to take old homes and carefully renovate them in a way where they don’t look renovated. They just work.

That’s what helped sell Stacey and Jonathan Kryman on the old Melonson home, where a family of 10 once lived.

“I grew up in a 100-year-old farmhouse, similar to this house in terms of the character and charm,” says Jonathan Kryman. He’s sitting in the living room where the sunlight poured through the leaded-glass windows, creating small rainbows on the hardwood floor with mahogany inlay.

“But if someone was in the shower, you better not flush the toilet, you know,” Kryman says with a laugh. “We were lucky. We got an older home that had been modernized in terms of plumbing and electrical. So we get the best of both worlds.”

O’Doherty, who also is a real-estate agent, wasn’t so lucky. He bought the house in September 2007 for $665,000 just before the real-estate bubble burst in Seattle. By the time his team finished the project six months later, the market had turned and it took more than a year to sell at what he said was a significant loss. What might have been a $1.2 million home sold for around $950,000.

O’Doherty had poured a lot of money into it, paying for labor-intensive and expensive restoration work. But he has no regrets.

“There are less-expensive ways to do it. But I want to drive by these places for the next 40 years and not be embarrassed by it,” O’Doherty says of the old houses he has restored in the Madrona and Capitol Hill areas.

He says, however, that he has no plans to do such a project on “spec” again and wants instead to build a “new old” house when the market improves. He’s currently doing kitchen remodels for clients.

The kitchen in the Melonson house is one of the few places there that looks remodeled.

To help retain the old feel of the house, O’Doherty had the paint stripped from the ancient brass heat registers. He installed new windows, but restored and kept the leaded-glass windows.

The old cast-iron bathtub was kept, because it retains the heat better than modern fiberglass or steel tubs, O’Doherty said. The mirror in the front hallway, speckled with age, was kept. When asked if he thought of replacing it, O’Doherty shakes his head.

“No. It had a patina.”

The antique doors and locks with the original skeleton keys were cleaned up.

It’s not just an old house, it’s like a museum and the Krymans say they feel like curators.

Before buying it, they looked at two other renovated old homes, one on Queen Anne Hill and one on Phinney Ridge. Stacey Kryman says that they weren’t impressed by what they saw.

“The ground floor, you’d think this is great. But you’d go upstairs and it was like ‘Boy, that was dumb. Why did they do that?’ Where here there wasn’t one thing that I don’t think either one of us disagreed with down to the fixtures that Kevin chose,” she says, adding:

“We like the millwork, too. It’s incredible, the detail. That’s the part I always show off first to people.”

Tarnished gem

The first time O’Doherty saw the house, standing high off the street with its peeling paint, bars over the windows and worn-out roof, it didn’t have much of what real-estate agents call curb appeal.

Even the curb didn’t have much appeal, serving to wall off the street from the house, which had no driveway or alley for off-street parking.

Inside, the heavy, old drapes and darkened, empty rooms made it feel even gloomier. “It looked like “The Munsters” house,” O’Doherty recalls.

But first impressions can be deceiving. He also noticed signs of unusual craftsmanship and old-world quality. And the floors didn’t squeak. To him, it was more like stumbling across a valuable vintage car in a dusty garage. Now he calls it a “Capitol Hill” home.

“The house was literally looking like it was getting ready to fall apart,” says O’Doherty’s general contractor, Luke Thoreson. “But with Kevin’s creative eye, he saw something he could take and master.”

In one of the few major design changes to the house, O’Doherty had a graceful entryway carved into the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room, re-creating the millwork done on the columns a century before.

When wiring was replaced, he could have ripped out the old walls, but instead had the workers carefully cut small holes to maintain the millwork. He installed high-end appliances, cabinets and when needed, tracked down expensive, authentic-looking vintage fixtures.

He had a driveway cut into a side yard. He had the front yard landscaped with plants salvaged from another old house in the area that was being torn down. He had the old-style medicine cabinets installed in the bathrooms purposely made deep enough to hold a hair dryer, another detail that caught Stacey Kryman’s attention.

Two owners ago

Wayne and Gary Melonson stand in front of the old mirror in the entryway, playfully primping as if getting ready to go to nearby St. Therese Catholic Church as they did when they were kids.

The two brothers took care of selling the house to O’Doherty in 2007. Now they are back, invited for a group photo with the current owners and the men in the middle who fixed up the house. The Melonsons both live nearby and Gary, a financial adviser, has been inside the house many times since they sold it; not Wayne.

“To be honest with you, this is the first time I’ve been inside,” he says. “I brought my grandson up (during an open house a year ago) and we went around the house and I peeked in.”

It doesn’t take long for the Melonsons to feel at home again in their old house. They reminisce about how they would sneak out of the house to play in the park across the street; how they would have to crowd into the bathtub, three or four kids at a time, in what was then the only bathroom in the house. (It now has three.) How their chores included washing the walls every summer to remove the fingerprints that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

“We were a fairly poor family. We were taught early you just take care of things,” says Wayne Melonson, who served as a teacher and then principal at St. Therese School for many years. “The pride of ownership was right up there. It would be ‘Don’t touch the walls. Don’t put your fingers on the walls.’ “

Their parents bought the house in 1958 for $12,500. Their mother died when they were young and their father, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service, remarried. He passed away in 1987 and after the kids grew up and moved out, only their stepmother remained in the house and it fell into some disrepair. She had talked of moving to a smaller home with few stairs to climb, but wanted to stay near the church and neighborhood.

So the years took a toll on the house and after she died in January 2007, it was time to put it up for sale.

“We were hoping to keep the house in the family. … But it needed a lot of work,” Gary Melonson says.

He often would drop by when the work was being done on the house. In a way, he became a consultant to O’Doherty.

“Basically he said ‘Any time, just come on by, take a look at it,’ because he wanted to keep everything like it was, because he was impressed with it,” says Melonson, who was impressed, too, by the final result.

“It all matches and it all blends in. If I could, I would buy the house back again.”

That opportunity may not come around again for a while. The Krymans may turn out to be like the Melonsons and call that sturdy old house their home for many years to come.

“We hope that was it for us,” Stacey Kryman says. “We don’t ever want to move again.”

Bill Kossen is a desk editor at The Seattle Times: bkossen@seattletimes.com