Home Tour: If you like urban dwelling, you'll love these 6 little Northside row houses

You can tour 2 of them Sept. 25

CINCINNATI -- Michael Wizer wouldn't say so, but I will: He is the humble savior of Moline Court. And he's ready to share his 1894 home where it all got started during the Northside House Tour on Sept. 25.

Each of the six little row houses on the one-block, fired-brick street in central Northside, including Wizer's at the east end, owes its existence to him in some way. Starting in 2000, Wizer bought and brought five of the houses back from near death and then went to court to get the sixth out of the hands of "slum lord owners" and into those of a responsible owner.

Today, the shotgun-style, fraternal sextuplets sport remodeled interiors and cheery exteriors that feature orange, yellow, blue and pale violet bricks, matching concrete stoops, colorful front doors and artful little awnings.

Fans of urban dwelling will get their chance to see two of the Moline Court homes, one of them being Wizer's -- and 10 other neighborhood homes -- from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday during the Northside House Tour.

The walk through the 950-square-foot home of Wizer, who is a clinical psychologist and an avid tango dancer, and his partner, graphic designer Julie Barnett, will be a short one. It will begin in a shared private courtyard in the rear and continue on just 45 more feet through the guest room/office, central kitchen and living room of the 13-foot-wide shotgun house. Tourists who appreciate art, innovation and do-it-yourself accomplishments will have plenty of eye candy to ogle, including some of Wizer's original paintings and sculptures.

Wizer, who is a world traveler born in Philadelphia and reared in suburban Baltimore, earned a degree in fine art from Syracuse University and then worked in architecture and cabinet-making for a number of years. He arrived in Cincinnati after earning his graduate degree in clinical psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s. He rented a room in a North Avondale house while interning at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and working for Franciscan Hospital out of Pinecroft, the former Powel Crosley mansion in Mount Airy.

Yet he was drawn to Northside, which at the time was a well-worn, inner-city neighborhood that had yet to experience the rebirth it is undergoing today.

"I could just feel the artsy, Bohemian vibe in Northside," Wizer said. "It had urban funk, and the people were an eclectic mix of the gay community, of artsy people and of musicians who didn't have money."

Moline Street is a far cry from what it was in 2000, when Wizer paid $25,000 each for side-by-side row houses that were built in 1894 for workers at the C.R. Wild and Co. lime, coal, plaster, cement and sewer pipe manufacturing company. They had been subsidized housing for years before Wizer arrived.

Wizer said he endured neighbors who had fist fights on the street and shot bullets at street signs, as well as a lot of dog barking and foul odors wafting into his courtyard. His solution was to enter the property from the side and build a tall courtyard wall to kill the smell.

Despite the rough qualities of the neighborhood, he was determined to make the old soft-brick house his home, even though it had been condemned, he said, due to water damage caused by a crushed trap in the sewer line that ran underneath it.   

No remodeling experience

Wizer had built a new home while in his twenties but hadn't tackled a remodel. He had garnered plenty of the necessary skills and inspiration from the brick row houses in downtown Philadelphia where his father grew up; from old houses in the Fells Point neighborhood off Baltimore's Inner Harbor; from the old wooden hutch in his grandmother's house; and from the brightly colored cottages he admired on visits to southwestern Ireland and Buenos Aires.

Essentially, he said, "I was recreating Dad's childhood and Grandma's home by moving here."

His trial-and-error experience at 1 Moline Court lasted three years. He's still working on upstairs projects: built-in master bedroom closets and hallway cabinets, a wooden bed frame and the bathroom floor upstairs. But he's happy with how he made the old row house his signature home.

"I wanted it to be like going into Grandma's house, for there to be a warmth so that people would feel welcome," Wizer said.

He did everything -- design, construction and cabinet-making included -- himself except for plumbing and plastering projects. The major change he made was to the kitchen from the back room to the middle. He opened the ceiling to create a towering space for a new staircase that runs up the back of the house rather than in the middle. He lost 150 square feet of living space along the way, but kept it a two-bedroom abode.

Wizer's woodworking skill, though purposefully imperfect, is evident throughout the first floor. Poplar was his wood of choice. Flooring, cabinets, open shelves, a built-in kitchen hutch, countertops and stairwell are all made of poplar. Only the bookshelves surrounding the fireplace that he designed and built are painted.

Wizer's lifelong appreciation for art, design, history and eclectic city communities shows in his design and carpentry, and it also comes out when he shares the story behind the "Spanish Ballerina" fresco hanging above the living room's original wood mantel. His partner, Barnett, bought the framed fresco from an antiques dealer on the Sonoma County, California, coast. Painted in the 1920s or 1930s by an itinerant Mexican artist for a gentlemen's club, it is primitive, lovely and likable, Wizer said.

"Julie is really in love with it, and I think I am likely so," Wizer said.

Voice of experience

He said he knows he made some wrong choices while remodeling 1 Moline Court -- he said, for example, that he should have sanded and refinished not covered the original hardwood floors -- but he loves his home dearly.

The main advice Wizer said he has for people tackling historic remodels is to know when to stop, when what they're doing ceases to have aesthetic and lifestyle impact.

"The most fundamental challenge if you're new to the act of renovation is to make a cost-benefit analysis, to know when to get off and when it's good enough," Wizer said.

Northside House Tour

What: Semi-annual Northside House Tour

When: Noon-5 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 25

Tickets: $15 through Sept. 24 at Northside Bank locations, Building Value, Shake-It Records and Taylor Jameson Salon and Academy; $18 day of tour, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., at McKie Recreation Center, 1655 Chase Ave.

Information: northside.net/housetour

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