Rebuilding Together renovates 15 Cleveland and McFerrin Park homes
Dorothy Miller, age 77, has nine children, each of whom she raised in the little blue house with the green tin roof on Meridian Street where she has lived for more than 40 years. If you knock, Dorothy will invite you in. She’ll pat and smooth a place for you on her sofa and tell you anything you want to know. She’ll be especially happy to see you if she’s first been able to fix her hair, which is dyed a dusty purple.
After Dorothy’s children were grown, she used her Cleveland Park home, built in 1930, as a daycare. She used it, too, as home base for her family during the holidays. But last year Dorothy’s children told her it was time to host Christmas somewhere else.
The walls of Dorothy’s home recoil from the ceiling, terribly water-damaged because of a leak in the roof. A metal tub catches the rainwater that sluices into her kitchen. When it’s storming the tub has to be emptied in the middle of the night. Throughout her home the floors sag. The toilet often won’t flush. But Dorothy points out the good — her “old-timey” built-in broom closet, for instance — right along with the bad. “I love old houses,” she says proudly.
This will be the last time Dorothy’s house will look like this. Thanks to the local chapter of a national nonprofit called Rebuilding Together and the friendly mob of architects, engineers, contractors, corporate sponsors, and volunteers (some from across the country) that Rebuilding Together has assembled, Dorothy and 14 other homeowners on Meridian and nearby Stockell Street will get all the necessary repairs that their old homes need to be safe and healthy. It will cost these homeowners — who are for the most part elderly and who live at or below the poverty level — nothing.
“These are critical repairs that keep people safe and give them back basic function that most of us take for granted,” says Rebuilding Together executive director Becky Carter. The repairs are a gift from Rebuilding Together, and the building materials are donated or deeply discounted by corporate sponsors like Lowe’s, Louisiana Pacific, First Tennessee Foundation, SunTrust Foundation, and Huskey Lumber.
Each year Rebuilding Together Nashville, which takes applications through its website, “rebuilds” 20 to 40 individual residences throughout the city, but this month the chapter will hold its first-ever community rebuild. From Thursday, May 29, through Saturday, May 31, the Building a Healthy Neighborhood event will see a tremendous amount of elbow grease applied to the 15 Cleveland and McFerrin Park homes selected by the Rebuilding Together team. They’ll also cut the ribbon on a new playground they’ve assembled at Glenn Elementary on Cleveland St.
“Cleveland and McFerrin Park are going through an exciting transition, a transition we believe we can help with,” says Megan Kruse, an AmeriCorps project coordinator serving with Rebuilding Together Nashville. “During the past few years, crime has decreased, services have increased, and investors and realtors are buying and renovating properties. Increasingly, Cleveland and McFerrin Park are places where people want to move to and live. Many of the longtime residents who remember what the community was like less than a decade ago want to be part of this community revival and renewal but do not have the means or the money.”
Twenty volunteers and a “house captain” are assigned to each rebuild. A lanky, dark-haired architect named Jonathan Sexton, of Smith Gee Studio, serves as Dorothy’s house captain. From the Rebuilding Together headquarters at Cummins Station, he catalogs the areas of her home that most need attention, namely the roof and drywall, though the broken windows, flooring, and plumbing also cry out for repairs. Projecting budgets for the rebuilds is no easy task. Sexton says he hopes not to find mold when he and his team rip into Dorothy’s home, but with a grin he points out that her walls have so many holes that the home is actually pretty well ventilated.
“This was a good house,” Dorothy says. “It is still, but it needs some work done on it. I wasn’t able to have the work done on it that was needed, and that’s the reason I was so proud to see somebody come around and try to help.”
Many decades ago, before Dorothy lived on Meridian Street, she lived in public housing. In the ’60s, she worked for a woman who gave her the money to buy this house in exchange for Dorothy’s care of the woman’s special needs son after her death.
“She told me she was going to help me buy a house,” says Dorothy. “She said, ‘My husband is stingy, but this is my money,’ and she said, ‘Dorothy, you is so sweet, you is good. I want you to get you a house and get out of the projects.’ She did what she said and gave me the money to buy my house.”
Along with her own children, Dorothy cared for the boy until his death. She sat on the nest egg left for her by his mother for 10 years before her daughter discovered the Meridian Street house for sale and ran home to tell Dorothy about it.
Today Dorothy loves this house as much as she did the day she first laid eyes on it. From her bedroom come the sounds of a soap opera on her old TV set. Settled on her sofa, hands resting peaceably in her lap, she appears on the precipice of something. There is joy in her eyes. Other than a large photograph of her beloved late son, she’s taken down all the mementos from her walls in anticipation of the transformation that will take place here. The renovations are still nearly two months away.
“They’re going to paint my walls,” says Dorothy. “They didn’t tell me what color, but I hope it’s a beautiful color because I like bright things. I just want it beautiful.”