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Army of Volunteers Saved Lydia House Apartment Building from Wrecking Ball or Sell Off

Many local firms including McCarthy Building Companies of Ladue pitch in to save historic building.

You don’t need a rocket scientist or a weather forecaster to tell you how hot it is out there these days. St. Louis is nicknamed Brick City, and one of its quintessential brick buildings is a hundred-year-old three-story walk-up that in recent years has served as transitional housing for women rebuilding their lives after domestic violence.

Owned by the nonprofit Lydia’s House, a member ministry of the Council for Health and Human Service Ministries of the United Church of Christ, it was one of their several buildings that provide an affordable home for up to two years for women and children affected by domestic abuse referred from St. Louis’ emergency shelters.

That is, until the need for major renovations forced it to close in October.  Now Lydia’s House is welcoming back residents to its 11 newly renovated apartments — all because of a remarkable outpouring of generosity from the community.

“It’s a really cool old building,” says Ellen Reed, executive director of Lydia’s House. “But it needed noisy, messy, intense repairs.” Essential renovations included major plumbing work and new flooring. An energy audit revealed the building also needed more insulation, a new boiler and weather-stripping for its doors and windows.

“We wrestled with whether or not to sell it, but the housing market was such that we knew we wouldn’t get enough to purchase a replacement,” says Reed.

We knew if we did this work ourselves, it would be too expensive and completely out of our reach,” said Reed.

Lydia’s House acquired the building in April of 1998, three years after the organization’s launch. And though it did not have the funds to renovate the building, Reed knew the demand for services was climbing.

“In St. Louis, the fatality rate related to domestic violence continues to grow,” she says. “The turn-away rates are growing because we don’t have enough spaces for the women who need them.”

Like many nonprofits in these tough economic times, Lydia’s House faced a dilemma. It had no choice but to close the building last fall, leaving women in need without a place to go.

The organization is accomplishing the reopening "with a tiny shoestring budget and an enormous amount of volunteer energy,” says Reed.

The nonprofit program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis provided a volunteer coordinator; the facilities manager and the maintenance staff at Lydia’s House took on extra responsibilities; and volunteers answered the call. 

More than 60 new volunteers have helped with the reconstruction and more than 30 work groups have been engaged in a volunteer experience at Lydia’s House since December 2010. 

A few of the professional organizations that have been represented include: The Blues Wives, Edward Jones, The Scottrade Center, Enterprise, Crofutt & Smith Moving & Storage, Home Depot, Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority, Chi Omega Sorority, St. Louis District US Army Corps of Engineers, Murphy Mechanical and McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. of Ladue.

McCarthy brought in Murphy Mechanical in Olivette and others to help with the more challenging aspects of the renovation.  McCarthy Project Manager Bryan Meyer said that Murphy installed plumbing stacks for the interior bathrooms on all floors, donating labor and materials.  McCarthy Heart Hats volunteers are completing drywall chases around the new plumbing lines and rebuilding and painting the ceilings in the bathrooms.

Meyer said his firm had a lot to do with bringing the house back into full use. “Lots of firms and people pitched in to make this happen. We had companies like Murphy Mechanical and others volunteering their materials and their people. The list includes Niehaus Construction Services, Inc., Joseph Ward Painting, Sachs Electric and EMA, Inc. They were a great help,” said Meyer. “Murphy put all the bathrooms back into use, and that was no simple task,” he said.

Besides the bathrooms, volunteer contractors have remedied asbestos, done electrical work, replaced cabinets and stripped and sanded floors. Once those repairs were complete, various United Church of Christ congregations stepped in to decorate and stock the apartments – something they have done for residents for years.

“Once an apartment is repaired and painted, the group has a drive for linens, dishes, decorations for the walls, pillows, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene supplies,” says Reed. “They spend hours and dollars out of love and mission.”

Though Lydia’s House will receive about $100,000 in weatherization materials through a federal program, they are conducting a special appeal for donations to help them pay for the other renovations.

Lydia’s house is the largest and only area agency to provide safe, confidentially-located furnished apartments and support services tailored to the needs of domestic violence survivors and their children for up to two years.

Lydia’s House works in faith to end domestic violence by providing a place of healing and voice of hope for abused women and their children.  Please visit their website for more information.

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