Grayson Immel, pushed by his mother, rolled along the upstairs hallway in his toy car.
Far below, the historic Valentine House bustled with more activity. Workers refinished a foyer hemlock floor and continued the dream of the toddler’s parents: a second life for the Bellefonte mansion.
Once, it stood lifeless, scorched and soggy in the shadow of the wrecking ball.
Then the Immels came to its rescue.
They bought the 1870 house weeks after an electrical fire destroyed the roof and third floor. Much like the Garman Opera House, sitting ravaged and vacant from a fire blocks away, the Valentine House also suffered extensive water damage.
The stone building at 105 E. Curtin St. was in such bad shape inside, its owner applied for a demolition permit.
He had received a $50,000 offer to raze the house. Michael Immel countered with another plan.
“I said, ‘I’ll give you $50,000 to restore it,’ ” Immel recalled.
He had a deal — and a long road ahead.
Five years later, he and his wife, Tara, are almost finished with their odyssey. After saving the ruined three-story mansion from oblivion, they set out to revive it.
Room by room, top to bottom, they transformed the gutted former apartment complex into a showpiece blend of restored features and new construction — a grand palace once again.
“We basically built a new home inside this house,” Michael Immel said.
The Centre County Historical Society took notice.
For restoring the Valentine House, the Immels will be honored at the society’s 25th Anniversary Historic Preservation Awards on Oct. 20 at the Centre County/Penn State Visitor Center.
Other 2013 awards will go to the Centre County Genealogical Society, the James Irvin Farm, the Historic Flour Mills Map Project, Robert B. Hazelton and the Salt Lick Civilian Conservation Corps Camp S-121 Historical Marker.
The Immels were nominated under the Preservation and Restoration category.
“With its hilltop vantage point at the corner of Allegheny (and) Curtin (streets), the Valentine/Immel House is a very visible component of Bellefonte’s residential historic area, and its splendid restoration with careful attention to original details was a brave and beautiful effort that deserves recognition,” the Immels’ nomination read.
Megan Orient, the CCHS program coordinator, agrees.
The Immels, she said, “have just done an excellent job” preserving the stone exterior while restoring “architectural elements” such as doors, windows, the main staircase and 11 fireplaces.
“We really feel it’s a shining example of how you can save a building that otherwise would have had to be torn down,” Orient said.
Both of the Immels have restored old homes before. The Valentine House is Michael Immel’s third. But at 8,300 square feet, with 20 rooms and 12-foot ceilings throughout, it was their largest and most ambitious project.
It also was a giant mess.
“To be honest, the water damage was more costly and damaging than the fire,” Michael Immel said.
But the exterior remained intact and solid — the key to his decision to go for it.
“The stonework was phenomenal and well worth saving,” he said.
Cleaning up was the first challenge. All the water-logged horsehair plaster, compromised wood, broken glass and other debris had to go, via three full dump trucks a day for two months.
Taking out the trash alone cost about $35,000 — a cautionary tale, Michael Immel said, for people who dream of restoring the Garman into a regional arts center.
“This is small compared to that building,” he said.
Once the cleanup finished, the project faced a crossroads: Work with the existing framing or start anew. The Immels chose the latter — an enormous undertaking — so that they could better install new wiring, plumbing, central air and heating and energy-efficient spray foam insulation.
Their choice set a precedent. They weren’t going to settle for the minimum.
When they took out a wall that separated apartments and reopened the wide main staircase, they discovered the first flight of steps was shot. So they had it rebuilt from scratch, including the banister, to match the surviving upper flights seamlessly.
Smoke and water damaged the woodwork and doors on the upper two floors beyond repair. They were replaced with solid oak that was carefully sanded, stained and lacquered to give the wood uneven coloring and a vintage appearance.
Examples of the Immels’ care abound through the house. Huge, thick pocket doors on the ground floor were another feature covered up by the apartment complex. But the overhead beam sagged from the water damage, impeding the sliding doors.
The solution: Jack up the basement about 8 inches at that spot and install a new beam.
Firefighters had to break several windows and shutters. The Immels had exact replicas custom made.
“We could just make it habitable,” Michael Immel said. “But this wasn’t a project we wanted to just make habitable. We wanted to do it right.”
But while their design respected the past, it wasn’t bound to it. Over a small new attached garage, the Immels built a rooftop terrace planked with durable Brazilian ipe wood.
Among their other added amenities are closets, cabinets under the mansard roof dormer windows, upgraded bathrooms, a sauna, a third-floor game room with a cherry bar and a first-floor kitchen with an arched ceiling and a dumbwaiter to the upper floors.
“It’s been a process and a half,” Michael Immel said.
Along the way, they juggled the house’s constant demands with Penn State jobs. He’s an industrial engineering instructor and the director of corporate relations for the engineering college. She’s the Eberly College of Science marketing manager.
About a year ago, they sold their Julian farmhouse and moved in with their son and two labs. Finally, the mansion was truly theirs.
“It’s still grand, but it’s home,” Tara Immel said.
They hope to finish in the next months. By the end, they estimate, the restoration will have cost roughly $750,000.
They don’t regret a penny.
“Tara and I had the vision to work on it,” Michael Immel said. “From the start, we could see the end of it.”
Because of that, they have a panoramic view.
On the third floor, they found evidence of stairs once leading to the roof. Further research revealed the mansion originally had an observatory tower.
Working with the borough’s Historical Architecture Review Board, the couple received a variance so they could exceed a height restriction by 2 feet.
Now, an iron and cherry spiral staircase winds to an airy perch. There’s a telescope for peering at the moon and stars.
But the Immels didn’t need any help this summer glimpsing the Fourth of July fireworks near State College miles away. High above town, they sat and watched a night sky as bright as the future of a home once given up for dead.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.