The house at 170 Willis Street, Westminster, as it looks now, after renovation.

Written By Barbara Pash

The residence at 170 Willis Street in Westminster was called the “cat house,” for good reason. When the owner, an elderly widow, died, heirs found more than 50 cats living in the house, and at least a half-dozen dogs, too.

“You could smell it from the street,” said Pat Martin, a Westminster general contractor who bought the property in 2000 and turned the home into a showplace.

Martin, 58, a burly man with a gentle manner, was born and raised in Westminster. He has lived there his entire life and graduated from Westminster High School, the last class to do so before the building became a middle school.

After high school, Martin went into the construction business. In 1975, he founded Patrick A. Martin General Contractor. In 1995, he became president of the renamed P.A. Martin and Sons. His office, a single room crowded with desks, computers and samples of building material, is in an old building at 197 E. Main Street that Martin bought and converted for restaurant and office use.

Martin remembers the cat house from his childhood. He walked by it every day on his way to school. It is located in an upscale historic district of Westminster that dates from the 1890s. Martin figures that the two-story, 3,000-square-foot shingle structure was built around that time.

The house’s style was typical for that period: a cottage with green wood shingles and white trim on the exterior. A large, white front porch faced the street. Inside were five bedrooms, two bathrooms and a small kitchen. A separate garage sat in the rear of the quarter-acre lot.

By the time it came up for sale, though, the once-attractive house was “the biggest eyesore in the area,” said Martin. Not only did it have a distinctive odor – the reason for numerous municipal citations – but there were other problems as well. The owner had been unable to maintain the property and it was, to put it kindly, said Martin,“rundown.”

After the widow’s death, the family put the house up for sale. Martin was one of a handful of bidders. He believes that his bid was accepted because he did not intend to demolish the house and the others did.

“So many old houses are torn down and replaced with cheaper versions,” said Martin, whose company does new construction and remodeling, but specializes in kitchens, baths and additions. The company has seven full-time employees, including Dan, one of Martin’s three sons, and grosses more than $1 million in sales per year.

Martin paid $15,000 for the house at a time when comparable houses in that neighborhood were selling for $350,000. Nonetheless, as inexpensive as the sale price sounds, Martin recognized that he was taking a financial risk

“The house was basically uninhabitable,” said Martin. “I didn’t know if I could eliminate the odor.”

After 11 years of working on weekends, Martin sold it to its current owners, Jake and Genny Yingling, after the town denied his request for use as an assisted living facility.

Still, when he figures he spent close to $750,000 in material and labor, the project was not a money-maker. “I’d like to say I recouped my investment,” said Martin, “but I didn’t. It was a labor of love.”

Martin’s approach to renovation was dictated by the house’s unusual circumstances. The stench had permeated the structure, from the wood framing to the concrete basement.

“We had to replace 99 percent of the interior and exterior,” said Martin, who ended up gutting the house.

“All the interior framing is new. We jackhammered the concrete out of the basement and put in new concrete. The electrical [wiring] was replaced with the latest technology. The fixtures are modern,” he said. “The only original [part of the house] left is the foundation and outside shell.”

Martin retained the feel of the original house by keeping the same basic interior layout, from the placement of the living and dining rooms to the now-four bedrooms and three baths. He laid new wood floors. He installed an elevator. He rebuilt the fireplace in the living room, using the original stone.

One major change is a brand-new two-story, 2,400-square-foot addition at the rear of the house for an enlarged kitchen and expanded master bedroom. The modern kitchen features oak cabinets, granite countertops with ceramic tile backsplashes, stainless steel appliances and recessed and pendulum lighting.

Martin demolished the original garage and built a new, three-car garage in the same location, but moved the access to an alley at the rear. The exterior of the house duplicates the original wood shingles in maintenance-free vinyl. The trim is still white, down to the gracious front porch.

Stan Ruchlewicz, Westminster’s administrator of economic development, could not be happier with the house’s transformation. “It’s a good thing Martin acquired and renovated the house,” he said.

The historic neighborhood is a mix of single-family homes and pre-existing apartment buildings. The Willis Street house “fell into disrepair. There were lots of complaints,” said Ruchlewicz. “It’s always a concern when you get one house [like that] in a neighborhood, that it could potentially spread disinvestment and blight.”

Ruchlewicz said that Martin’s work on the house “has stabilized the community. It has maintained the property taxes at the appropriate level,” especially, he added, “considering that they could have gone down.”

As it happens, the house is only one block behind Martin’s office. On an early spring day, he takes a stroll past it, pointing out the features. Martin had the property professionally landscaped: The boxwood is fragrant and in April, the flowering shrubs were just beginning to bud. Benches on the side yard overlook flower beds. A patio at the house’s rear awaits its complement of table and chairs.

“The project gives my whole company a lot of pride,” said Martin. “We achieved our goal of saving the house.”