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St. Joseph, Missouri, Is a Home Renovator’s Dream

By Rebecca Treon on October 31, 2022

The Reilly family in front of the historic home they are restoring in St. Joseph, MO
Lura Landis Photography

If you tune in to home renovation shows on HGTV, love scrolling through old house accounts on Instagram and dream of owning a historic home — but without a million-dollar budget — St. Joseph, Missouri, might be the place to make those dreams come true.

Established as a 19th-century frontier town, St. Joe’s historic districts feature a treasure trove of Greek Revival, Victorian and Craftsman mansions just waiting to be restored. There are three National Register Districts in town and many of the grandest mansions are now museums or bed and breakfasts. But the neighborhoods are peppered with homes just looking to be lovingly restored by the right owner. The fact that typical home prices in St. Joseph fall far below the median price in most U.S. markets means you won’t go broke doing it.

A Family Adventure

Jordan and Rebecca Reilly bought their first home in St. Joseph, which needed significant repairs to make it livable, and have restored it themselves one project at a time. When the brick duplex next door went on the market, they bought it and began restoring it to use as a rental property. And when a home around the corner was all but destroyed in a fire, they bought that property, too, adding to their real estate portfolio, while also protecting the city’s unique and important history.

“We both just love architecture so much and St. Joseph offers very unique architecture. We wanted to get a piece of that and bring it back to what it once was,” says Rebecca Reilly.

Jordan Reilly is a nurse, while Rebecca is an artist and works part time in the medical field. They are parents of young children, and, Rebecca notes, are doing the restorations on a shoestring budget.

“We had no clue what we were doing, but we wanted to learn. We don’t buy normal houses, we buy things that we want to save and bring back to what they once were,” says Rebecca. “When they’re falling down and dilapidated because they’ve been so neglected or people don’t honor them aesthetically with how they renovate, it’s hard to see the beauty. We wanted to show that we can make this beautiful — we don’t want to live in a cookie cutter home.”

Another important thing to honor for the Reillys is St. Joseph’s history as an important city on the Western frontier.

“We’re also saving part of history — we both care about history in general, but also of St. Joseph — one of the houses was built in the 1860s, and so we just felt even more compelled to save that house because of its uniqueness,” says Rebecca. “There’s been a Renaissance in our downtown the last few years and we have a lot of great shops. We’re literally just blocks away, so we walk down there all the time to go get food, to shop, go to the library, with our kids. It’s so nice that we have that walkability to partake in the cool part of town.”

Best of all, the Reillys have become consummate DIY’ers with beautiful end results. They want to encourage other people to do the same.

“Neither one of us had any experience. It was completely a learning experience and we have just learned to do everything in stages, and we just keep plugging away,” Rebecca said. “It’s just like anything in life, if it’s what you want, you sacrifice for it and you work hard for it. And you know what? What you get in the end is pretty cool.”

Gwen Potthoff at her renovated home in St. Joseph, MO
Lura Landis Photography
Gwen Potthoff bought a historic home in St. Joseph, MO, and is renovating it a little at a time.

 A Leap of Faith

Seventy-three-year-old Gwen Potthoff moved to St. Joseph from the Phoenix, Arizona, area in early 2022, buying her house online without ever visiting the city in person. She sold her own home literally overnight and took the plunge, buying a historic home on a large corner lot that offered plenty of space for a garden and for her art studio. She loved the area’s architecture and availability of homes at affordable prices. Once she got to St. Joe, she fell in love with the city as a whole.

“I decided I wanted to move, and I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it’ and I just wanted a change in my life. I was seeking seasons and the opportunity to see a different part of the country,” says Potthoff. “This house is about 100 years old and it needs a lot of work and it’s ongoing all the time, but I am getting there. I feel like I’m making progress but I’m not the kind that would renovate according to what’s trending. I’m more the type that would want to preserve the integrity of the home as it is. I hope I can bring the house back to her original stature, of what she used to be.”

What has impressed Potthoff the most is the pride locals have in their homes and the way her neighbors have been so welcoming. As someone who lived in Arizona for years, she was so grateful that a neighbor shoveled her walk after the first snow and loves the way everyone plants flowers (and she’s thrilled to experience all four seasons). 

“They were really happy to see someone move in that shows an interest in the house and the neighborhood. There are several older homes on the street that I live on and everybody’s invested in preserving the character of the neighborhood. I’m glad I am where I am because I have wonderful neighbors and I honestly love the neighborhood. I just feel really, really, lucky in so many ways that it turned out the way it did,” she says. “It was a leap of faith and a remarkable shift for me — I came from a city of 5 million people to a town of just over 70,000. Everywhere you look, there’s a tree, I drive through farmland and rolling hills, and that just feels really good.”

Potthoff admits it was a bit of a culture shock at first, but that she hasn’t had to travel to Kansas City for anything as she anticipated and has settled into the slower pace of life.

“I was so rushed before. If you’re thinking about a move, act on it because you won’t regret it. I wish I’d done it sooner,” she says. “I feel nurtured when I’m out and around. I feel nurtured by the environment, by the clear air, the trees and the rolling hills. I just feel so at peace with this and it really is like getting back to somewhere that I’ve lost that I finally found again.” 

This article was sponsored by the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce.

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