Matt Williams Revitalizes a Rivertown "Shack" Into His Dream Home
Photos by L.G. Patterson
They say the story of a house is also the story of the man who lives there.
If we run with that metaphor, then the story of Matt Williams’ adventure in housing reads more like a three-part odyssey of discovery, adversity overcome and the triumph that concludes every good story. This could be The Odyssey… with a slight twist. This is Matt’s odyssey, a 6-year heroic quest, to resurrect a small, forlorn Rocheport house.
Nestled in a garden-like setting, Matt’s house frames a proper scale of man in nature — subdued, not overreaching. Out back, his property is hemmed in by the quiet flow of Moniteau Creek as it cuts along a final tall bluffline before emptying into the Missouri River. Outside his kitchen window lies a picture-perfect view of the Katy Trail State Park, where bikers can be seen crossing a bridge to explore the old train tunnel.
It was there that Lewis and Clark explored the Rocheport area back in 1804, before the town was even founded, in 1825. Since then, the spot continues to be marked by historical milestones, including the completion of the train tunnel in 1893, black soot still apparent on the ceiling from a century of railroad use.
“The story I inherited was that the original house (the middle of the current house) was built by a family who came here to help build the Katy tunnel,” Matt says. The tunnel is now one of the most popular spots along the entire Katy Trail State Park.
When Matt purchased the home in March of 2010, its decaying walls and foundation were but suggestions of what might have been, or what could be again, in the hands of the right person.
“It was basically a 125-year old railroad shack that had been added on to and modified many times,” Matt says. “Most significantly, it had never had a proper foundation. Like many homes built pre-1900s, this one probably only had rocks at the corners to keep it off the ground. A section of wall in the kitchen was sitting on railroad ties! But 120-plus years of gravity, in soft river bottom soil, meant that most of the house was on the ground or very near it. There had also been modifications to the ceiling joists that had to be rectified.
“But I loved the basic feel of the place: semi-contemporary meets cabin, especially the openness and the loft over the kitchen. Since the most pressing problem was the lack of foundation, I consulted a contractor and floated the idea of digging a foundation out from under it. He thought it was doable — or he didn’t really think I’d be insane enough to try — so I went for it!”
Like any good rehab-turned-nightmare resurrection story, Matt had no idea of the saga that was about to unfold.
“I thought I’d be able to just tear out the floors, dig footings, pour a new foundation, put the floors back in, and put everything back together,” he says. “But I kept finding more problems: rotted and termite-eaten wood, inadequate support in load-bearing walls and walls that had shifted due to the removal of the ceiling joists. I knew it didn’t make sense to go to all the trouble of putting a new foundation under the house, only to just cover up all the problems I’d found, so I just gutted it.”
After recounting the early days of his project, he pauses to calculate exactly how long it has taken to rehab the house.
“I’ll let you know when I’m done,” he says with a laugh. “Actually, for all intents and purposes, it was finished in May of 2016, so a little over 6 years. There are still a few odds and ends, but the big stuff is done.”
Matt persevered long after many homeowners would have caved or completely broken. Some would have succumbed to just taking out a huge loan and hiring crews to finish it. Some would have thrown in the towel and moved on. Others would have settled for what it was: a train-wreck beside a train track (pardon the pun).
But like the little engine that could, Matt kept going. “I would tell myself ‘You have no choice, so keep going.’ Giving up — that just wasn’t an option. I sometimes compared it to climbing to the top of a tall ladder only to realize that you’re actually terrified of heights. Freaking out will do no good, you have to figure out how to get down. In spite of all the challenges, I really do enjoy this kind of work. Seeing your ideas come to life in concrete and wood and glass and paint is pretty exciting.”
Matt says he had never done anything of this scale before. “I’d done some relatively light remodeling on my previous house in Columbia, but this was in a whole other category. I’ve just always loved this kind of thing and I think that’s what matters. When I was a kid, I added a deck and running water to my tree house. If you have a basic interest and curiosity, there are ways of figuring out the details. Ag classes in high school helped. I was an ag major in undergrad and had a class in electricity and wiring. There is, of course, a ton of information online. David Mast, the contractor I hired to pour the concrete for the foundation, was a huge help. I could call him up at any time to ask for advice.”
Matt completed the impossible, while holding down a full-time job. “I did everything except pouring the concrete. I dug out the footings by hand… I went through three shovels!”
Fast forward to today. It’s a crisp winter day and the wood stove is keeping the house perfectly toasty. Sam, the dog, is goading his guests for endless belly rubs. The space is comfortable, relaxing, it is simply: home.
Contemporary touches, as if by a designer, are everywhere. Hints of architectural styles seamlessly merge. The list of well-balanced details is long: the beauty of old wooden beams, weathered wide-plank cypress floors, old Columbia pavers surrounding the wood stove, schoolroom slate countertops, white-washed wooden ceilings… if contemporary and Adirondack styling can merge into something as impossible as Nouveau Adirondack, than this is certainly it.
Even though many would see this as a crowning achievement of the age of HGTV rehabber show binge watching, DIY overdosing and Pinterest obsessives, Matt is none of those things. He hasn’t had cable television in 14 years. Instead, he followed his internal compass. Unburdened by having to “stick” to a prescribed style, in something more architecturally suggestive, such as folk Victorian or other Rocheport style, he was freed to treat the resurrected house as a blank canvas and to follow his internal aesthetic.
“I wanted everything to be ‘real,’ if that makes sense,” he says. “Real wood, real brick, exposed beams that are actually performing a structural function. Un-fussy. There’s not much enclosed storage space. Part of that is the lack of space. Overall, the house is a little under 1,000 square feet (not counting the loft). But it’s also a conscious choice. I’d rather have a few things I really like and enjoy seeing, than a bunch of junk that I never use or don’t really care for hidden away. Clean lines, simple materials.
“I’d say the overall vibe is rustic-cottage-cabin with just enough industrial-modern, even a touch Scandinavian, to keep it from being too cute. The theme that ties it all together is comfort.”
Many of the materials Matt used were either recycled or up-cycled. His love of tradition is apparent in details such as the vintage porcelain sink, the clawfoot tub, period pieces that work to complement contemporary furnishings.
“I was able to save and re-use the cork floors in the studio area and master bath when I tore out the old floors. The wood flooring and backsplashes in the kitchen and master bath are cypress that came from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington. The laundry, kitchen and master bath sinks are all vintage. The kitchen countertops are slate chalkboard from a one-room school east of Moberly. The bricks in the hearth are from The Rome restaurant in Columbia. They have ‘Columbia Paver’ stamped on them.
“The tongue-and-groove yellow pine that I made the kitchen cabinet doors out of are from the attic of an old southwest Columbia house. The mantel on the hearth was a beam that I tore out from under the old kitchen floor. I made the vanity in the master bath from wood I found floating in a wetland nearby. The clawfoot tub came out of an old house in Mexico… Craigslist has been my friend.”
As Matt gathered the materials and his home was taking shape, his style evolved. “I’ve built things out of recycled wood for quite a while. I used to sell wooden boxes at Bluestem Art Gallery and I love starting with materials that already have so much story to them,” he says. “Since I had so much time to play around with ideas, I could change things as I went along and figure out what worked and felt best. Here, in person, in real time.”
“I never doubted he would finish it,” says Jennifer VanHorn, Matt’s friend of 16 years. “But when I visited and he was digging out the foundation, at that point, it seemed like ‘Oh my gosh, he’s gotten in over his head’ — literally. It was crazy!
“And now, when I walk through his house, it’s all so perfect,” Jennifer says. “Everything has a function or a purpose or reminds him of a memory or reminds him of the land around it. It still completely baffles me, he did it himself, every single thing and taught himself to do the things he didn’t know how to do, and did them all to perfection. I think his remodel is completely consistent with every story I’ve heard of him growing up. He will only do things that he can do 100 percent.”
As any artist would reply to the question of what now, now that this is done, Matt replies, “There are still doors to be built and I’d like to rebuild the deck into a screen porch and do something with the cabin.”
The cabin Matt refers to is sitting a few hundred yards away, an artifact of another time. It is leaning heavily and is slowly giving up the ghost. It is a part of the setting as much as everything else here, the towering cottonwoods and sycamores, the tall bluffs, the creek, the tunnel, the list goes on and on — a scene painted by an unseen artist’s hand.
“The setting is why I’m here,” Matt says. “I added windows to the creek side of the house to take advantage of the view. I think the history of the place — a Native American village here pre-1800s and Lewis and Clark camping very near here — contributed to the desire to re-use materials and to try to create some sense of continuity with what this place has been.
“I love the history of this area, the proximity to the river and the trail. I grew up in a town not much bigger than Rocheport, so the small town thing appeals to me. There’s such an eclectic mix of people here and I love the relatively constant flow of people using the trail or visiting the town. I like the sense of being able to stay put and rooted while having the scenery change around me.”
One of the maxims of restoring an old home is that it often takes more time and money than building new. Matt is one of the fervent few fed by rehab fever, who understands the path less traveled.
“When I brought my concrete contractor out here after getting the floors torn out, he walked in and said ‘Have you thought about a bulldozer?’ I said ‘No, but I wouldn’t be too upset by an electrical fire.’
In retrospect, it probably would’ve been easier — there was almost always something in the way of where I needed to be. But starting with a shell, even a shell without a proper foundation, seemed less daunting than starting from scratch. And more economically feasible.
“This house doesn’t fit into any of the usual historical architectural categories: it’s not Victorian or Greek Revival or Craftsman. None of the original trim work was left when I got to it and there was only one remaining original window.
But I think there’s a historical value in another sense: this was shelter at its most basic. The people who built the original two rooms 125 years ago were mostly concerned with not getting rained on and keeping their kids safe.
“I’ve even wondered if they were actually squatters (the house sits on what was supposed to be the right-of-way for a street that was never built). While I was dismantling the place, I found evidence of a chimney fire, termites, lots of rot, and of course, floods. So it’s kind of a miracle that the house has even survived and I think that deserves to be honored in some way.”