Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald


Baker City Herald

Sleeping Beauty lives in Baker City.

In fact, she's been hibernating at 2436 Church St. for more than a century.

But Prince Charming is almost ready to bring her back to the waking world.

As soon as he finishes hanging the sheetrock.

Sleeping Beauty's real name is the Virtue House, and after years of decay and dirt, one of the city's grandest old homes is almost completely restored.

"She was an old lady, now she is a princess again," said Mike Maartense, who along with his wife, Annabelle, bought the home in 2002.

Named after the original owner, James W. Virtue, the house was built in 1882 - but not where it stands today.

Its original site was several blocks to the east, on a lot bordered by Main, Church, First and Baker streets.

Virtue's family moved to Canada from Ireland when he was a child. When

he was about 26, in the spring of 1863, he moved to Baker County, lured

by the same thing that brought most of the area's settlers in those

days of the Civil War.


Auburn, the county's first town, was still by far its largest then,

less than two years after Henry Griffin made the first gold strike near

what became Baker City.

Virtue served two stints as sheriff of Baker County, which was created

Sept. 22, 1862. He also opened the first bank in Baker City and

continued his interest in mining, owning what would later become known

as the Virtue Mine several miles east of town.

Once considered the richest man in Eastern Oregon, his Victorian-style house reflected his status.

But when financial ruin came in the form of the Panic of 1891, Virtue

was forced to close his bank. He moved to Portland and sold his home to

the Catholic Church.

From then until St. Francis Academy replaced it in 1903, the Virtue

House was used as a Catholic girls school. To make room for these

changes, the church added a wing to the house.

The Catholic Church built St. Francis Academy on the precise spot where the Virtue House stood.

The church removed the tacked-on wing and the Virtue House was moved,

around 1905, to its current location on the north side of Church Street

between Fifth and Sixth streets.

According to the Maartenses' research, at a time when automobiles were

quite rare, and heavy-duty trucks more so, the movers used 50 teams of

horses to haul the house along railroad tracks laid especially for that


The move was completed right after the fall harvest, as that was the only time enough draft horses were available.

For almost the whole of the next century, the Virtue House was used as an apartment building, the Starlight Apartments.

The Maartenses first noticed the house when they were looking to buy a

home in Baker City to escape the sprawl of the Medford area.

They were touring the house on the other side of Church Street when the

"old lady" caught their eye. Standing on the third floor, Annabelle

said, "This is my dream house."

Mike's more prosaic response, after he inspected the place, was: "This is our nightmare."

They bought the house for about $120,000.

They estimate they spent twice that amount to restore the home.

"It was a mess," Mike said. "We've taken it down to the studs."

The restoration project, which has taken eight years of on-and-off effort, is not the couple's first.

Mike is a licensed contractor who built homes until 1994, and then did

smaller remodel jobs. The couple have lived in homes while remodeling

them, after which the homes were sold.

But they had never taken on a job so big, or so problematic.

"The people who had this in the past had good intentions, but they didn't have the knowledge," Mike said.

Not only were there cosmetic problems, such as cracked plaster and ugly

paint, but major structural issues as well. Huge doorways had been cut

in load-bearing walls, causing the roof to slump, and joists had been

cut to make room for air ducts.

"We've been amazed how it even stood up," Mike said.

Aside from the poorly designed remodeling, the Virtue House had suffered from ill-conceived repairs as well.

For instance the dining room holds a bar and mirrors - originally from

the Wallowa Hotel, the Maartenses were told - but it had been

re-assembled using sheetrock screws.

When Mike and Annabelle bought the house, the only original Virtue

artifacts were the front door, and the pocket doors in the dining room

that still have James W. Virtue's name inscribed on them. Most of the

original Virtue pieces were probably sold, such as the chandeliers and

light fixtures that someone told the Maartenses were sold in the 1960s.

After they bought the house the couple applied to have the building

designated as historic, but the state told them there was "no

significant historical value" in the house.

This took the pressure off to restore the house exactly as it had been.

Instead Mike and Annabelle let their creativity flow into the


And so they started, Mike worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for years, going floor by floor.

He installed tons of sheetrock, truckloads of insulation, four full

pallets of flooring, miles of wiring, and over 60 cases of caulking.

But before he could do that he had to remove all the dilapidated materials he was replacing.

Including 5,000 bricks.

"There's been times when I've told Annabelle, 'Why did I listen to you and buy this?,' " Mike said.

With nine bedrooms, four bathrooms, and various other rooms totalling

5,400 square feet, Mike made the house as energy-efficient as possible.

All windows and doors were re-sealed.

Coal dust from old fireplaces had permeated the walls and ceilings - and it permeated Mike and Annabelle during the restoration.

"We nicknamed this place the black booger mansion from all the coal dust that was in all the walls," Mike said.

He insulated and sealed the house so well that last year they spent

less than $800 to heat the house. The first year they spent as much as

$700 per month.

"As far as energy efficiency we went way over," Mike said. "But it all pays for itself in one year."

The Maartenses found more interesting, and less annoying, artifacts than coal dust behind the Virtue House's walls.

They discovered whiskey bottles, medicine bottles, marbles, an old

cylinder record, various tins, correspondence from the priests and nuns

from when it was owned by the church, postcards from the 1880s and

1890s, coins dating to 1892, newspapers, books, glasses, gloves,

magazines and a spelling book.

One of the more interesting antiques is a Model 1 Smith and Wesson

derringer. The first part of the old pistol they found was the

cylinder, not knowing what it was they discarded it. But when they

found the rest of the gun they were sorry they had thrown the cylinder


They also found a whole collection of Chinese hats. Mike guesses that

Chinese workers, who worked in the area gold mines and had their own

Chinatown in downtown Baker City, must have helped to build the house,

and they put the hats in the walls to bring good luck.

The couple plans to donate the artifacts to the Baker County Historical Society.

"It's been fun sometimes," Mike said. "And other times it's been frustrating."

Many areas in the house were blocked off into small hidden sections and forgotten.

The ceilings had been lowered, which trapped heat between the ceilings

and floor above, adding to the inefficiency. The porch was enclosed to

create an extra room.

Mike restored these features to their original design, even working out

an airflow pattern with ceiling fans to make sure heating and air

conditioning are efficient.

His specialties are installing tile and wall texturing, and the house shows off his talents.

A huge medallion in the entryway floor, diamond designs in the kitchen

countertops, decorative jacuzzi, and an impressive slash of green

through a white shower wall are just a few examples of his artistry

with tile.

The wall texture in each room is different. Taught how to make the

patterns by an old motorcyclist named Jack, Mike uses a piece of

insulation wrapped in cloth to create patterns in the texture. For

example, the master bedroom sports a textured rose pattern.

"That's been the fun part," Mike said.

After working on houses where one room was pretty much like another, Mike wanted to make this house a little different.

"I didn't want everything to be cookie-cutter," he said.

But the "best part" of the Virtue House, Mike said, is the third floor

balcony. It's one of the taller ones on any home in Baker City.

"Until the trees grew up we used to be able to see the fireworks from Haines," he said.

The work wasn't confined to areas inside the walls.

The Virtue House's grounds needed rescuing, too.

The front yard was so full of rocks that the Maartenses had to dig down three feet and haul in tons of top soil.

The old dirt was so rocky, in fact, that one of their friends asked for it in place of gravel for his road.

They also replaced the tall fence that ran along the sidewalk with a smaller white scalloped fence behind a flower bed.

"We've decided to do it to make it home, make it inviting," Mike said.

Since they started fixing up the Virtue House, lots of other homes in the neighborhood have improved as well, Mike said.

"All the way around people are buying these houses and fixing them up," he said.

Most of the community interest in their house came when they started on the outside last summer.

When they replaced the roof, people across the street pulled up lawn chairs to watch.

Mike still has a few sections left. The sidewalk will get fixed as soon

as the weather allows, the third story isn't completely put back

together, painting needs to be finished, and molding has to be made

specially to finish the outside.

"We figure we'd put in four wheelbarrow loads of money, and we have one wheelbarrow load to go," Mike said.

He plans to have the rest of the work done this fall.

"I figure when I'm done it'll stand another 100 years," Mike said.

And when this Sleeping Beauty awakens, she'll be up for sale.

"You can't keep everything," Mike said. "If I get this done I'll get bored."

The Maartenses won't be moving far, though

"This is home, we'll stay here. The county can't get rid of us that easily," Mike said.

He plans to retire in the next few years.

Perhaps the couple will buy a fixer-upper to keep him busy.

A much smaller one.

No more princesses.