From transforming a garage into a living space to installing heated toilet seats, the Nortons are the Chip and Joanna Gaines of Hillsdale. Their current project is a new home on Hillsdale Street called The Kempton Residence.
“The owner approached us and asked if we’d have any interest in buying the house,” Bob Norton said. “So after a series of back and forths, we eventually arrived at an agreement to buy the house.”
Historic home renovations. That’s what Bob Norton, general counsel of Hillsdale College, and his wife, Kathy Norton, do. After their daughter graduated from Hillsdale in 2015, they knew they wanted to spend the rest of their working lives promoting the mission of the college. For them, that meant providing spaces for students to live.
“We always ask, ‘would I want to stay here if I was in college?’” Bob Norton said. “That is the goal. If we are going to do this work, we want people to enjoy it, like living there, get along with each other, and get plugged into the Hillsdale community. And that makes it worthwhile. We aren’t always trying to use the most economical means, we are trying to make it nice.”
But their passion for renovations goes back to their days as high school sweethearts.
After his mom upscaled an old, ugly cabinet into a new, beautiful one, Bob Norton said he was inspired to renovate antiques.
“She stripped it in the side yard, and all the neighbors kind of made fun of her, but when it got done, it turned out really nice,” Bob Norton said. “I saw this ugly cabinet become a nice looking one, and when the neighbors saw that, they saw it had value and it was better than a lot of newer things.”
Kathy Norton shared his love for antiques, so flea markets and antique shops became ideal date spots for the Nortons.
Now, after completing two other renovations in Hillsdale, the Nortons are turning The Kempton Residence into a new residence for college students. It’s been elevated in order to put a new basement underneath, which will accommodate five bedrooms and a common space. There will be 11 bedrooms and a kitchen above ground.
The home was owned by Bertha Kempton, a female graduate of Hillsdale College in 1898. Female graduates were rare at the time, Kathy said. Since she was a member of sorority Pi Beta Phi during her time at the college, Kempton used her home to host teas and parties for all her sorority sisters. She was also a member of the Women’s Commissioners and fundraised money for student scholarships.
“Her husband was a real estate agent, but she was really connected in the town and really all her life was about promoting Hillsdale,” Kathy Norton said. “She was much more prominent with the community than he was. Just the fact that she was a college graduate in 1898 was pretty amazing.”
Kathy Norton assumed the role of researcher for the house projects, and as a part of the Hillsdale Heritage Foundation, she said she and her husband focus on Hillsdale’s history. They try to bring it to the “forefront of people’s minds.”
“It’s so important to realize that this house wasn’t just created in a vacuum, but is one that is a piece of history,” she said.
The house structure, the Nortons said, will promote communal living for students and their friends while also creating space where students can live more privately and “self-sufficiently,” if they choose to do so.
“If you’re a grad student and you’re like, ‘I don’t really want to hang out with the college students all that much,’ then you can have your own room, have your own bathroom, and have an area to prepare food.”
The house will be finished in the summer of 2020 in time for the next school year.
It’s been a joint effort. Bob Norton and Kathy Norton work together on each renovation, and neither could succeed without the help of the other, Kathy Norton said. She compared herself to a plate spinner at the circus. Bob Norton, she said, puts on all the plates.
“He’s always setting them and putting more in the line. I’m like, ‘let’s just slow this down, and take this at a slower pace. He’s the energetic one, and full of ideas,” Kathy Norton said. “He’s amazing really. I just stand in awe sometimes, like, who thinks of making a garage a living space? Not me, but it’s like, ‘OK, he’s really going to do this thing. Time to pick out design ideas.’”
They did just that. After renovating the Chase Residence in the summer of 2018, the Nortons transformed the house’s two-car garage into a five-bedroom house modeled after a 20th century carriage home. They modeled the exterior as “Mr. Chase would have a carriage home,” or a barn converted into a house.
“But the interior, you just can’t get around that it’s a garage,” Kathy Norton said. “It’s a square thing, with a concrete floor so we went with it. We got boatloads of pallet wood and loaded it all on the wall. We used the pipes in the garage as the shelves.”
These were Kathy Norton’s designs and ideas. After living in 14 houses in 36 years, Bob Norton said she’s had a lot of practice with designing and restyling homes.
“My wife is in a 12-step HGTV program,” he said, smiling at his wife.
The current residents of the home signed the lease six months prior, not knowing what the finished product would look like.
“They came and I looked at it, and I got a picture of them standing in the garage,” Bob Norton said. “They put a security deposit on a garage, and they said ‘OK? You promise it’ll be done?’ And it was.”
He added a few surprises, too.
“What better way to say ‘I love you’ to these guys than a light up staircase and lighted and heated toilet seats?” Bob said, laughing.
Carriage House resident, junior Freddy Heegan, recalled his first moment walking into the house.
“I was pretty amazed when I first saw it,” Heegan said. “I’ve lived off campus for the past two years, and the houses I lived in then were nothing compared to this place in terms of this really feeling like a home. He really did an excellent job on the renovation.”
Similar to their past renovations, the Nortons hope to preserve the Kempton Residence’s “history, uniqueness, and character.” Most houses back then weren’t the “cookie cutter” residences you see today, Kathy Norton added.
“A lot of the moldings are saved. We saved the brick fireplace mantel. We had to take out the chimneys in order to raise the house,” Kathy Norton said. “There’s some knotty pine paneling in one of the rooms that we’ve saved. The staircase has the original banister. Through its life, some of the original things that the Kempton’s put in have been taken out, but the hardwood floors, we plan to bring those back and have those refinished.”
This won’t be the last home the Nortons restore, though. Since then, two other historical property owners have approached the Nortons requesting renovations.
“More to follow,” Bob Norton said. “Don’t be surprised if the Nortons are doing something else in the years to come.”