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Bob and Kathy Norton raised The Kempton Res­i­dence to add a basement under the main house. Courtesy | Bob Norton

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.”