Sandy and Frederick Trombley knew the vacant house that had charmed them to Waco was a great historical treasure, and also a great big mess.
On the one hand, the colonnaded home at 2420 Colcord Ave. still retained much of its original grandeur. It was built around 1911 by Artemas Roberts, the insurance magnate who was then finishing Waco’s first skyscraper, now known as the ALICO Building.
The founder of American Amicable Life Insurance had spared no expense for the architectural details on a house in what was then the Waco boondocks.
It had giant columns supporting the front portico, cypress siding and ornate corbels, interiors of oak and cherry wood, and ornate ceilings with plastered egg and dart trim.
“It was the kind of house both my husband and I have always dreamed of,” Sandy Trombley said.
But time had taken its toll on the old dowager, as the Houston couple found when they bought the house in 2016.
It might have been a red flag when an inspector the Trombleys hired showed up at the house and refused to enter, fearing for his life.
It might have been a sign when a structural engineer found that the house was leaning slightly and the roof had dipped nine inches because of foundation weaknesses three stories below.
Or that when it was rejected as a candidate for renovation on “Fixer Upper” after being dubbed the “crumbling mansion” by Chip and Joanna Gaines in Season 2.
“It was on the verge,” said Addis McNamara, owner of Brazos Environmental & Engineering Services, who reluctantly took the yearslong renovation that he is now finishing. “It should have been pushed down. If it hadn’t been for the Trombleys, anybody else would have torn it down. No one else in Waco would have done this.”
The house had a special meaning to Frederick Trombley, who as a teen in the 1960s had briefly lived across the street and admired the old mansion.
The Trombleys bought the 3,700-square-foot house for $90,000 and got a historic landmark designation from the city of Waco. They continued to live until 2020 in Houston, where he was finishing up a successful accounting career.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Sandy Trombley said this week, standing in front of the house as workers reconstructed a balcony. “My husband stayed past his original retirement date. He stayed because his company made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He died one week before what was supposed to be last day. We buried him on his retirement day.”
Sandy, a single woman in her 60s who grew up in Wichita Falls and had never lived in Waco, faced a hard choice of whether to continue an expensive renovation of a grand but troubled house in an inner-city North Waco neighborhood. Her daughter in Richardson urged her to cut her losses and move closer to her. But Trombley had fallen in love with the house, and aided with money her husband had left her she decided to stay the course.
“I would love to be with my daughter and the granddaughter my husband didn’t live to see, but do I give up my dream and Freddy’s dream?” she said. “I call the house Freddy’s Dream.”
Trombley is renting a home around the corner and is hoping to move into the Artemas Roberts house sometime this spring.
Asked the budget for the house, she laughed.
“What’s a budget?” she said. She estimated the project would cost some $750,000, and even in a post-“Fixer Upper” real estate market she wondered about the investment she was making.
“I don’t think it makes sense to spend this much money on a house in Waco,” she said. “I keep hearing I should be able to get a million dollars for it, and that gives me hope, because I’ll live here as long as I can. But is anybody really going to really pay a million?”
On a tour this week, McNamara and project manager Larry Thornton expressed pride in their work to maintain the historical integrity of the house while bringing it up to modern standards.
The wiring, plumbing and climate control systems are all being replaced, walls have been insulated, energy-efficient windows have been installed, and an enclosed lift has been constructed in the back of the house.
But they said the exterior would remain faithful as possible to the original appearance, and the interior wood and plaster details were being restored carefully. Stanton Studios of Waco is repairing the leaded glass bookcase windows as well as the plaster ceiling trim.
Workers rebuilt the foundation and anchored it to bedrock. They stripped six layers of paint from the exterior.
They reinforced the portico with steel and gradually lifted the roof up nine inches — one inch per month, so as not to crack the wood. They replaced most of the ruined porch with trim that matched the original design.
The house got a new roof, and balconies with railings connect to the structure of the house by way of 8-by-8 posts.
Standing on the balcony, McNamara said he did not want to live to see the need for another major renovation.
“I’m not coming back” he said. “I told everyone I want this house to be here 100 years from now.”
Sandy Trombley said she has enjoyed getting to know the history of the house and the neighborhood. An insurance adjuster who had grown up in Missouri and Texas, Artemas Roberts moved to Waco in 1906 and worked for Texas Life Insurance Co.
In 1908 he recruited an elite group of Waco businessmen, including W.W. Cameron and Sam Sanger, to form Amicable Life Insurance Co., and within a couple of years it was trumpeting phenomenal growth.
Roberts dreamed up a skyscraper that would measure up to his ambitions, and set to work in 1910 on a 22-story, steel-framed skyscraper taller than anything in Texas at that time.
The building was designed by the Fort Worth-based firm Sanguinet and Staats with local architect Roy E. Lane assisting.
In “Historic Homes of Waco, Texas,” architectural historian and Colcord Avenue resident Kenneth Hafertepe suggests the Fort Worth firm or Lane may have designed the house as well.
He describes the house as a simple “American Foursquare” in its basic arrangement.
“But this Foursquare was dressed up with just about every bell and whistle imaginable,” Hafertepe wrote.
Hafertepe, who was on the Historic Landmark Preservation Commission when it gave the Roberts house its local designation, said he has been pleased with the progress on the restoration.
Artemas Roberts lived with his wife and two sons in the house until around 1920, the year a dramatic boardroom coup at his insurance company ousted him. Board members accused him of pressuring shareholders to sell to him at a loss so that he could turn around and resell the business, according to a 2011 Waco Today story about the ALICO Building.
Roberts and his family moved to Corpus Christi, where he ran for mayor and Texas Legislature while farming cotton and drilling for oil. He maintained interests in Waco and returned here in 1931, organizing a new life insurance company and purchasing the Provident Building. He died in March 1933 and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.
The house passed through many hands over the decades, serving in the late 1920s as the family home for former Waco Mayor Allen Sanford, and later home to the families of Waco Police Chief Woody Zachry, Ed Pettit and Clifford Corley, according to a 1988 report by Baylor University student Pamelyn Allen.
David and Jan Lewein bought the house in the 1980s and renovated it as a bed-and-breakfast inn. By the time the Trombleys bought it in 2016, it was vacant and belonged to the Federal Home Loan Corp., or Freddie Mac, according to public records.
Sandy Trombley said there are rewards to rescuing a house like this beyond the financial return on investment.
“You have to love this house beyond measure,” she said.