A graduate course in rehab

The Imperials restored a West Chester Victorian to its former glory - and still rent to students.

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Al and Paula Imperial did major rehab work to their home in West Chester. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )

In the world of do-it-yourselfers, who would argue that among the bravest are those who would renovate a house that has been rented to college students?

Meet Al and Paula Imperial of West Chester. They not only took a trashed, century-old brick Victorian in the borough and restored it to its former glory, they stripped and restored chestnut doors, trim, flooring, and fireplaces - then continued to rent to students.

And they love doing so.

"We just have a great time here," says Al, 51. "People say, 'How can you live with students?' We say, 'How can they live with us?' "

Apparently, fairly well.

In the eight years the couple have lived in the town, home to West Chester University, they have always had student renters. Once a homeowner lets a student-rental permit lapse, there is no guarantee of getting it back, says Paula, 53.

Which means they had at least one renter during clean-up and conversion.

When Al found the house, it was barely fit for human habitation.

"The porch listed to the side and had a dangerously rotted wood floor," Paula says. "The front door had been kicked in so many times, the panels barely held it together."

Linoleum tiles covered the floors in the kitchen and front hall. And the sunroom? It "smelled like something had died in it - the renters used it as a trash room," she says.

Need it be said that the roof and the electrical, plumbing, and heating systems all needed serious attention, if not replacement?

The couple, who had been living in Bridgeport, did not want a new house. Those domiciles, they say, have no character or personality.

"I said, 'This is us,' " says Al Imperial, whose grandparents had lived in the borough.

Paula was not quite as sanguine, but she, too, recognized the house's potential: the ceiling medallions; the two staircases; the large sunny rooms with long windows; the original plaster crown molding.

Thus, the cleanup began. Paula, who was not working at the time - she had sold her day-care business - undertook the lioness' share of these duties. She still cringes when she talks about it.

"There were egg fights and beer pong. I was here for the first year," she says. "It was full-time cleaning," involving gallons of Clorox, "just getting the public area ready."

"We didn't move in for another year," says Paula, now the marketing move-in coordinator for the Wellington retirement community in West Chester. Instead of bringing in their things, the couple used patio furniture.

Paula wasn't the only one having a good time. After work - Al is the plant operator at Hanson Aggregates in Glen Mills - he'd get cracking on the guts of the place. And, sometimes, they'd regurgitate, like the time he stood in raw sewage in the first-floor shower. Time to buy a new waste pipe.

With the first heavy rainstorm, the couple found out they needed new gutters - the water poured in the front windows.

But eventually, all the eggs were gone and the infrastructure made sound. Then the true restoration began.

Al sanded up a storm: doors, baseboards, staircases, windows, transoms, floors. One original chandelier remained, minus a few crystals, and Paula restored what she could. She found replicas for the other rooms.

Spaces here are light-filled, large, and mostly painted in deep hues: a cranberry kitchen; a deep blue living room; a neutral brown bedroom.

Stepping into the combination living room/dining room is like stepping back in time: A blue velvet settee, a tufted cranberry-colored chair with matching ottoman, and a midnight blue rocking chair occupy one corner of the room. In the dining area are oak pieces that belonged to Paula's grandmother.

Today, it's hard to imagine that the living room once was beer-pong central. Paula says she learned about the room's history during a party.

"No matter how hard I stripped," Al says, the woodwork in the windows showed the damage. It's the reason, the Imperials say, that the windows are painted in the living room, though the rest of the room's wood was left natural.

The couple, who have been married about 20 years - they lived on the same block and married after an elderly neighbor introduced them - occupy the first floor, with three tenants living on the second and third floors. The students come in through the added-on mudroom and up the back staircase. All are voice or music majors - a studious bunch, Al says.

Tenants and landlords have a good deal, it seems. Paula and Al feed the students dinner Monday through Thursday. Al helps them with their cars; when it snows, he cleans off their vehicles before leaving for work in the morning, and helps if there are mechanical issues.

And their renters often come back every year, then refer Paula and Al to their friends. One girl was with them for four years.

"Oh, yeah," Al says, "you get fond of them."

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