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A different way to give
Tim Conley invests in history by preserving renowned homes

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by Erin Stubblefield

Tim Conley stands in the front gallery of the newly restored Jean Baptiste Valle House in Ste. Genevieve’s downtown area. Conley has preserved six homes in 40 years, projects which he considers a philanthropic effort.

In the field of historic preservation, experts consider his work nothing less than remarkable. When restoring each home, he strives to interpret the original form and construction, and structurally speaking, he blends the original elements with custom-made replicas, all in a seamless transformation.

Tim Conley of Ste. Genevieve has been preserving homes for the past 40 years. The Ladue native began his first restoration project at the age of 21 when he founded the movement in St. Louis to restore Lafayette Square. Since then, he has restored six historically prominent homes, most of them located in Missouri.

Construction has always been in Conley’s blood. Since childhood, he was frequently on the construction site with his father, who was a major developer. But Conley had no interest in new buildings and structures.

“I thought it was wasteful to abandon these old houses,” he says. “Ever since I was five years old, I wanted nothing more than to own a big mansion. I was way ahead of my time.”

Conley’s current preservation efforts coincide with his career as a financier. With little fiscal return once the houses are sold, he explains that historic preservation not only takes a deep pocket, but also a willingness to part with the accrued funds. Thus, he considers each project a philanthropic effort and an investment in history.

Conley contributes more than financially. He is actively involved in the restoration process, and as much as a decade of time, money and energy is spent to restore each home.

With such a commitment, Conley remains selective when choosing a project. “I look for national landmark properties in distressed, and I restore them to a level where they are no longer endangered,” he explains. “You should not have to have another major overhaul in a man’s life.”

His most recent project, the restoration of the Jean Baptiste Valle House in Ste. Genevieve, was in such a distressed condition. Not only is he refurbishing the house, but he also is working to restore the house’s rose garden, grapevines and orchards to their original 18th-century condition.

After years of experience, Conley has the preservationist’s instinct. The overgrown garden or the original kitchen door found in a salvage pile at the house could have lacked value to the unconcerning eye, but Conley has the uncanny ability to divorce chintzy additions from the home’s original framework.

Conley's intends to restore the Valle House's garden to its original 18-century condition.

It has not always been that easy. Each project has offered a new challenge, and his expertise has grown with the more homes he restored.

At the Blair House in St. Louis, for example, he learned to repair the period ceiling by replacing damaged areas with castings of the intact portions. Inside the Old Louisiana Academy in Ste. Genevieve, he brought the dilapidated structure out of a state of near collapse.

The William McQuie Mansion in Louisiana, Mo., was his most incredible feat. Considered one of the finest 20-room Greek Revival mansions in Missouri, the restoration caught the eye of several historic preservation societies, who encouraged him to buy the Jean Baptiste Valle House.

The Jean Baptiste Valle House, which is served by Citizens Electric Corporation, is considered the crux of the town’s collection of 18th- and 19th-century French-style homes because it was the home of the last French commandant in Ste. Genevieve. Under American rule, Valle was named head of the local government, making his home the command post.

According to renowned preservationist Osmund Overby, the Vion and Papin families inhabited the home for several generations, and Julia (Vion) Papin Shram was the last family member to live in the Jean Bapiste Valle House before it briefly landed in the hands of another owner.

Prior to Conley’s acquisition last fall, one of the oldest homes in Ste. Genevieve sat vacant, where it began to rapidly decay and age. The mold was chest high, the roof was almost entirely rotten and interior wooden supports began to degrade.

“Tim’s purchase was a breath of relief for all of us who were concerned with the fate of the historic home,” Overby says. “The Shram’s made the home comfortable and were wonderful hosts, but that came first before the interpretation of the form and construction.”

“I am not going to destroy any historic fabric,” Conley says of the 216-year-old structure. “I will go to great lengths to restore, and if unable to be saved, I will mill a duplicate using similar wood. When I finish, you won’t be able to tell what is new and what is original.”

After a few short months of major renovations, Conley made the interior of the Jean Baptiste Valle House his personal home, but he has major plans for the exterior that will take years to complete.

As in many of the traditional homes of 18th-century French aristocrats, a rose garden, vegetable garden, grapevines and orchard surround the Jean Baptiste Valle House. After 10 years of neglect, Conley is working to restore the garden back to its original condition.

Overby said in many ways, restoration of the historic garden is just as important as preserving the structure itself.

“There is little evidence of that kind of thing,” Overby says. “There are no other surviving gardens connected with houses, which is a unique example of what the setting for a host looked like.”

He began the project early this summer by removing the overgrowth of weeds and reclaiming the flower beds to match the original layout.

In August, 30 to 40 more roses of historic note, some dating back to the 16th century, will be delivered from castles and palaces in France.

But the grapevines are the garden’s greatest splendor, for they are the original vines planted by the commandant’s family 200 years ago.

Conley says he originally intended to cut the grapevines down, following the advice of experts, but when he trimmed the vines out of the great arbor and removed a wall of trees that were shading the climbing plants, vines bloomed for the first time in 125 years.

According to Conley, these grapes predate the period when other species were wiped out in Europe and may be a variety that no longer exists.

With historic varieties growing in his backyard, he will make his greenery visible to the town’s tourists by replacing the 7-foot white stockade fences with 4-1/2-foot, wooden versions with iron entrance gates.

Conley plans to remain in Ste. Genevieve, likely making the completion of the Jean Baptiste Valle House his final preservation project.

Erin Stubblefied is Rural Missouri's 2010 summer intern.

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