Where The Heart Is
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition Gives St. James Family Light Amid Tragedy
By Brendan Manley - Photos by Christie M. Farriella 05/12/2005 12:01 pm
When Ann Marie Vitale, a 28-year-old St. James resident, wife and mother of three young boys, imagined her dream house, it always had a great big porch in front; the wraparound kind you see in idyllic old country homes, where generations have lived and died, a place that is central to the very definition of family.
Last year, when she and her husband John, a 32-year-old Suffolk County police officer, plotted future renovations for their house on Grove Street in St. James, her porch was right there in the plans, just as she'd always pictured it. And more importantly, the tiny two-bedroom cottage was going to be expanded, creating enough room for her growing family, so she could realize her greatest dream: to make this house their home.
Ann Marie never saw it happen.
Shortly after giving birth to the couple's third child, 1-year-old Luke, Ann Marie had started feeling ill. Her older sister, Trisha Hegedus, joked that Ann Marie, who'd given birth to three boys in the span of roughly four years (Jack, 4; Adrian, 3; and Luke), was pregnant yet again. But Ann Marie, who was living at the time with her husband and sons at her parents' Levittown home while awaiting the renovation of the St. James house, dismissed it. With the exciting prospect of the construction still on the horizon, she visited with doctors. Nothing could have prepared her for what they'd find.
Just one week before the renovation was scheduled to begin, Ann Marie was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of the cancer. While immediately beginning treatments, the family was forced to cancel the construction project in order to pay Ann Marie's medical bills. But despite all efforts, her health dwindled rapidly over a matter of months.
"She was in the hospital for six weeks, and then she got out for five weeks, and then the next six weeks she was back in the hospital," says Hegedus, barely able to speak amid tears. "Everyone came. She saw her babies."
The Vitales' home, before the makeover
As her condition worsened, she asked John to make her a promise: that the family would keep their house in St. James and carry on without her, growing up within its walls just as she'd wanted. Then on Aug. 3, 2004, Ann Marie's brief, tragic struggle with leukemia came to an end. She was buried on what would have been her 29th birthday.
John and his boys, depleted of funds and emotionally unable to return to Grove Street, remained in Levittown with Ann Marie's parents, Ray and Janet Lohman, as well as her brother Raymond, his wife Clelia, and their two children. As the grieving continued, it was uncertain when, if ever, the house in St. James would become the home that Ann Marie had wished for. That's about the time the family's life once again changed forever.
A NEW BEGINNING
What John didn't know was that his neighbors on Grove Street hadn't forgotten the Vitale family. Inspired by the heartwarming altruism they'd seen lately on Sunday night television, they nominated 15 Grove St. as a candidate for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, ABC's mega-hit home renovation program. The show follows a team of designers, led by hyperactive hunk/carpenter Ty Pennington, as they perform breathtaking transformations on houses in just a week for very needy families, most of whom have endured severe hardship in one form or another. A letter regarding the Vitales was sent, and ABC came calling.
"John first learned in December that he was nominated," Hegedus says. "Then he heard in February that he was one of five."
Vitale received another call soon after, this time telling him his family had been chosen. Work was to begin in a month. Local government was fully brought into the fold, as town and county workers scrambled to expedite building permits and plan street closings. Grove Street households were asked for their permission for the project, especially since nearly every inch of the block would become part of the set. One neighbor objected, and later stayed at a nearby hotel during the construction. Meanwhile the rest of Vitale's family was still relatively in the dark.
The Extreme Makeover: Home Edition design team (L to R):
Ty Pennington, Paul DiMeo, Constance Ramos,
Michael Moloney and Paige Hemmis.
It wasn't until Wednesday, March 16?the day before the project was to begin?that reality set in. It came in the form of the design team's bus pulling up at the Lohman house in Levittown for the show's famous "door knock" scene, which each week shows Pennington and Co. surprising the various recipient families with the good news. John and the boys were promptly whisked away to Utah for a winter sports vacation, and it was time for the Extreme Makeover to begin.
A COMMUNITY COMES ALIVE
The week of the renovation was marked by cold, damp weather, including pockets of chilling rain and snow, save for a couple of pleasantly sunny days over the weekend. Lake Avenue, a fairly prominent byway that cuts through St. James and the surrounding area, was closed off in a radius of several blocks surrounding the Vitale home. Fans visiting the site parked wherever they could, walking once their cars could bring them no closer.
Once near, a maze of metal barriers ran along the sidewalk opposite the house, leading to a yard where the public was permitted to gather. Whatever the weather was on any given day, you could expect hundreds of onlookers, at times more than a thousand, huddled together en masse, tirelessly waiting to catch a mere glimpse of the cast. Occasionally, Ty would emerge, sporting his signature spiky coif, or Barbie-esque carpenter Paige Hemmis would appear with her trademark pink attire (that week it was a ski jacket, belt and hardhat), and the crowd would erupt. Then the designers would disappear and the group would go back to waiting. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy even made several appearances; in fact, his sister-in-law Maureen lives next door to the Vitales.
"It's the gift of hope for this family that went through quite a tragedy," Levy commented. "The neighborhood is to be commended for going to bat for their friend in need."
The Extreme Makeover construction crew, hard at work
The entire street had been transformed into a job site. Each neighbor's yard served some function, whether it was storing building materials or graciously providing yard space for Port-A-Potties. Lighting was rigged all around the house, since work continued non-stop throughout the week. Area police, the St. James Fire Department, the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association and the U.S. Coast Guard all had a large presence. A stream of workers clad in blue Extreme Makeover T-shirts, roughly 100-125 at any given time (and some 400 in all), traversed up and down the block, on foot or in construction vehicles, taking turns descending upon the house in shifts that ranged from 12 to 18 hours. And they did it as volunteers.
In addition to ABC, a huge amount of the thanks goes to Hicksville-based Alure Home Improvements, which, under the leadership of President Sal Ferro, coordinated the project and provided much of the labor (many national and local companies donated the bulk of the building products). It was the third time that Alure had partnered with ABC for the show.
"This is not a project that makes the phone ring, it's a project that brings credibility and integrity to our industry and to our company," Ferro explains. "We spend a lot of money out of our pocket?many times over the early six-figures mark. This is not something you do for business?there's many other ways you can spend that kind of money to get business a lot quicker."
A RAPID TRANSFORMATION
On Friday, the house was completely gutted, and then fully demolished once builders realized the framing was compromised. Concrete was poured that same day, while work continued at a frenzied pace throughout the weekend. By Monday afternoon, an entire new home had been erected. Workers spent the day landscaping, moving piles of sod, shrubs and soil to their final destinations. In the backyard, a large playground/swing set, fashioned as a castle, was visible from the street. Interior details were top-secret, but cast builder/planner Constance Ramos, a stunning brunette unafraid of getting her hands dirty, explained that the team's desire for preserving the home's personality would definitely be evident.
Midway through the construction
"The thing we like doing is saving the things that are important to the family," Ramos explains. "There are a couple of things that Ann Marie personally decorated in this house. She loved her nursery that had stars and moons as a theme, and she painted a special little mural in there. It was painted on the drywall; we ripped the drywall out to save this beautiful thing that she did. There was a place in the house where she marked the kids' heights as they grew?it was a doorjamb?we saved that as well. We want to make sure that those stay."
Alure finished on Tuesday three hours early, and from there the designers took over, bringing in furnishings and placing finishing touches on the home. No one ouside of the crew knew what awaited, but Ann Marie's family speculated on what they hoped was inside.
"A big playroom, so they can all bounce off the walls, and an island in the kitchen," opined Denise Marotta, another of Ann Marie's siblings, explaining that Vitale is known for his skills in the kitchen.
"John is a great cook. He puts us women to shame," added Clelia Lohman, Vitale's housemate and Marotta's sister-in-law, as the two tended to babies in strollers. "When he would cook his nights, I'd be like, 'Man.' I would be intimidated to cook the next night."
Both characterized Vitale as a humble, simple, non-pretentious fellow who himself didn't ask for a lot when it came to his new house.
"He said, 'The only thing I'd want is my own bath,'" Marotta says. "'Anything else is extra.'"
The Vitales arrive home
THE BIG DAY
When Wednesday, the day of the "reveal," finally arrived, hundreds of fans and workers braved perhaps the worst weather of the week?a near constant showering of rain and sleet?in order to watch the Vitales arrive at their new home. The group waited, on both sides of the street, for the magical moment when the limousine would pull up, the family would get out, and Ty would yell his famous line, "Move that bus!", sending away the team's large brown coach, which blocked the view of the house. In mid-afternoon, they got their wish.
MOVE THAT BUS!
Vitale emerged from the car, with the boys in tow, and once again the crowd roared. Clutching Luke in his arms, he was flanked by the Lohman family and Pennington, who spoke with Vitale as the production team prepared for the big moment. Then Ty gave the command, and the bus pulled away. One can only imagine what it felt like to experience what was next.
The Vitales' new home, which is three times as large as the original
As his new home came into view, what Vitale saw was that his former two-bedroom, one-bath, 800-square-foot cottage was now a four-bedroom, two-bath, 2,400-square-foot palace, complete with the castle playground (which featured two new sets of swings and slides). The house also had a sunroom, playroom and basement, and perhaps most touchingly, a sun porch, like Ann Marie had always wanted.
Ty joins John Vitale, his three sons, mother-in-law
Janet, and siblings-in-law Trisha, Denise and Ray for the big reveal.
Vitale, a tall, solid-looking man with a Bic-bald head, immediately burst into tears, as did the Lohmans, who embraced their son-in-law there in the street. As the crowd applauded, and chanted "We love you John," the family disappeared inside, spending the next few hours touring the house. Alure also later presented them with a 23-foot Mako fishing boat, named Ann Marie.
Alure presented the Vitale family with a
23-foot Mako fishing boat, named Ann Marie
As the crew wrapped up, and both the cast and Alure workers headed to the Watermill in Smithtown for the Wednesday night wrap party, many were in a nostalgic mood, looking back on an incredibly intense week. Workers, along with their wives, watched a slide show being projected on various screens at the party, which presented photos taken throughout the week. Paige and designers Michael Moloney and Paul DiMeo were mobbed on the dance floor by autograph seekers, but were happy to oblige. For Alure's Ferro, who later gave a speech praising his colleagues for their dedication, it was the conclusion of a difficult but remarkably rewarding experience. All week he'd carried a picture of Ann Marie Vitale in his wallet, which kept his company's mission ever-present in his mind throughout the endless challenges.
"Every time I had to dig down a little deep, every time I questioned what we might have done, why we did this, what type of risk I put my guys at, every time I had a question, I looked at this and knew, there's a woman who left three children and a husband, and her dream was to have them live in this home," Ferro says, gazing mournfully at the photo. "That's what we did?Alure brought them home."
THE HOUSE BEFORE:
THE WORKERS 2:
TY AND THE FAMILY:
I won't put the house after they finished it unless someone wants to see it let me know enjoy!