Eighteen years had passed since the house was opened as a museum, and it was in a dismal state of disrepair. Shelly was quick to enumerate the problems. Broken windows, sagging door frames, loosened hardware, ripped linoleum, cracked plaster, leaking pipes, splintered sash, and chronic dry rot, for starters, not to mention a menagerie of insects and rodents that had taken up residence— “roaches, winged black ants, garter spiders, water bugs, coal fleas, and two generations of mice and pack rats,” as Shelly put it in a letter he wrote to Chapman shortly after he and Phyllis moved in. The chimney needed capping, the roof needed work, and the boiler was broken. Shelly repaired the boiler, but he emphasized to Chapman that it was a temporary fix. He also urged him to have the heating system evaluated by the company, noting they were spending an inordinate amount on coal. He learned that the Lonnbergs, the former caretakers, were in the habit of scouring the Bowery each night for wood to burn in the fireplace to keep warm.
Over the next year, the Foxes spent $1,100 of their own money in making repairs to their quarters. When Shelly submitted a bill for $39 for supplies he had purchased for repairs to the rest of the house, he proudly noted that if they had had to hire a plumber, welder, electrician, and mason to do what he had done, the total cost would have been over $300. Chapman’s response was not encouraging. On March 27, 1954, he wrote:
I am sure the things you are doing will put the house in better shape and make up for past neglect; however we must keep within our budget and try to get along without any expense except what is absolutely necessary. The alternative I am afraid is that we will have to give up the project entirely.