Members of Vicki and James Elder’s family have been congregating annually at their Moreland home, which the Elders have been renovating with loving care over many years. They are about to cross the finish line.
By Sue Starrett
The permit to build a two-family frame house at 3557-3559 Hildana Road in the Moreland neighborhood was issued in October 1925 – when Hildana was still 161st Street – and the estimated cost was $10,000. The loving transformation of the property over the past 25 years by Vicki Elder is another matter altogether.
“I need to feel a hug every time I walk into any room in our house,” she says of her work there. “That’s what I need to feel to be healthy and that’s what I want my guests to feel when they visit.”
During the early days of Shaker Village, construction was governed by the Van Sweringen Company’s strict standards. They favored Colonial, English, and French designs; required two-family homes to appear as single dwellings; and only permitted “graduate architects” to work in the community. Louis Skolnik served as architect for a number of Hildana houses during the mid- to late-1920s, including the home Vicki lives in with her husband James and her mother, Mattie Clark. Theirs is a Cleveland double architectural type, and resembles the Arts and Crafts style, both of which were typical of the era and the neighborhood. Skolnik was born in Minsk, Russia in 1890 and immigrated to the United States in 1908. He was listed as a registered architect in the 1940 Ohio Architects list, and continued to design homes on Scottsdale and South Woodland roads into the early 1950s.
Vicki didn’t expect to land in Shaker Heights. She grew up on Gay Avenue in Cleveland, graduated from John Adams High School, and earned a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Myers University. She worked in the Washington D.C. area for law firms, primarily in IT, and for 15 years had her own business as a technical trainer, coder, and writer/editor. Her mother Mattie purchased the Hildana home in the early 1980s, and Vicki returned home in early 1991 to support her father during his illness, after which she and James bought the house from Mattie.
The Elders’ over-and-under double resembles the Arts and Crafts architectural style, popular in the Moreland area in the 1920s when the house was built.
“When James joined the family in 1996, we chose to stay in Moreland because we knew Mom would not leave Shaker,” she explains. “I’m of the generation that moved into new builds, so we thought finding a place in outer suburbia was what we should do, until we realized that Mom would be miserable there. In fact, our home is all about family.”
Indeed, members of Vicki’s family have been congregating there almost annually for years. Among that group have been her father, three brothers, aunts and uncles, and other extended family members, including their nephew, Mark Johnson, who lived with Vicki and James until his graduation from Shaker Heights High School in 2010.
Vicki and James reside on the second and third floors of the house, and Mattie is on the first floor. Although she didn’t know she had it in her, Vicki began what would be a major makeover of the property. “I live on HGTV,” she laughs. Her TV heroes have included Nicole Curtis from “Rehab Addict,” Chip and Joanna Gaines from “Fixer Upper,” and Jonathan and Drew Scott, “The Property Brothers.”
The project began with the removal of the ubiquitous green carpeting, which revealed wood floors that appeared to have been painted – and now are lustrously refinished. Elder later stripped many layers of orange, blue, and purple paint from all the woodwork and doors, which she also refinished. The renovation began on the second floor and took more than three years. She used contractors for the specialized work — floors, plumbing, electric, kitchen remodeling, and door relocations.
She’s done everything else herself. “I don’t really know what my design style is,” she says, “but I don’t like all of any one style. I work with a room until it feels right.” Her choice of art is also very personal. Above the fireplace in her living room is a carved copper piece from Ghana, which Vicki purchased because it represents family. A framed cloth hand-made in a South African orphanage founded by Nelson Mandela also hangs in the living room (above) to remind Vicki of Mandela’s struggle and victory.
In her office that opens to a private second floor porch hangs a painting of a mother and daughter by a Georgia artist, which reminds Vicki of the closeness she and Mattie share. A second piece, made from butterfly wings, is also from Africa. Another framed work, an image of a little girl, was purchased at a marketplace in Charleston, South Carolina. Vicki describes it as “my education.”
The market is on the site of Charleston’s infamous slave block, so the art evokes for the family a story about Elder’s mother, who at the age of six traveled from Jackson, Mississippi, with her own mother and siblings in the back of an animal truck after Vicki’s grandmother had a frightening encounter with two white men who attacked her. Vicki and James are planning a two-day visit to the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. this fall. “Our past is emotional, but it has to be remembered.”
A former bedroom on the second floor has become an exercise studio and opens onto a porch overlooking the back yard. James has his own space, which also includes a second-story porch. The kitchen was completely gutted and now features a handsome glass tile backsplash, carefully installed by the intrepid Vicki. She later repeated her handiwork in Mattie’s first-floor kitchen, using ceramic tile that complements the color of brickwork on the home’s foundation. The original leaded glass panels were left intact in the front and dining rooms on the first and second floors, and Vicki added etched glass panels to the doors next to each front room’s fireplace.
Two years ago, the transformation project on the first floor began, and is nearly finished. Vicki hired workers to remove a wall between the two back bedrooms to provide a large and quiet space for Mattie. The wall color of the dining room is inspired by a seafoam green blouse that Vicki thinks looks particularly pretty on her mother.
Another personal touch in the living room is a painting of a Dutch city, gifted by a deceased brother, who was stationed in the Netherlands during his military service, and whose daughter still lives there. Among the extraordinary features of the Hildana property is a four-car garage, which had no electricity until the Elders began their work. Now they project movies on the large, wide doors – complete with portable speakers – in the summer. They had a privacy fence installed, created two patios, one of which is “the grilling zone,” and are renovating the back porches. The back yard and driveway are framed by multiple and colorful flower arrangements in a variety of planters. While the back is hardscaped, the front yard is planted with several species of hydrangeas, hostas, a magnolia, and various perennials. It’s all kept green and lush by a sprinkler system, and provides a verdant and shady frame for the front porch.
In addition to her work on her home and her job as a business analyst with Baker & Hostetler LLP, Vicki has served as co-chair of the Moreland on the Move Community Association since 2008 and is in her second term as a citizen member of the Shaker Heights Development Corporation. James is an environmental paralegal employed by Signet Enterprises in Akron.
Regarding her home, she feels “we are making a positive impact on our community, by believing in and embracing what’s unique about our part of Shaker.” She especially loves her porches, and spends many late nights on the second story side porch. “We need that space. It’s just right for us.”
That said, she is keenly aware that many of the two-family houses in her neighborhood are not owner-occupied. In fact, “some houses are owned by people in Dubai!” One of the Moreland Association’s projects is to build relationships with the landlords abroad in an effort to help them see these houses as more than just investments and to understand that they belong to a community.
Elder is a bit wistful, given the realization that her ongoing restoration/ renovation project is coming to an end. “We talk about hiring some people to do the final work, but then I get inspired and want to handle it myself. I like knowing that I can turn something around when others think there’s nothing there. It’s very fulfilling to walk around our house today and know that we’ve done 90 percent of the work.” When asked about James’s role in the house project, Vicki describes him as a “supporting actor whose role expanded over time. This was not what he anticipated doing, but he and my brother pulled me over the finish line in this last year when I hit a wall and could not sand another piece of wood.”
The sense of family that motivated Vicki to renovate her Hildana residence is palpable and lasting. Vicki’s friends have observed that the rooms radiate safe harbor and peace. The beauty and serenity resulting from her hours and hours of work are truly what make it a splendid and nurturing home.