Inspired design and attention to detail transform a family home into a masterpiece.
By Michael Peters
When Mark and Sara Midkiff relocated to Shaker Heights from Greenwich, Connecticut last year, they found a house that had been cared for, renovated a few times, and located on one of Shaker’s most beautiful tree-lined blocks.
But something was missing.
The house on South Park Boulevard was originally built on land that Grace Carran purchased directly from The Van Sweringen Company. Grace and her husband William agreed to spend “not less than Fifty Thousand and 00/100 Dollars” to construct the house, designed by long-time Shaker Heights architect Maxwell Norcross. It was completed in 1929.
A house in this location, for that cost (over $730,000 today), would boast numerous decorative elements often seen in homes of that period. Those seemingly irreplaceable details are an important part of what often distinguishes a Shaker Heights home. This sense of character was not just a sign of the period, but was effectively ensured by the requirements of The Van Sweringen Company.
Time can take its toll on a house in many ways, sometimes due to the elements and neglect, but also the whims of trends and fashions. When the Midkiff s purchased the house, they discovered that one of the renovations had done away with the features commonly seen in a house of this pedigree: no custom plasterwork, interesting wall coverings, or decorative fixtures – subtle details that add character to a home.
Fortunately, local designer Nikki Pulver was engaged to reimagine the home by pulling inspiration from the past, the present, and the homeowners themselves.
Inspired By Haute Couture
The dilemma the Midkiffs faced is not unusual in a city where many homes are nearing their 100th anniversary. While some owners go to great lengths to retain the character of their homes as they renovate them, others opt to update in a more contemporary manner, sometimes for the look, sometimes because it’s easier, and sometimes because it’s more cost-effective.
Shaker Heights also has homes that remain with a family for decades. This was one of those homes, with William and Phyllis Evans purchasing it from William Harshaw, its second owner, in 1951. William Evans worked for the family business, Diamond Alkali (later Diamond Shamrock) and Phyllis contributed her time to charitable causes, including the Cleveland Ballet and the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes (whose original building was also designed by Norcross). In 2003, several years after William’s passing and 52 years after purchasing it, Phyllis sold the home.
Nikki Pulver was familiar with the 9,000 square-foot home. She had decorated some of the rooms for the family that sold the house to the Midkiff s (the house had four different owners between 2003 and 2018). After the sale Sara contacted Nikki to continue her work. As Nikki explains, “The goal was a sophisticated, continental style with a light touch” using inspiration from couture fashion without being “too flamboyant or showy.”
This attention to detail and materials, reflecting back on the home’s classic character but with a thoroughly contemporary take, was likewise inspired by fashion. In a manner similar to the care a tailor or dressmaker would use to create a perfectly fitting piece, Nikki orchestrated local artisans to create the type of finishes and furnishings that would fit both the house and the owners.
A Metaphoric Teeter-Totter
This is obvious from the moment a visitor arrives and enters the living room with its custom plaster ceiling work. As Nikki describes the inspiration and process: “All white ceilings are a missed opportunity and the living room was calling for a grand gesture. A traditional floral motif was the inspiration, but I wanted it to feel fresh and fun.”
Along with her business partner, master carpenter Gerald Kazmir, Nikki scaled out a supersized flower, and repeated the motif down the length of the room. The plaster workers cast each piece in their shop. Once onsite, they penciled out the design, taking care to line it up perfectly.
“It looked like a giant geometry math fair project,” Nikki says. “One by one, each petal arc was set, sanded, and filled. The ceiling is painted a satiny lavender, highlighting the plaster work.”
This modern take on a classic detail – the decorative plaster ceiling – connects the room to both the past and present; the room feels elegant but not old-fashioned, current but not trendy. This juxtaposition continues into the adjoining dining room, which features a tufted banquette, spaced nail heads on the chairs, and passementerie trimmed pillows. These embellishments are off set by more casual navy grasscloth walls.
The dining room also features one of the more striking art installations – a quartz and selenite angel wing sculpture surrounded by stars. The piece is both decorative and serves to brighten the windowless room. “It was constructed by a young artist from Mississippi,” Nikki says. “She used architectural salvage from European cathedrals and chateaux to make up the stars.”
“Art plays a big role in the home’s decorative story,” Nikki says. A glass blower from Dayton created colorful glass platters in a blue and orange palette that Nikki mounted on the walls of the family room.
Art and the artistry of decorative finishes are a unifying theme throughout the house. Many of the pieces were commissioned directly by Nikki, from furnishings to paintings throughout the ground floor. Nikki says 12 different wall coverings were used throughout, “from custom block prints to mica-fl ecked paper, to mylar, and marbled versions, all adding rich layers to walls and ceilings.”
These layers, the old-world artistry, and the overall approach are perhaps best exemplified in the master suite. Th e master bedroom is highly ornamental with blue, pearlized Venetian plaster walls and a shimmery silver ceiling.
“My decorative painter applied over 3,000 silver leaves to the vaulted ceiling – an ancient technique that simply cannot be replicated with paint,” says Nikki. “We tempered these lustrous fi nishes with tailored, linen stripe drapery panels in a casual ticking stripe. My work is a metaphoric teeter-totter, balancing opulent with more casual elements. Even the entrance to the master suite has fanciful magnolias handprinted on a more rustic grasscloth.”
A design in this manner, sometimes referred to as “transitional” in that it does not strictly adhere to restoring a home to its original design but is also not unabashedly modern, is increasingly seen in Shaker Heights renovations. While there are many examples of kitchens designed using this approach, extending it throughout a house is considerably more challenging. Th is challenge did not daunt Sara Midkiff and Nikki Pulver, who collaborated to elevate and adapt the style to create a comfortable, contemporary home that retains its classic Shaker Heights grand character.