This historic home – one of the oldest in Shaker – seamlessly blends three centuries worth of art and architecture.
By Jennifer Kuhel
In the fall of 2010, Kathy Holcomb took her grandson for a walk-by of the Fairmount Boulevard home she and her husband, Jim, were planning to buy…
The 4,000-square-foot white clapboard Greek Revival farmhouse is one of the oldest homes in Shaker – built in 1853 – and Kathy had a good feeling about retiring there. The couple previously considered splitting their retirement days between their home in Sierra Madre, California, and a condominium in their longtime adopted home of Shaker Heights, but had second thoughts once they found this historic home, which had only two previous owners.
The house had the right amount of space (there have been several additions to the original farmhouse), it was close to Kathy’s children and grandchildren, and it had the right ambiance for the couple’s huge collection of folk art. And when Kathy saw her small grandson swaying in the backyard tree swing, she thought to herself: This is it.
Preserving the Charm
Entering the living room through the Dutch front door transports guests back in time. The room is tiny, reflecting bygone architectural sensibilities. The few embellishments include the hand-painted tiles surrounding the cast-iron hearth. But the room’s unpretentiousness appealed to Jim and Kathy. “We walked in the front door and we knew. We knew right away. It has that charm that you just don’t see,” says Jim.
The room is also festooned with some of Jim’s nautical art collection, including a 31-foot stars-and-stripes pennant that was flown from the mast of an American whaling vessel. The dark-stained original hardwood floors still gleam – there’s even a section that led to the original cellar.
The home’s overall color palette is mostly neutral, but it is hardly mundane. In fact, when it came time to paint the downstairs hallway, Kathy used the facade of a small antique drawer as her source of inspiration. She took the reddish drawer with distressed blue undertones to Kim Metheny of Metheny Weir Painted Finishes in Larchmere to see if she could replicate the color. Metheny envisioned a new application for the decorative finish she typically uses when she repaints furniture.
“We’d never used Chalk Paint by Annie Sloan on walls, but it’s great for plaster and plaster walls. It’s so perfect for older homes,” Metheny says. Despite the name, there is no chalk in the paint. Metheny explains that the paint dries with a chalky feel and then is coated and buffed with a wax that’s designed to enrich the paint color. “It takes 21 days to cure, but once it’s cured, it’s really hard and durable.
It protects the surface for years to come,” Metheny says.
The Holcombs also used Metheny Weir to finish the walls in the dining room, which were painted a cement color and share the same subtle sheen and textured look found in the hallway.
Showcasing the Collection
The house itself is a testament to the Holcomb’s appreciation for history; their collection of antiques and folk art only enhances its old-world aura. A turn-of-the-century Amish quilt from Indiana hangs in the family room. On the opposite side of the room stands an early 19th-century Federal-style corner cabinet that Jim bought in the 1970s when he was living in Syracuse, New York.
“We collect what we like. Usually, we look for a little bit of whimsy and something folk-arty,” Kathy says.
Those little bits of whimsy define the interior of the house. A hanging shadowbox of buttons worn by drug-store employees of a long-gone era ask: “Are you deaf?” On the second floor, an old carnival tossing game mounted onto the wall invites guests to reach for the scuffed numbered balls. An old voting booth from Canada – complete with white and black marbles – doubles as an end table in the rear bedroom. A rare Noah’s Ark children’s toy from the 1850s has 179 pieces and is nestled in among the couple’s cookbooks in the kitchen.
The house has a folk-art museum quality, but the Holcombs don’t have a hands-off attitude; after all, their grandchildren live nearby and are often at the house – and have more-or-less free reign. Anything fragile (such as the Noah’s Ark toy) is simply placed higher than little hands can reach.
The only room off limits to the grandchildren is the couple’s master bedroom because it holds irreplaceable memorabilia from Jim’s family, including a picture of his great-great-great grandfather, who was a captain in the Civil War union army, as well as pottery passed down in his family for generations.
Balancing Old and New
While the bones of the house are well-preserved, the Holcomb’s modern-day improvements necessarily included the kitchen and bathrooms. They replaced the kitchen sink and installed new granite countertops, and gutted and beautifully remodeled two of the bathrooms. Both projects were done with the help of Cleveland Heights interior designer Teri Johnson.
“My philosophy was to be sensitive to the fact that it was one of the oldest homes in Shaker, but to bring things a little bit into the twenty-first century,” Johnson says.
The Holcombs’ personal touch is reflected in the first-floor bathroom tiles, inspired by a tumbling block pattern they saw at the Getty Villa near Los Angeles. A playful fish sculpture made of golf tees and other odds and ends hangs above a towel rack made from an old level. A mosaic that complements the floor tiles adorns the wall of the stand-up glass shower.
The couple couldn’t be happier with their decision to return from California to Shaker Heights for their retirement. “Originally, we thought we’d live the good life out there,” Kathy says. But now, with family just around the corner and a house that’s part of local history, Kathy and Jim Holcomb have a better, fuller life at home in Shaker.
The Allure of the Sea
Part of Kathy and Jim Holcomb’s sizeable collection of Americana and folk art is built around a maritime theme, including oil paintings of sailing and steam vessels from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The vessels were real; the paintings were usually commissioned by the owner or the captain and done in highly dramatic styles to showcase the allure and beauty of the sea and of the vessels themselves.
The collection is Jim’s personal passion. He started it in 1981, when he bought an oil depicting the fi rst America’s Cup race, held in 1870. Th e painting (seen in the accompanying photos) shows the winner, the American schooner “Magic,” passing the lightship off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Lightships were used to mark the entrance to harbors – in this case, New York Bay – as well as currents, sandbars, and the like.
“I’m not quite sure why that painting so appealed to me,” Jim says. “Perhaps the drama, the lighting in the sky. Plus I had spent many summer Saturdays crewing a Lightning [a popular 19-foot single-mast racing sailboat] in yacht-club races on Cazenovia Lake in upstate New York with good friends. After I bought that first one, the hook was set.”