Ron Reed and Vince Leskosky are not simply carrying the evolution of Shaker Heights residential architecture into the 21st Century, but helping redefine how we use the space in our homes.
By Michael Peters
Traveling east on Van Aken Boulevard, whether by car or Rapid, you might be forgiven for allowing the scenery to pass by without much thought. On countless occasions you’ve seen the mix of classic Tudors and post-war Colonials that morph into the brick apartments and condominiums as you get closer to the end of the line at the Van Aken District.
Then a burst of red catches your eye on the left. Just a streak, just enough to get your attention. Is that new? It can’t be new, and it can’t be in Shaker Heights, can it? But it is – and it’s very much Shaker Heights.
The passing glance may read “modern,” but quickly you see the classic Shaker Heights elements: the three-part stucco, just like on the century house next door; the shingle-style siding seen on many of the neighborhood’s Colonials; and the graceful chimney mirroring the same lines of the neighboring house. Inspired by the classic New England Saltbox Colonial, with its asymmetrical sloping roofline, one corner has been carved away for a screened motor court, a classic feature seen on many of the homes on Parkland Drive around the corner.
This outward simplicity, or at least the perception of simplicity, belies the complexity of its context: how it fits into its surroundings, the neighborhood, and the culture of the larger community.
A Daring Streak of Red
In the summer of 1924, the architect Bloodgood Tuttle submitted his plans for a house on Van Aken near the Lynnfield Road Rapid station, which then was the last stop on the Blue Line running along the thoroughfare. The house was commissioned by The Van Sweringen Company as one of their “demonstration homes,” meant to drive lot sales in the area and, importantly, exemplify the expectations for single-family homes in Shaker Heights.
Just two years after Tuttle’s home went up, architect Abram Garfield, the youngest son of the slain president, submitted his plans for a house around the corner from Tuttle’s, on Parkland Drive. Where Tuttle’s French Provincial design – “from the shores of Brittany” as the advertisement for it crowed – was meant to draw attention, Garfield produced a modest Tudor Revival for a young lawyer and his family.
Both architects found steady work in Shaker over the next decade. The demonstration homes were a success, and Shaker’s population skyrocketed from 1,700 in 1920 to nearly 18,000 in 1930, so there was plenty of work to go around. While Tuttle passed away in 1936, Garfield would have a long career into the 1950s, and his firm grew to include several additional partners and expanded into commercial buildings (including the City Hall Annex).
That firm continues today as DLR Westlake Reed Leskosky, one of the oldest architectural firms in the country. So perhaps it is ironic that Ronald Reed and Vincent Leskosky, two of the principals of the firm started by Abram Garfield, designed their new home, with its daring exterior streak of red, next to Tuttle’s still-standing 1924 demonstration home.
The Evolution of Architecture in Shaker
Reed and Leskosky met as architecture students at Kent State University. “Our thesis prof hired us at a small office in Shaker Square, so after we graduated we moved up here,” Leskosky says.
Reed continues, “I didn’t have a car and needed the Rapid just to get around. So ultimately we came to the conclusion, we’re probably going to stay in Cleveland.” Reed and Leskosky became long-time Shaker residents, eventually settling into a home on Townley Road.
The two are not simply carrying the evolution of Shaker Heights residential architecture into the 21st Century, but helping to redefine how we use the space in our homes. For example, the interior has well-defined rooms, yet feels open and flowing. “You discover things as you go through the house, but the spaces are the conventional spaces you’d expect to find in a house,” says Reed.
The ground floor is the public realm and opens to a backyard, with swimming pool, that extends the entertaining areas. Compact and serene, it is highlighted by a black and white Zen garden.
The second floor is devoted to personal space: bedrooms and a loft-like lounge that overlooks the living room. Everything is connected by a staircase that offers glimpses into various rooms, brings light into the center of the house, and turns what is often a utilitarian function – stairs – into an art gallery space.
Reed and Leskosky are not simply carrying the evolution of Shaker Heights residential architecture into the 21st Century, but helping to redefine how we use the space in our homes.
The ability to display their expansive art collection in an appropriate setting was where the design approach incorporated more contemporary elements. As Leskosky explains, “Almost every wall has been planned out to what art goes where.”
And those walls are not always walls.
“The big thing architecturally is that we have these walls that don’t go to the ceiling, that don’t go to the corner. They’re doing a lot of different things: creating views, playing on light; they’re making special places for art.”
“It’s about displaying art in a museum-quality setting,” Reed says, standing against a charcoal black wall. In fact, nearly everything in the house is white or black, even the bath fixtures. The exception is the aforementioned exterior element, the long red beam that extends over the garage and the custom main entry door, peeking into the interior only through that door. “The color comes from the art” Reed says.
Fusing an art gallery onto a home led to another of the house’s distinguishing features: a twelve foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling window in each of the main rooms. Reed and Leskosky’s former home, a Colonial on Townley Road, had multiple windows in each room, on every exterior wall – common in many traditional styles. When contemplating the design for the windows, Reed considered how the commercial-grade expanse would impact the occupants.
“The spatial experience is completely different when you don’t have a wall under a window, as most homes do,” he says. “Typically you lose the ground plane. But here the floor and ceiling are both continuously glass-lined so it’s much more panoramic.”
The effect of the wall of glass is particularly pronounced in the kitchen. Facing north, like an artist’s studio, the light reflects off the white Zen garden rocks and the surface of the swimming pool just steps away. It’s fitting for the room that Leskosky uses for yet another creative outlet, cooking. (He is also an accomplished painter.)
Leveraging their experience designing Zack Bruell’s restaurants, the kitchen was inspired by a commercial kitchen layout; Leskosky frequently hosts dinner parties for friends and family. Taking another cue from their former home, the central feature is not an island but a chef’s table Leskosky designed.
“I don’t like the idea of counter dining, I want my feet on the floor. So we did a chef’s table – dining room height with regular dining room chairs.”
It is not, however, an open kitchen; the two prefer the kitchen and formal dining area to be well defined, allowing their guests to enjoy the custom table in the dining room.
This level of detail, of thought, and of how the space will be used was the result of years of planning and preparation. The lot was purchased in the fall of 2016, and the builder, Triple E Construction, broke ground in late 2018. The intervening period allowed Reed and Leskosky to refine their designs for their “forever house.” Aside from the practical considerations (there is an elevator serving the three levels), it allowed them to retain the elements that worked well in their former traditional home on Townley (the living and dining rooms configuration) while addressing the areas they knew they needed (a mudroom with coat storage).
The result is space that works effortlessly for two or twenty, intimate and inviting for friends and family while not overwhelming in scale.
The True Value of Our Homes
In 1923, the Van Sweringen Company produced a 48-page sales pamphlet for their development titled “The Heritage of the Shakers.” The back cover is a sort of prose poem called “What the House Must Give to My Home.” It describes the characteristics and virtues of a Shaker Heights home, and while parts are reflective of society a hundred years ago, much of the intention still resonates. It begins, “A lot of morning sunshine through windows large enough to empty all the darkness.”
A few lines down it continues, “Dignity enough in its appointments to make us proud of it; yet such freedom from formality that friends are eager to come and loth to leave.” (Download a PDF version of the entire, original inscription.) These characteristics remind us of the true value of our homes, and are very clearly embodied in the home Reed and Leskosky have designed and built. It’s irrelevant whether a home is modern or traditional, with leaded glass or a formal entry. It’s only important that the house is a home for those who live in it, in a community that supports them.
Asked why they decided to remain in Shaker Heights, when they could have built their house anywhere, Reed was quick to answer.
“About five years ago we said okay, we’re going to stay in this area, but we’re not staying in this house on Townley Road. So we cast a wider net: Would we like the West Side, would we like further out? And the more we thought about it, we said no. One thing about Shaker Heights is of course the architecture. As an architect how can you not love that?”
“But the real thing about Shaker Heights is the people. That’s the addiction. The people are what makes Shaker Heights amazing. It’s very much a live-and-let-live community. The neighborhoods in which we’ve lived have been very friendly, closely-knitted communities where everyone looks out for their neighbors. How could you live anywhere but here? You are never going to find this kind of energy anywhere but Shaker Heights.”