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Whispers of European elegance adorn historic home

Rochester Business Journal
May 30, 2008
Stepping away from bustling modern traffic into a historic home in the Mount Hope Preservation District evokes an immediate sense of refined comfort that whispers echoes of 19th century European elegance.

First impressions of historical author Richard Reisem and interior designer Josef Johns' home are striking from floor to ceiling. The entrance hall welcomes visitors with intricate teak herringbone parquet flooring, painstakingly patterned by hand more than 30 years ago, that calls to mind images of Old World Russia. The ceiling stretches to a statuesque height of nine-and-a-half feet.

In the adjoining living and dining rooms, set against a restful palette of muted olive green striped wallpaper, hangs an impressive collection of gilded framed paintings, engravings and watercolors spanning three centuries.

The dining area commands attention with an unusual focal point: a French Directoire period crystal candle chandelier, originally designed for a ballroom in Madrid circa 1795-1799, that has never been electrified. The addition of this piece many years ago helped establish the tone for an older, more European atmosphere throughout the home.

Historic roots

In contrast to its current splendor, the modest brick house had humble beginnings. Built in 1868 during a period of economic growth and expansion for Rochester in the wake of the Civil War, it originally sold for $5,500.

It is one of three nearly identical houses constructed on land parceled off from the lush grounds of the Ellwanger and Barry nursery at the beginning of the horticulturalists' entry into the real estate market. The architect was Andrew J. Warner, whose other Rochester works include the Powers Building, the original City Hall and the First Presbyterian Church.

Constructed into a hill, the home was designed as a townhouse with three stories: kitchen and dining rooms on the garden level, parlors and library on the main floor and bedrooms upstairs. The facade features Gothic Revival detailing, including peaked windows with slender wooden muntins holding individual panes of glass and distinctive Victorian-era gables.

While maintaining the structure's historic integrity over the last 40 years of ownership, Reisem and Johns have transformed the house into a modern, elegant home. Their formidable and complementary professional talents in historical architecture and design have helped create an ambience the owners like to call "cozy grandeur."

"As a former member of the Rochester Preservation Board, I am interested in maintaining and adapting buildings for our use today while preserving a quality of historic significance," Reisem says. "That interest complements the interior design talents that Josef brings."

Reisem often is referred to as Rochester's unofficial historian. A longtime resident who settled here after studying architecture, history and journalism at Iowa State University, Reisem has authored many books featuring the area's history and architecture, from Mount Hope Cemetery to the Erie Canal.

His most recent work, "Historic New York: Architectural Journeys in the Empire State," was published in October 2006 by the Landmark Society of Western New York Inc. Reisem serves as a member of the board of trustees at the Landmark Society. He also is an active member and trustee of the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Johns, an interior designer and decorative painter, specializes in the "sympathetic treatment" of older houses. Educated in fine art at SUNY Buffalo and design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, he provided the creative eye and fine craftsmanship for a multitude of distinguishing design details throughout the home.

One such unique design element was created by the use of a technique that mimics the look of natural marble by adeptly layering paint in matte and textured patterns.

Johns applied the marbling technique to baseboards throughout the house and to a desk in his study. The technique is perhaps most dramatic on the walls in the downstairs hallway, creating trompe l'oeil marble panels. In stark contrast to the amateur do-it-yourself kits available today, Johns' marbling is like a work of art that defies detection as anything other than the real deal.

Creative influence

Together, Reisem and Johns restored the home to its previous grandeur while creating a modern and eminently livable environment. Former owners had moved the kitchen and dining rooms up to the main floor from their original location downstairs at garden level. Reisem and Johns remodeled the kitchen in 1991 with glass-front cabinets and wallpaper that is a reproduction of a late 1700s design.

They further transformed the downstairs rooms into an office, still covered by the original kitchen tin ceiling, and a charming sitting room overlooking a small garden bounded by a traditional gothic style wooden fence.

Other small changes, such as removing the doors that previously separated the living and dining rooms to create a more appealing open floor plan, reflect their desire to live comfortably in a practical working home, not a historical museum.

"Today you want to be able to see from one room into another, and the open layout creates a less claustrophobic feeling," Johns says. "Plus, we don't have servants to fling the doors open and announce that dinner is served!"

Adds Reisem: "The wonderful thing is that this house is so old and has retained many of its original features, yet it is very comfortable and livable today. We use all three floors and we're in all the rooms every day."

The result is a living space that is part St. Petersburg's Hermitage, part country cottage. Inspiration came from many sources, most notably from frequent trips to England that the "unabashed anglophiles"-a term Johns uses for Rei-sem and himself-have taken through the years.

"Our taste and interests developed gradually as a result of those annual trips," Reisem says.

But perhaps the single most creative influence came from Sir John Soane, a visionary 19th century British architect whose London museum was a regular destination on the pair's European excursions. Reisem and Johns were so taken by Soane's sense of style that they undertook a major construction project some 12 years ago to create a library off the main entrance hall. Designed by Johns, the room evokes the color scheme and architectural details of Soane's London home.

Affectionately referred to as the Red Library because of the stippled Pompeiian red walls, the room that previous owners built by enclosing the front porch stands distinctively apart from the rest of the house.

Arched alcoves on facing sides of the room-one deep, the other shallow-create three-dimensional backdrops for antique architectural engravings and Rei-sem's desk on one wall and an abstract painting on the other.

As the eye follows the arches' gentle upward slope, the truly remarkable feature of this room reveals itself: a raised compartmented ceiling adorned with wooden beadwork comprising more than 3,000 miniature wooden balls, outlining the ceiling ribs like a delicate string of pearls. In the center is a large plaster rosette, designed in the spirit of an original ceiling ornament in Soane's home.

Johns' love of symmetry prompted the construction of a pair of bookcases flanking Reisem's work area. Unfortunately, the presence of a brick exterior wall on the left side made it impossible to achieve perfectly identical results with real shelves.

Instead, he designed ingenious faux shelves by sawing off the spines of about 50 hardcover books, plus an entire set of bargain-priced encyclopedia, and gluing them to panels that were then affixed to hide the wall. He used the same technique to disguise an ordinary file cabinet, which now virtually disappears into the bookcase.

Johns notes that although the room is small, no more than 12 feet by 12 feet, it feels larger because of the raised ceiling. This "illusion of size," he says, is a recurring theme throughout the house.

"In today's 'McMansion' sensibility of building vast houses, this house is a shoebox in comparison," Johns says. "It sustains an illusion of size because of the way it has been furnished with a lot of big objects, and by creating a certain unity from room to room.

"It's all about fooling the eye into making it feel grander than it is. We like to describe it as our 'big small house.'"

Susan Cergol is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

05/30/08 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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