Inside Jeff and Melanie Stivers’ Customized Modern Home.
Upon entering the Stivers’ home, my first question was, “Is this an Isenhour house?” I was referring to the Lexington architect who designed and built over 100 contemporary homes between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. “No,” said Melanie Stivers, “But we’ve tried to make it look that way.”
They had fooled me. The clean lines, open floor plan and large windows are all recognizable hallmarks of mid-century modern architecture. But when it comes to the design of their home, the Stivers have few others to credit but themselves.
The Landsdowne property is home to Jeff Stivers, President of Ross Tarrant Architects, his wife Melanie, a Fayette County Public Schools Gifted and Talented Resource Teacher, and their youngest son, Callaway, a student at UK (their oldest son Coleman graduated and married in May and recently relocated to San Francisco). Every space in their home has been carefully considered, researched and designed for the family’s needs, wishes and lifestyle.
In this case, the word “remodel” is an understatement. Melanie explained that the home was originally built by the Cowden family in 1961. They raised their daughters there and lived there until their deaths. When the Stivers family purchased the home in February of 2014, it was a simple, straightforward ranch in original condition.
Melanie and Jeff, who lived half a mile away for the last 16 years, had been searching for a property that suited them for a long time. “We had a very specific list of requirements and knew this was the one as soon as we saw it –which was the day it listed,” she said. “I had run and walked on Westchester Drive many, many times— yet I had never even noticed this particular property.”
While the original home was not the Isenhour house of their dreams, it did have an ideal location and a lot that could support what they wanted to do. “Westchester is a lovely street, Lansdowne is a great neighborhood, and we would get established trees on a .68 acre lot. Many of the houses we looked at were larger than what we needed, while a kitchen addition would make this house just the right size,” said Melanie.
One initial challenge to overcome was the fact that the house had 8-foot ceilings throughout the main floor. Given the truss-framed roof construction, in which the ceiling height is limited by the height above the floor of the truss, modifications would be difficult. “At the showing I practically cried when I stuck my head up in the attic and saw the trusses,” Melanie remembers. As an architect, Jeff had explained to her the challenges of trying to raise ceiling heights with truss-framed construction.
But they knew that this house would be in high demand. “We were the first people to get a showing and when we heard someone else was making an offer, we raised our offer to above asking price. My husband assured me we would figure something out when it came to the trusses. He was right, but we had no idea of the unrelenting avalanche we were walking into.”
After nearly two years of planning, designing and construction, the Stivers had created a completely unique home that has left no detail unconsidered. The three-bedroom home’s footprint was significantly changed. The kitchen, screened-in porch, carport and shop (where gardening and lawn care supplies are housed) were all additions. For most of the build, they continued to live in their previous home while actively acquiring special pieces that would be the focal point of each room. They moved into the new home, which was still very much a job site, in November of 2016.
Unlike most custom builds, this one was designed around their extensive collection of mid-century modern furnishings, vintage lighting and décor, not the other way around. The result is a completely customized modern home with notable mid-century elements.
The Stivers have been attracted to the mid-century modern aesthetic for the last 20 years –before it became trendy. In the early days of Craigslist, they started collecting affordable pieces. “In those days, Craigslist was such a wonderful resource for beautiful and reasonably priced finds,” said Melanie. “It was the first platform people had as a free way to get stuff out of their basements or to clear out aging parents’ homes. Prior to Craigslist, I bought things from the Classified ads in the Herald Leader.” Additionally, many pieces were acquired at 20th Century Cincinnati, an annual modern design show, as well as great local shops like Scout Antiques and Modern and Street Scene.
From the moment you walk in the door, the family room, dining room and kitchen all flow seamlessly into one another to create a space that is expansive but not overwhelming. In the family room, an oversized arched globe lamp hangs above a semicircular sofa. Eclectic art lines the walls.
The large console, which takes up most of the left side wall of the family room, was a Craigslist find from Knoxville, Tennessee. The owner purchased in Germany, back when the military paid to have items shipped overseas. The pendant lights over the dining room table were originally in a church.
In the far right corner, a bar has been set up with a vintage hutch that has been deconstructed, mounted on the wall and illuminated from behind, a technique they have used with a few other pieces.
The art, furnishings and views into the landscape are enhanced with a neutral color palette. They used Sherwin Williams paint throughout, including “Snowbound”, a flat white, for the interior. For the exterior, they used “Gauntlet Grey” and “Cordovan” for the front door. The only splash of color provided by paint is “Determined Orange” which appears on an exposed steel beam that runs through every room in the lower level. This same burnt orange is repeated in the garden on lawn cushions, a gazing ball and in the plants themselves.
Without a doubt, the solarium between the family room and kitchen is a show-stopping focal point. The impact of this 10’x10’ glassed-in space, landscaped and open to the elements, cannot be overstated. Aside from its obvious beauty, it provides an abundance of natural light. “Even after living here for a couple years, I am still startled by the complexity and sheer beauty of certain views”, said Melanie. “The solarium puts the first blooms of spring literally inches away so I notice subtle changes in the natural world, even during winter when I’m not outdoors everyday.” She went on to explain that when snow is falling, views of the garden on all four sides of the kitchen create the sensation of being in a reverse snow globe –as if she is inside a glass bubble and snow is falling all around her. “It is quite a magical experience and something we didn’t necessarily anticipate.”
The Stivers cook and entertain frequently, so they wanted a kitchen that had the square footage and convenience factors to accommodate that. The cabinetry was designed by Kim Bragg of Kim Studio and built by Josh Gregory of Gregory Designs. The quartz countertops were fabricated and installed by GJ Gerard of Counter Culture Plus. They purchased the Thermador appliance package in Cincinnati.
The kitchen and bath counters are built at 39 inches to suit the tall family. A culinary garden is only steps from the kitchen sink, so vegetables and herbs are quickly accessible during meal preparation. The family follows a plant-based diet so much of their food is fresh. Thus, they have a large amount of compostable leftovers, so the compost bin is located just a few steps away from the kitchen, yet out of sight. The kitchen also showcases their collection of vintage glassware and serving pieces.
During the rebuild, the home’s original three bedrooms were transformed into a master suite, including a laundry room, master bedroom, bath and walk-in closet. Jeff mentioned that conservation and eco-friendly practices are very important to them, so they have zoned the HVAC to conserve resources rather than heating or cooling spaces they may not be regularly using. “When we retire for the evening, our thermostats are programmed to condition only the master suite. We installed a geothermal unit and used all LED lights to conserve resources,” he said.
Notable features here include Velux skylights that open and close, complete with rain sensors. “They were such a success,” said Melanie. “They make a huge difference in light and ventilation. On nice days we leave them open and it feels like we’re at the beach.” The ceiling fans by Big Ass Solutions help as well. Jeff designed all the built-in shelving in the home, adding architectural elements for function and character.
Melanie said that to create a three-way dressing mirror, a special request of hers, she visited Fayette Mall looking for dressing rooms with the best angles. Later, Jeff measured them to create both a beautiful focal point and practical dressing area. It’s one of Melanie’s favorite aspects of her bedroom.
The lower level of the home is designed as a comfortable guest space for visitors, which may soon include their sons and their families.
Said Jeff, “This is the third house we have owned in our 30-year marriage and we plan for it to be our ‘forever house’. The space in the basement is separated so we do not have to heat, cool or even walk past this space when we’re not using it. To the extent that we could, we designed the house so we can ‘age in place’- no steps on the main floor and wide doorways that are wheelchair accessible.”
The lower level has a number of interesting features, including glass panels on the ceiling that broadcast natural light from the solarium upstairs. Solar-tubes in the bathrooms bring additional natural light to the interior of the space.
The carpeting in the basement, as well as in much of the rest of the home, was purchased from a company called Flor. They ordered samples, which were then incorporated into existing Flor carpet from their old home in a tile pattern. The result is a repurposed, modular product that coordinates perfectly with the new space.
The burnt orange shade is also echoed in a vintage Adrean Pearsall chair that Melanie scored many years ago from a Lexington woman who originally won it on the television game show, “Let’s Make a Deal” in 1961. “The lady kept this great chair under a quilt in her basement that whole time,” said Melanie. “It just wasn’t her style, so it’s in mint condition with the original fabric.”
Since they were designing the entire home from scratch, they took the opportunity to select materials based on quality, not size. This allowed them to use high-end building materials for a fraction of the cost. For example, the doors to the boys’ bedrooms were purchased at the Habitat for Humanity Restore. Jeff explained that the solid wood door with translucent glass insert was probably cut out of an office during a renovation. “Between hardware, the walnut trim and the glass, you are looking at over a thousand dollars worth of materials,” he explained. “The asking price at the Restore at the time was $150.” Most builders would reject the door based on its unusual size, but they just created the frames to accommodate it.
Outside, the home’s flow for entertaining continues with plenty of destinations in the yard for private conversation or groups to gather. The size of the lot and thoughtful design allowed them to create several outdoor “rooms” and views that surprise as one moves through the house and garden.
Melanie and Jeff have been gardening and collecting plants for the entire 30 years they have been married. Early on, due to limited finances, the garden grew through the incorporation of divisions and cuttings from older, more seasoned gardeners. These appear in every border and “put on a reliably wonderful summer show”.
The vintage fireplace on the screened-in porch (constructed by Andy McChord of Prajna) is equipped with gas logs and heats up quickly with the click of a remote, so they can enjoy breakfast on a brisk fall morning, even if they have only a few moments to linger.
“One of my favorite things is walking around our yard and looking at our plants each day,” she said. “In a few weeks, Black Eyed Susans will be the stars of the yard.” In an interesting twist, Melanie says she never actually bought those flowers. Like so many of their plants, the Black Eyed Susans came from cuttings shared by the late turf specialist Dr. AJ Powell, and his wife Janie, almost thirty years ago. These flowers have been divided many times and have moved with the family to all three of their homes.
Many of their plants share this same friendship heritage. Some came from Melanie’s grandmother’s garden, and some from their home’s first and only prior owner, Gertrude Cowden.
While they reconstructed the house, Melanie spent most of one spring and summer picking up a few good men from the Hope Center to transplant favorites from their previous home to their new one. “Our initial rag-tag landscaping crew created new beds and situated everything under my direction. It wasn’t so much a design build project as a design-on-the fly sort of experience,” said Melanie. She added, “We couldn’t have done it without our wonderful excavator, Dale Perdue, who used his machines to move larger trees and shrubs from the old house and helped rearrange large plants already in this yard. The two-tiered landscaping walls were built using concrete blocks leftover from a commercial job. More recently, Jose Roblero finished edging all the beds with pavers which provides clean visual lines outside to match the inside.”
Their current garden blends the previous homeowners pieces with their 30-year plant collection, with a few new purchases to round out the design. “Our garden, in its current iteration is a labor of love which I personally enjoy every bit as much as the house. While my husband and I both know the business end of a yard tool, he isn’t the plant nerd that I am. He just supports my gardening addiction.”
Their “master garden” is in its’ final planning stage and will soon be fitted with an outdoor shower and all-white blooming plants, which can be enjoyed at night from their bedroom, bathroom and the solarium hallway. Their Honeywell Eco-timers are programed to make all of their art and landscaping lights come on and go off each evening so that “It looks like we are having a party every night, not just sometimes.” The LED backlit address number “brings a touch of South Beach to Lexington,” as Melanie put it.
Looking back on the entire process from design to construction to finishing touches, Melanie and Jeff agree that while the project was a success, they had no idea what they’d signed up for.
When asked about her favorite part of the construction process, Melanie said, “Honestly, being finished was the best part. Anyone who thinks construction will be entertaining or enjoyable has never been part of it. As time passes, you forget how exhausted you were for months on end and it begins to feel like it was worth it. But when you are in the midst of it, you really question if the payoff can ever equal the pain. An affair with a house really is that brutal.”
Her father, now a retired UK professor, has built over 35 homes in the Lexington area, the first when she was in grade school, so she grew up on construction sites and going to open houses. “Even though my father encouraged me to maintain perspective while we worked on this project, it was difficult to step back from any single detail and think, this won’t really matter,” she remembers. “Every surface, every function, every material seemed to require in-depth research and there just weren’t ever enough hours in the day. Now I truly understand what DIY really means. Construction is unbelievably hard.”
And Jeff’s take? “There were many, many challenging aspects to designing and executing this project. While we were certainly our own worst enemies (it is much easier if you just do what everyone else has done before), we underestimated by quite a large margin just how difficult and time-consuming the construction process was going to be. It was a whole job unto itself that had to be squeezed in around our normal day-to-day lives, which already seemed pretty full.”
He advises anyone considering a significant construction project to hire an architect. “Too often, clients and builders see design services as an easy target for budget savings. But the value that architects bring to the process, working closely with a skilled professional builder, is significant. It’s the difference between an off-the-shelf solution and a tailor-made solution designed for a specific individual.”
What really brings the Stivers home together is the high level of detail and coordination. As self-described perfectionists, the couple attempted to think of literally everything before acting on it. Every piece of construction, from the location of a wall or an opening in the floor, is coordinated with every finish and furnishing. Every switch is located where they decided it would be. The proportions and dimensions of items such as guardrails are echoed in window patterns. While this level of detail may not be immediately apparent, they believe it all adds to a cohesive whole. And they are correct. Even someone who knows nothing about architecture or design can see that the home just looks “right”.
“My favorite thing about the house project is my husband,” said Melanie. “He calls me ‘the client’. He is very much the architect, the designer, the problem solver. He designs what I want even when I cannot articulate what I want, and he has beautifully incorporated every vintage find I’ve hauled in.”
Added Jeff: “This house is such a complete and thorough reflection of who we are —it is as unique as we are.”
The House Team:
architect: Jeff Stivers
general project managers: Jeff + Melanie Stivers
kitchen design: Kim Bragg, Kim Studio
kitchen/bath cabinets: Josh Gregory, Gregory Designs
countertops: Counter Culture Plus
roofing/skylight/decks + fencing: Mose + Sheila Roberts
screen porch: Andy McChord, Praina
framing: Dewayne Napier
sound system design/install: Coleman Stivers
finish carpentry: Jarboe Construction
concrete: Murray’s Concrete Construction
kitchen tile install: One Pro Construction
bath tile install: Straight Line Tile
tile supplier: Louisville Tile
shower enclosure glass: Showcase Showers
hardwood floors: The Flooring Gallery
carpets: Flor Tiles
upholstery: Bob Wallace
solatubes: Jim Klausing, Transitions
interior screen walls/custom builds: Jeff Egelston
plumbing: Kings Helper
geo-thermal HVAC: Engineered Heating + Air
electrical: Lynn Cole
concrete landscaping wall: Shawn McCollum
landscape edging/large plant install: Jose Roblero
excavating: Dale Perdue
brick: Mondelli Masonry
windows/doors: Phoenix Door + Glass
Furniture: Scout Antiques + Modern