Lee W. Robinson is known for the gift of turning the ordinary into impeccable. As the owner of Lee W. Robinson Company, a full-service design firm in Louisville, his talent has touched a wide variety of client’s homes. He has the innate ability to see the value of the space and rise to the challenge of transforming it into a work of art. That talent exceeds expectation when it is his own family home.
Every house tells a story, but some have more stories to tell. Malvern House, a historic home in Louisville, exudes good Southern charm and a deep family history that spans multiple generations. Lee’s children are the sixth generation to live in the home. Its story isn’t finished and Lee along with his wife Babs, have made it their mission to continue its legacy.
The land for Malvern House was acquired by George Gaulbert, the great-great-grandfather of current resident Babs Rodes Robinson. Gaulbert, a Louisville businessman, acquired the property in the 1890s. He was the founder of the Peaslee-Gaulbert Corporation, one of the largest paint manufacturers in the country, inventors of ready-mix paint. This company is credited with helping to rebuild the South after reconstruction by enabling people to paint their own homes. Originally, the piece of property stretched from Brownsboro Road to the Ohio River. (While the property still overlooks the river, a large portion of it was sold to create Interstate 71.) It totaled three square miles, which at the time was one-tenth of Jefferson County.
George and Hattie Gaulbert did not build a house on the property. Their only child, Carrie Gaulbert Cox – Babs’ great grandmother - and her husband, local businessman Attilla Cox, Jr., actually built Malvern House. They hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in Manhattan and all of Louisville’s park system, to design the landscaping. Then famed New York architect Ogden Codman, Jr., was hired to design their house. Codman had previously designed The Breakers, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and Kykuit, owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Codman’s work on Malvern House for the Cox family would be the only project he ever did in Kentucky.
Codman completed his design of the house in 1914, but the house was not finished until 1922. Carrie and Attilla Cox, Jr., had one daughter, Harriett Cox who married, John Collis. Harriett and John raised their daughters at Malvern including Babs’s mother, Barbara Collis. In the 1960’s Harriett, Babs’ grandmother, reduced the size of the home significantly, removing 8,000 square feet, including the entire third floor. Babs grew up over the hill from Malvern House where her grandmother lived until her death in 1992. The home was then sold to a non-family member, Helen Combs, former wife of Kentucky Governor, Bert Combs. Babs and Lee purchased the home from Mrs. Combs in 2007.
Babs and Lee were always hopeful they would one day own Malvern House and when the opportunity presented itself, they were thrilled to be in possession of an important piece of her family history. With his hands in a variety of design projects, one wonders how Lee’s ideas transitioned into his own personal space.
“This was a labor of love taking two years to complete as it needed a lot of work and updating since it had been empty for a time."
“My favorite room is the foyer because it truly is unlike anything seen in Kentucky. It is very French. Something you might see in Paris,” says Lee. A grand, marble staircase allows for a stylish settee to linger on the landing. Designed as a rectangle and spanning forty-five feet in length, the space is anchored by black-and-white marble floors, accentuated with limestone block walls and brightened by a lavish chandelier. It is the prelude to what guests will experience upon entering the rest of the home.
The kitchen features two large islands with an inset TV so the family can watch while they cook.
“Babs had her memories of the home and, of course, there were family photographs that we could use to help implement our vision,” Lee explains. He was able to transform a small utilitarian kitchen and servants’ dining quarters into a modern kitchen along with converting a screened-in porch into a stunning music room all the while honoring the legacy of the home. He accomplished all of this while still paying homage to the integrity of the home.
The grandness of the dining room certainly emulates the days of long ago. Much of the furniture used in this space has been in the family for generations. Lee added the chandelier to continue the elegant theme along with silk Shantung fabric that is threaded throughout the room. He opted to use antique breakfast tables instead of the traditional sideboards for their dual functionality. They can be pulled out and joined with the dining room table to comfortably accommodate twenty-four guests. A Chinese chest on stand, an English piece, is original to the home and resides in the same place it has been for over ninety years. The dining room table has a bit of its own story. Once belonging to the Williams Shallcross Speed family – William was the son of James Breckinridge Speed who is the namesake of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville - who were close friends with Babs’s great-grandparents, the dining room table carries significant fondness in finding a place in this home.
Ogden Codman, Jr., the original architect of the home, was known for a treatise that he co-wrote with famous author Edith Wharton. Published in 1897, the treatise, entitled The Decoration of Houses, which Lee refers to as the “bible for interior design”, outlined specific rules for the proper planning and finishing of interior residential spaces. All of these elements were put into play in the design of the Malvern House. Lee also blended his own design components, using fresh fabrics to rejuvenate furnishings, and windows and gravitating to other color palettes that were less formal than what was originally used. Interestingly enough, Codman didn’t use chandeliers in the home, instead he gravitated to wall sconces. Lee changed that dynamic by adding elegant chandeliers to intensify the luxurious feel.
A wide variety of well-known artists are featured throughout the drawing room where comfort and elegance blend. The art includes works by Pablo Picasso, Mary Cassatt, Anthony van Dyck, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Reuven Rubin and many more. “The art we had inherited really set the tone for this room. Instead of going traditional and only using the built-in bookcases for books, we decided to incorporate a collection of porcelain handed down through Babs’ family, like dessert sets that are no longer being used, and we mixed them in with the books. This allowed for pops of color to be integrated.”
The morning room - as it is brightened by the morning light each day - is an opulent space that showcases art and collectibles that have been in the family for generations. Art complements the mahogany paneled walls from an old English estate. The entire room was disassembled in England and moved piece by piece into Malvern House. Each piece of art is a storyteller. Many pieces in the house are reminiscent of their travels, visits with notables and other cherished memories. Lee’s desk resides in the back with the television at the other end of the room cleverly hidden away in an antique armoire. Period altar sticks are creatively transformed into lamps.
The windows feature stained glass panels from the 1500s.
Stark wallpaper layers the walls in the music room. “This is where we could really add some color. We wanted this to lend itself to a party vibe. This room is really inspired by the party pavilions of the 1920s,” says Lee. Formerly a screened-in porch, Lee created a bright and airy space that is filled with light and a piano ready to entertain. Black and white marble floors and Oriental influences lend a sophisticated yet livable vibe to the room.
Codman designed not one but two separate guest bathrooms on the first floor, similar to a private club which Lee used as a canvas to create visually alluring spaces. The ladies’ bathroom is elegant and refined. It includes a sophisticated sit-down vanity, mirrored panels and a chandelier. Lee added the current furniture and silver leaf wallpaper by Stark. The gentlemen’s bathroom is highlighted by black marble floors and intense green hues that is grounded with an ornate mirror and sconces.
With many of Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape elements still in place, the details of the 15 acre exterior are just as magnificent as the interior. As previously mentioned, Olmsted was the original landscape designer of Malvern House and of Central Park in Manhattan.
An antique well head from 1614 was one of the family’s many purchases during their European travels. Decades later, the magnificant piece continues to be one of Malvern House’s greatest treasures.
Malvern House is a piece of living history that Lee and Babs have lovingly brought back to life. They have designed the ideal venue to entertain family and friends along with creating new memories with their own children, the sixth generation to live in the home. And while they have succeeded in honoring the family legacy, they have also created a home that balances comfort, style, and a generous helping of glamour.