A Memphis couple builds This Old House celebrating the past and embracing the future.
The light-filled conservatory off the kitchen provides a dose of bright sunlight with morning coffee.
photography by Andrea Zucker
The owners of this handsome new home are former urban dwellers who lived for years in Memphis’ Evergreen Historic District. Not too long ago they made a major lifestyle change, relocating to 300 acres in Fayette County between Somerville and Williston. They are now domiciled deep in the heart of rural west Tennessee, with a driveway at least a mile long that winds over hill and dale past fields of grazing horses and bales of hay.
The homeowners, who are husband and wife, and their good friend and interior designer, Anthony Shaw, were on hand to give us a tour of this great country treasure. The two-story home was designed by architect Jordan Northcross and, with its green-stained wavy board and taupe-washed brick exterior, it fits well into its rural setting. The owners are generous in their praise of the craftsmen who worked on the home. Nevin C. Losch of LL & B Construction was the builder, and clearly he and his crew paid extraordinary attention to every detail, putting the lie to the old saying, “They don’t build them like they used to.”
Upon entering through antique wooden double doors, we learn that the beams throughout the house date from the early nineteenth century, and that the ceilings are 12 feet high, and that the windows are bronze-trimmed with limestone bases. The floors are quarter-sawn oak, random-width, and were hand-finished in a wet-staining process by Tom Garrett and his sons of Roy E. Garrett Floor Company in Memphis. Robert Johnson made the walnut mantel and pocket doors, and also custom-fit other antique doors throughout the house. Herb Kinninmonth is responsible for, among other things, special paint finishes, the dining-room ceiling medallion, and custom framing, while Tony Ables did much of the ironwork around the place.
The homeowners knew they wanted a weathered, lived-in look and feel for their home’s interior. Anthony Shaw, the eponymous owner of A. Shaw Antiques and Jewelry in Memphis’ Chickasaw Oaks Village, perfectly interpreted this vision and tells us that “no stone was left unturned to get it right.” Antique furniture, oriental rugs, vintage light fixtures, still life and landscape paintings, along with cut glass, copper, and porcelain accents, were hand-picked for the house over a four-year period. Paint and fabrics in muted green and brown earth-tones contribute to the warmth and charm. This all adds up to what I term a sophisticated, yet utterly comfortable and inviting hunt-country style.
According to the owners, “Anthony has the special ability to take found objects and transform them into something quite different but uniquely beautiful.” Shaw himself says he is not wedded to any one style and characterizes his design approach as “eclectic,” which to him means “always interesting.” We learn that a number of antique pieces in the home came courtesy of Thomas M. Fortner Antiques in Memphis, while Shaw and his contacts discovered many others farther afield, including the reception room’s 300-pound sculpture, last resident in Kansas City, and a medieval Flemish tapestry in the master bedroom from New York City.
Much of the glory, and the rich, jewel-like character of the house itself comes from the extraordinary quality and variety of the artworks. Walls are filled, literally floor to ceiling, with paintings by well-known Dutch, English, and American artists; even the bathrooms look like mini-museums. The lady of the house is especially partial to portraits; in the dining room, for example, she features a lovely portrait of her mother at age 16, painted from a photograph by local artist Tom Donahue.
Every summer this particular couple spends time near Big Sky, Montana, and, as a result, her husband in particular has an affinity for Western-themed art and artifacts. One might say that the state of Montana is alive and well in this house. The sitting room and one of the four bedrooms feature Native American-style kilim rugs, bronze stag sculptures, paintings of cowboys and rugged mountain peaks, horn chandeliers, and antique muskets. The Western theme provides an example of Shaw’s dogged pursuit of the “perfect” object: When he heard a moose-antler side chair from a home in Savannah was going up for auction at Christie’s, he said, “Whoa, Nelly! We want that!”
The house has a splendid wine cellar fit for a castle, but one that’s made cozy and inviting by a colorful runner and the warm glow from handsome ceiling fixtures and recessed lighting. The spacious kitchen features black-walnut cabinets, and its farmhouse table is an old seamstress’ table. Opening off the kitchen under arched beams is a light-filled conservatory with a wall of bronze casement windows and a brass chandelier from the 1930s.
The almost constant breeze rustling though the trees on the property means that air-conditioning is only required in the dead of summer. From the screened-in porch at the rear of the house, sweeping vistas extend towards a lake in the distance — the better to view unbelievable sunsets and plentiful wild turkey and deer. The porch’s large screen is made up of louvers from an Italian estate that were unearthed in an Atlanta salvage-company yard. The industrial trolley cart with metal wheels came from an old Orgill Brothers warehouse; it has now been repurposed as a table.
Several other buildings are on the property, including a garage/potting shed and a few run-in sheds. The lady of the house spent childhood weekends in the country near Moscow, Tennessee, and she has a passion for horses. In Shaw’s words, “If it has four legs, she loves it.” Bringing this point home, the couple owns five horses and two mules (one named John Wayne), and other family pets include a yellow Labrador, an American cocker, and two cats.
Taken as a whole, the result out in rural west Tennessee is an elegant, twenty-first-century country home at one with its environment — one that seems as though it has always somehow been there. Or as our esteemed and well-contented homeowners like to say, “We have built ourselves an old house, not a new one.”