The House on the Hill

A remarkable retreat in rural Shelby County.

Photography by Andrea Zucker

Several years ago, Tommy and Marcia Malone were looking to sell their home in Germantown and buy a country place somewhere farther east in Tennessee, beyond Shelby County, perhaps around Franklin or Murfreesboro. Happily, by great good fortune, they found Cedar Hill in Eads — 88 gorgeous acres of rolling hills, woods, and ponds and a lot closer to home! Cedar Hill proved to be exactly the rural retreat they were seeking. 

Custom-built some 20 years ago, the house on the property had stood vacant for five years before the Malones purchased it in 2010. This meant that a considerable bit of work would be required to transform this four-bedroom, five-bath home into their ideal country residence.

In this connection, both Malones are deeply grateful that they engaged highly regarded Memphis designer, Ami Austin, to guide them every step of the way in an almost two-year process. Winner of multiple Designer of the Year Awards from the Interior Design Society (in 2013 she took first place in the “Living Spaces/$30,000 and Under” category), Austin’s list of clients includes prominent families and businesses, not just in Memphis but around the country, and she is a noted speaker on the subject of design and home staging. 

In early 2012, Austin rolled up her sleeves and got to work on planning and overseeing major interior renovations at Cedar Hill. The first step was to gut and rework the master bath, and as always is the case, the project snowballed from there. (In fact, she says all the baths in the house are now “killer.”) Another major transformation was the improved internal sight-line; it is now possible to look straight from the renovated dining room at the front of the house, through the sleek, new kitchen, to the breakfast seating area at the back with light streaming in from all sides and views of the property out every window. All in all, this renovation was an enormous project; Austin used a total of 97 different vendors, and she was at the Malone property five days a week for a solid year. 

Austin relied a great deal on the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center for goods and services. Here at home, she engaged and worked closely with Lou Kerns of Kerns-Wilcheck for the cabinetry and interior architectural elements including custom millwork and storage units.

The style for the interior design of the Malone house is best described as “casual elegance” — which has resulted in a comfortable though sophisticated décor featuring top-quality materials, handsome hand-selected furniture pieces, and “just the right art collection.” Formerly there was a lot of white millwork that Austin thought “cottagey” and not in keeping with the home’s country character. All the original floors were replaced with hand-scraped hickory wood, and she built up the moldings, created arched doorways, and worked to achieve symmetry within the house. 

Austin used a neutral paint color by Benjamin Moore — “Macadamia” — throughout, and wallpaper by Phillip Jeffries as required; she also employed faux finishes on a number of pieces. Fabrics have a texture to them, and leaf and twig motifs are used everywhere, such as on the banister of the entrance hall staircase and on cabinet knobs — all in keeping with the rural setting. As we toured the house, I particularly admired the beautiful flowers that the multitalented designer told me she had personally arranged in every room for our photo shoot.

Outdoors, the entrance with its iron gates and crepe myrtle-lined driveway is imposing, but the Malones and Austin agreed that the overall landscape lacked a sense of order and cohesion. The talented Bud Gurley of Gurley’s Azalea Garden was called in to work his magic and design the perfect outdoor living spaces in a planned environment enhanced by numerous fountains, waterfalls, and outside seating areas. 

Naturally, we were delighted to hop aboard Marcia’s all-terrain vehicle for a scenic over-hill-and-dale tour of the property. Horses grazed and galloped in the paddock the Malones affectionately call “yard art,” since neither of them rides anymore, though Tommy in particular has always loved being around horses. A well-appointed chicken coop houses 24 chickens, and Marcia dutifully collects their eggs every day (shades of England’s Duchess of Devonshire and her Chatsworth chickens, and Martha Stewart’s designer eggs at her Bedford, New York, estate). We drove past the new stables the Malones built and the old one called the “Marcia barn” that is now Marcia’s workshop. Austin adds that “you could eat off the floor of the stables.” 

In the woods not too far from the house is the very special “Camp Malone” complete with topiaries, outdoor furniture, pizza oven and the “Marcia pond” as its centerpiece. By the way, all the areas on the property have pet names because, let’s face it, in a place this large you can’t say, “Meet you at the pond,” when there are five of them on site and another in the works! 

You can see why Marcia jokingly calls herself “the farm manager,” because there is always so much to do around the place, though of course the Malones have three full-time helpers for the “heavy-lifting” as well as part-timers as needed. But the country life clearly agrees with her, and she seems very content in her role. There are two dogs, Vagas and Reeno, four cats, four horses, oodles of koi and a bearded dragon (really?!) to take care of; she is planning for alpacas in due course. Marcia finds Cedar Hill a hard place to leave, and indeed, it does feel very self-contained — almost like a feudal estate (minus any chilly temperatures due to the radiant heating system under the “manor house” floors!). 

For a long while, Cedar Hill was a major work site, when, according to Tommy Malone, there were “no less than 20 to 30 workers working somewhere on the place at one time.” Things have quieted down a bit, but there are always new projects, including redoing the entry to the “wine attic.” And plans for another outdoor seating area will feature “a lot of rocks — 15 loads to be exact” down by the Marcia Barn. In fact, this is just what Tommy says he especially loves about Cedar Hill: “There’s always something for me to do.” Not that he really needs anything to do as he has recently become president of Allenberg Cotton, now part of the Louis Dreyfus Commodities group. But I know what Tommy means. Working around a place you love can feel more like a hobby rather than a chore, and on an estate this beautiful, it is surely a privilege.

Before we arrived to photograph the Malone house, Austin told us, “Get ready and be amazed at the beauty of it all.” How right she was about the place and, not only that, the Malones are generous and hospitable people. They love to entertain informally and have friends and family come out and stay for the night or even the weekend. We were happy to sit back and enjoy a glass of pinot noir with them before we left. This gave us the opportunity as night fell to take in the view with the outdoor lighting turned on. A spectacular ending to a spectacular afternoon. 

Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts & lifestyle editor of Memphis magazine.

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