It’s one of the city’s most breathtaking homes. A place Russ Ellis had admired since he was a kid. Then, after selling his InSystems Technologies, he and wife Kelly were ready for their dream home: this gorgeous South Roanoke landmark. Today the house is theirs. Redone. Imprinted with their own personalities. And suited to a dynamic young family.
It was meant to be.
After all, when Russ Ellis set his sights on the imposing French Provincial home high on South Roanoke’s Jefferson Street, it was not for sale.
So how did he come to own it?
Magic: Knowing what he wanted and going after it.
“When we were in the position to move up to our dreams, I approached the owners to see if they were interested in selling,” he says. “They said no, not then. But I stayed in touch and was persistent. About six months or so later, I called and they had just seen a house they were interested in because they wanted to downsize.
“Kelly and I had never been in the house, but they told us to come at eight the next morning and we did. We had the contract by noon.”
A Place of Distinction
Designed by the city’s most famous residential architect, Robert Allen, the house was built in 1924-1925 by Junius P. Fishburn, son and successor of media and banking mogul Junius B. Fishburn. Endowed with all the refinement of an era that celebrated life on a grand scale, it is awe-inspiring in architectural details and scope, spanning 7,500 square feet of finished space, plus attic, basement and heated two-car garage.
The first floor encompasses a green marble entrance, gracious curved staircase with overlook, living room, dining room, sun room, covered porch, butler’s pantry and kitchen, family room, study, mud room and two powder rooms. Upstairs there are five spacious bedrooms, five full baths, the children’s game room, laundry room, dressing room and two porch balconies. There are also four fireplaces: two gas, two wood.
Obviously, this is no ordinary house.
Nor has it had ordinary owners. The first, Fishburn, was one of the area’s most influential decision makers; the second, Clay Bear, served as president of Double Envelope, and, until the Ellises’ acquisition, the last were prominent psychiatrist John DeVerter and his wife Ruth. Altogether, an imposing group.
New Life, New Look
The Ellises bought the house in November 2003.
While they were convinced this was a great move, the children – 18-year old son-and-daughter twins Jamie and Dauer, and 12-year-old Ginna, had real doubts. Their concern: that the house would be too big and formal to ever feel like home.
“I told them, ‘Just trust me,’” Kelly recalls. She was as good as her word.
Assisted by interior designer Elaine Stephenson and renovation/restoration expert Matt Prescott of Prescott Construction, she went to work. Both were valuable assets and, according to Russ, Prescott’s great value was that he “understood how to restore the house” with such architecturally unique features as an arched marble doorway, 24-inch exterior walls, 18-inch interior walls and massive glazed terra cotta tile roof.
One of the most important features of all is the Scenic America mural, created around 1830 by French brothers and depicting important glimpses of Americana. Original with the house, the mural covers the entrance foyer, progresses up the stairway and past the landing to the second floor. Also the choice of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the White House restoration, the Scenic America mural was meticulously protected during renovation and is the home’s only surface left untouched.
A Tribute to Yesterday
Kelly made the mural a key point in her plans.
“I started with its main colors – butterscotch and blue-green, very subdued – and duplicated them in the living and dining rooms, then added coral and all kinds of colors from there,” she says. “My primary goal was that whatever we did would be appropriate for the style of the house but would work for a young, active family.
“We love to entertain family and friends. We have holiday dinners here and the house can accommodate many people graciously, but it’s still comfortable for just the five of us. The kids love it; there are lots of colorful areas.”
“The house has great bones,” Russ adds, “and we do like our formal areas.”
Echoes of the Past
Of course, the house comes with its share of stories.
As one goes, a bootlegger once parked his vehicle near the property while making deliveries in the neighborhood. His brakes gave way and his vehicle crashed through the home’s dining room windows. Fishburn, who supposedly loved to tinker with his house and made such changes as adding a large, knotty pine family room in 1937 and a roofed porch at one end of the house, took the opportunity to redesign the wall, pushing the new windows out several feet from the former position. Far ahead of his time, he also had six incoming phone lines installed, including his own dedicated line to New York City.
Just as Fishburn’s home reflected his era, the Ellises’ home is equally of today. Here the mood is bright, fresh and young, punctuated by fun, humor, and unexpected touches of whimsy, such as animal print carpeting on one of the home’s two back staircases, and masses of art by such names as Harriet Stokes, Peyton Kline, Ann Glover, Jim Yeatts, Vera Dickerson and Ted Turner. A passion she has nurtured since she began work, Kelly continued collecting art after her marriage when she and Russ agreed to buy one painting a year from local artists, later upping the number to two so that by the time they moved into their new home, needed only three additional works to fill the rooms.
Now in their fourth home, Russ notes that his wife began collecting decorating pages from magazines soon after they bought their first house. That compilation of ideas was an invaluable resource in the home’s décor, as well as a reflection of Kelly herself.
“This house is Kelly,” Russ points out. “It’s the embodiment of her personality. As a friend said, ‘Kelly has been in training her whole life for this house.’”
That is at least partially true.
“When I was a child in Lexington,” she recalls, “I had a friend whose house had a back staircase. I always wanted one. Little did I know that someday, I would have two.”
Making It Their Own
Before the family’s move in May 2004, there were six months of renovation and demolition, as well as moments when even Russ and Kelly got discouraged.
“We took out 40 tons of materials. It was gut wrenching, but all about updating,” Russ recalls, noting that the couple introduced new elements that looked original with the house. “The DeVerters had been great caretakers and stewards of the house; now we’re caretakers for another generation. We respect the era and reflected it while making the house modern and comfortable for our family.”
Great addition. Added in 1937, the family room is designed for relaxing with its mix of color, art, fireplace and knotty pine paneling.
While the first floor’s red oak floors were left intact, projects and changes included stripping off the canvas covering the living room ceiling, putting in a new ceiling and repairing the rare plaster molding. In the dining room, new wallpaper and lighting went up, while the sun room got wallpaper to contrast with its tile floor. In the study, Kelly chose a color scheme of chestnut and maroon to show off the fireplace and unique gum paneling. In addition, the intercom was updated and a sound system installed.
One of the biggest changes was the kitchen. Once spanning three rooms – the owner’s pantry, servants’ dining room and kitchen – the area today is warm and open, thanks to the removal of the wall separating the butler’s pantry. Here, old cabinets were replaced with white and glass-fronted ones and cushioned black-and-white cork tile coordinates with the marigold backsplash tile, Black Galaxy granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and spacious banquette that combines black leather and a cheetah print. The banquette is the work of Roger Creasy, who also built the curved sofa in the living room by creating a template of the bay window behind it.
“The kitchen is the heart of the home,” says Kelly. “Since I spend so much time here and love to cook, I had everything done the way I wanted it.”
Bright and Beautiful
The upstairs is a swirl of moods and colors.
Finished product. The master bath gleams with spicy color, marble countertops and a dream luxury: the new, heated floor.
The master suite is luxurious, expansive and relaxing. It includes the bedroom with adjacent porch balcony, dressing room with one of the home’s two original intercoms, sun porch-turned-wardrobe-area, and master bath with heated floor. Like all but one of the five upstairs baths, it was gutted and jack-hammered through three inches of concrete, to reveal that the three kids’ bathroom were joined together.
Lime green dominates Ginna’s room, while Jamie’s quarters, expanded with the removal of wall, is a blending of high intensity turquoise and hot pink. Nearby, Dauer’s area includes a fireplace and Indian tapestry from his grandmother, and is unlike the other rooms because he shares a bath with the guest room.
The greatest change on this level was the creation of a game room, now hub of the children’s activities, from two servants’ bedrooms. To give the location added impact, the Ellises raised supports six feet and created a vaulted 14-foot ceiling with dormers forming triangles over the windows. At the room’s far end, with its mountain view, a single pane was replaced by a near-wall of windows. Heart of pine floors were restored and the bathroom, separated from the main area, got only a fresh look while retaining its original tile and four-and-a-half-foot claw-footed tub.
Completing the indoor space are two basement areas: a band room for Dauer and workroom for Russ.
End of the Rainbow
With construction and design finished two months after their move, the Ellises are now comfortably ensconced in this unique beauty, distinct for its angled position on its lot, its abundance of light and the fact that it runs two and sometimes three rooms deep. The couple enjoys a deep appreciation for the home’s special features – from its 100 windows and large, lighted closets to the sunken patio with its fountain and crane sculpture, the summer kitchen with Russ’s grill, TV and music, and the small music box at the front door which, when Kelly pulls the cord, plays ”Jingle Bells” at Christmas.
All in all, it’s proof that dreams do come true for those who believe.
“A long time ago, shortly after we were married, Kelly and I envisioned having our own grown-up house,” says Russ, who is currently pursuing a new dream, the success of his latest enterprise, Rusty’s Best Corporation, with its line of food and beverage products. “We sat down together and made a list of all the qualities of the perfect house and what would be in it.
“And, ” he acknowledges, “this is it.”