Stewards of History

By Candice Graham  |  Photography by Med Dement

The history of this downtown Cleveland home was destroyed when the local courthouse burned, but that didn’t stop the Bankses from keeping its historical accuracy alive and well on Ocoee Street.

PL-24“We think the house was built around 1860 or so,” explains Amy Banks, as she sits in the modernized kitchen of her Cleveland home. “We know the original brick and trim was all made on the premise.” More than a century old when Amy and her husband Richard purchased the home in 1990, the family embarked on a major renovation, livening up the Civil War-era home while striking the balance between a fresh look and historical accuracy.

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The overhaul included adding a downstairs bedroom and a den, then a study on the opposite side of the house for symmetry’s sake. Repeating the home’s existing trim and distinct woodwork pattern in each new addition was a conscious choice, and it kept the home’s details cohesive throughout. And although some roadblocks were hit during construction (a redone ceiling once fell in), Amy looks back on the work fondly. “When you’re young, things don’t seem nearly as challenging. It seemed exciting at the time. Now it would keep me up at night!” she explains.

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While plenty of upgrades were made to restore the home to its full potential, one thing that remains the same is the black and white square marble tile in the entryway, which extends into a hallway originally used as a den. “We added a den because the original is so small it’s a walkway for us. Years ago, people had formal living rooms and formal dining rooms – there wasn’t a lot of casual family room,” Amy explains. The now-hallway is flanked with built-in bookcases showcasing antique photos, documents, and book volumes. Semi-circle shaped at the top, the bookcases mimic a small closet door, tucked away under the stairs.

Next to the hallway, the kitchen rests in the center and anchors the house. To the left of the center island, cabinetry with glass-front panels has withstood the test of time and is original to the home’s first attached kitchen – its original kitchen was detached. New cabinetry rests above the sink and houses pretty pastel floral china. A thin granite slab in a charcoal tone serves as the countertop material, allowing creamy white cabinetry to pop. New oak flooring blends well with the original oak planks in the adjacent dining room. “We tried to keep the look of the house so you didn’t get the sudden feeling of it being new,” Amy says. Noting the kitchen’s warmth, Amy says it’s the place she and her husband gather to talk, read the newspaper, and cook dinner.

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Attached to the kitchen is a window-filled sunroom, outfitted with a traditional toile armchair and footstool. A Persian rug helps to define the space. Uplifting and bright, the room serves as a cheery respite – the perfect place for orchids and other houseplants to grow and the ideal spot to have a morning cup of coffee. The room’s paneled windows look out onto the grassy side yard and a charming relic of the past – a service alley. “It was originally used for trucks to come in and deliver milk or the mail. The historic commission protects things like that now,” explains Amy.

The study and den are paneled in mahogany, built by Amy’s husband. “We added this room to balance the house. My husband drew it up and did it basically himself,” Amy recalls. Wide-plank heart pine floors reclaimed from Cleveland’s Cooper’s Book Store give the room a rustic touch in the otherwise polished space. A stately desk area sets a traditional tone, while mounted deer and fish contribute a lodge-type vibe. Two separate seating sections allow the space to accommodate several people, and the informal tone makes it a well-used area for the homeowners. An extra perk of the additions is a back staircase, which extends from the den to the second-floor hallway.

Near the staircase, the downstairs bedroom boasts a clean-lined canopy bed and fresh, bright colors. A playfully patterned cheetah-print bench adds zest to the conventional space, while rich wooden furniture, diamond-print wallpaper, and a corner writing desk keep the look strictly sophisticated.

Another charatcter-rich spot is the formal dining room, which plays to the home’s unmistakably Southern features. Bold-printed magnolia leaf wallpaper recalls a shady magnolia in the front yard. Original wainscoting and a crisp white fireplace hearth add to the grand look and feel. An antique crystal chandelier hangs from an ornate ceiling medallion. “It’s one of my favorite things in the house,” Amy says.

The house’s grandeur is undeniable, and what’s known of its history is indisputable—there were musket balls in the brick walls from the Civil War and the century-old cedars out front were planted in hopes that they’d ward off the yellow fever. Amy says living in an old home is a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. “I think it’s important to be good stewards of old homes,” she says. A member of the Historic Cleveland Neighborhood Association, Amy and several of her neighbors come together monthly for porch parties at various downtown homes. “It keeps us talking to one another, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie. It has changed the neighborhood,” she says.

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 In addition to the neighborhood association, a Historical Commission guides the community in the heart of the historical district on ways to keep their homes historically accurate. Take curb appeal for instance. Classic shrubbery – like boxwoods and crepe myrtles – are time-period appropriate, whereas semicircular driveways wouldn’t have typically been seen decades ago. Having the commission in place helps keep the eclectic older homes on the same page, and living in the area is something that Amy and her neighbors take great pride in.

“It’s a lot of fun living in the downtown area where we have really cool restaurants and a lot of events over at Lee University. You’re sort of living in the hub of things,” Amy says. “I loved raising my children Allison and Bradley in a neighborhood where a friend’s house, church, and school were all just a bike ride away. Living in downtown Cleveland is sort of like living in the heartbeat of our community.”