CINCINNATI -- Mark DeJong was well into his 40s when he figured out what direction life had been taking him. He donned many hats while making the journey, that of an artist, carpenter, collector, recycler, preservationist and business owner.
Today, he doesn't wear a hat, but those with whom he shares his third-floor Camp Washington flat will sense the impact of each one he wore.
DeJong was born in the Netherlands and reared along with two older brothers in the North Avondale home of his University of Cincinnati professor father, Kees, and ceramicist mother, Else. He earned a degree in fine art from Alfred University in Western New York, but became a carpenter with an expertise in wood finishing. As founder of Landmark Finishes in Cincinnati, he has worked in dozens of old and new houses since 1999.
His introduction to construction and preservation, however, came when he was just 14 years old, in 1980. That was the year his mother purchased a 1910 brick warehouse at the end of a block-long residential street off Spring Grove Avenue. He helped power-wash, restore and paint its first floor, which became Else's studio. Other artists moved in upstairs and built two bedrooms into the industrial space that is now DeJong's home.
He lived in the third-floor flat for a time as a young man before striking out on his own. Then he bought the former Freeman Foods warehouse from his mother and began remodeling the top floor in 2004. Since then, he has purchased four other houses on Avon Place. He rehabbed two and is the midst of a third remodel -- the conversion of a 2½-story Italianate shotgun building into a one-room apartment with a towering ceiling from which hangs a double rope swing with a wooden seat.
The so-called Swing House will be one-of-a-kind and is the culmination of what DeJong absorbed while wearing all those hats for all those years -- a house that actually is a piece of art, an expression of what the building had been and what it will be.
Design in motion
The process that brought DeJong to his Swing House design started with his flat 13 years ago.
"I knew I loved being here," he said, standing in the middle of his 18-by-45-foot great room. "Within a month ... I knew I wanted to make it into a house."
DeJong said that in the years his mother owned the flat, it gave him the feeling of being up in a boat, as if he were floating south on the nearby Mill Creek but up high in the pilot house with views of the valley's hillsides, not the water. He wanted to emphasize the sense of vertigo he felt in his interior design, but to do so would require a little artistic trickery.
Those who walk through DeJong's flat while looking up or down might sense it. The great room's floor -- salvaged boards from the old court in University of Cincinnati's Shoemaker Center on which Oscar Robertson played -- are skewed at a 5-degree angle. DeJong set the ceiling panels, which are plywood salvaged from a Formica Co. project, at a 15-degree angle to the walls. The effect on his guests is that they feel the building is moving a little bit.
"Some people do react to it," DeJong said. "They say 'Whoa, what's going on here?' when they get that sense of out-of-squareness."
Three other features DeJong designed for the great room suggest motion: the double-spiral chimney duct above his antique wood-burning stove: a bright-blue swath painted on its main interior wall; and its spiral-shaped track lights and centered ceiling fan.
Three rooms in one
The 810-square-foot room serves as a family room, dining room and kitchen. An exposed cylindrical duct runs the length of the room, whose brick walls are painted white. In the northwest corner is a bathroom that features rare, antique Tennessee gray marble floor tiles and countertop and a 1940s porcelain bathtub DeJong bought from Building Value in Northside. The room also has a 3-foot-wide, 1940 American Standard standing sink that came out of an Indian Hill estate home in which he worked.
Also recycled is the room's front door, which is set in a little bump-out DeJong built to create more space at the top of the stairs, where hooks hold visitors' coats. Once painted white, DeJong salvaged the now-yellow and beveled-glass door from an old house on Dana Avenue in Evanston that succumbed to the expansion of Xavier University. Above it sits a "good luck" horseshoe he found in the yard of a Northside house in which he used to live.
The open kitchen is made of new and recycled materials. Northside woodworker Thomas Ricke -- one of several friends of DeJong who contributed to the project -- built the simple-lined birch cabinets, which are topped with what were work tables in an 1800s loft on Over-the-Rhine's Dunlap Street that was rehabbed by developer Greg Badger.
"If you look at them, they still have the old nail impressions and grommet impressions," said DeJong.
Dominating the center of the great room are DeJong's dining room table and wood-burning stove. The drop-leaf table, called "Wishbone" because of the shape of its three legs, was manufactured in the 1950s by Heywood Wakefield and opens to a length proportionate to the room. DeJong bought it from an antiques dealer friend and refinished the top himself, as he did the kitchen countertops.
The cast-iron stove with the spiral chimney was made by Buck's Stove and Range Co. of St. Louis and dates to the early 20th century. It sits on a hearth of the same richly veined marble that’s in the bathroom. DeJong lights the stove with a gas torch he keeps in a kitchen cabinet and tamps down its ashes with an antique iron tool he picked up at one of the many outdoor flea markets he shops during the warm months.
DeJong said he paid Indiana antiques dealer Eric Smith less than $200 for the unrestored stove 25 years ago and loves it because "it is such a great expression of time gone by." By spiraling the chimney, he increased its surface area, making the stove a highly efficient heater. "It's not the primary source of heat, but when I'm here, I have it on when it's cold out. If it gets too hot, I just open a window," he said.
DeJong has filled his flat with mid-century modern furniture, works by local artists, books, cacti and succulents on the many pine windowsills he made -- there are eight on the east-side wall alone -- and collections of sculpture-like wooden foundry molds, antique tin and porcelain implements and other visually interesting bits of American industrial history.
"I like the discovery that happens at Lawrenceburg (Tristate Antique Market) and Burlington (Antique Show)," DeJong said. "I just love these incredible pieces. A lot of things are hand held. That's my reference point -- for it to be hand held. Like tools, implements, cookware and wood."
DeJong is winding down his Landmark Finishes business and concentrating on projects such as the Swing House. He still combs flea markets for treasures, but not with the intensity he once had.
He recently turned down an opportunity to study for a master's in fine art because he decided he was too happy with his life to change its direction again. When he's in his flat, and when the stove is heating the room, DeJong said, he looks around and derives a sense of "comfort from all this organized clutter."
It's as if he is the hatless captain of his own boat, his own home.