Home Tour: Craftsman-style cottage in University Heights boasts impressive pedigree

Two of biggest names in industrial history

CINCINNATI -- Joe Neiheisel and Emilie Johnson’s little Riddle Road house can be linked to two of the biggest names in early 20th-century American industrial history: Arts & Crafts movement leader Gustav Stickley and car manufacturer Henry Ford.

The Stickley connection is a direct one. Described as being “conveniently arranged for a small family,” plans for Country Cottage III published in the April 1905 issue of the famous furniture maker’s The Craftsman magazine inspired budding Cincinnati architect Leonard B. Willeke to design Neiheisel and Johnson’s house. It likely was the first that Willeke designed and was built for his older sister, Henrietta, and brother-in-law John G. Johannigman.

Just 21 years old at the time, Cincinnati-born and reared Willeke would go on to design dozens of architecturally stunning residential and commercial buildings for famous clients such as Ford, his son Edsel, numerous wealthy Cincinnatians and Detroit-area families, as well as the state of California.

Stickley was on his way in 1905 to becoming the nation’s Arts & Crafts leader. Like William Morris, John Ruskin and Ralph Waldo Emerson before him, Stickley eschewed industrialism and adhered to the belief that making goods by hand connected mankind to art, nature and a higher morality.

Neiheisel and Johnson relate strongly to Stickley and Willeke, and their lifestyles are a perfect match for the simply designed 1,300-square-foot, 2-bedroom, 2½-bathroom cottage.

Avid campers, mountain bikers, snow skiers and kayakers, the couple lives a back-to-nature philosophy that parallels the Arts & Crafts movement. And they embrace the well-crafted, utilitarian architectural details of that movement that were built into their Stickley-style home.

Nevertheless, Neiheisel and Johnson, who married in their backyard 10 years ago, are ready to take the next step toward their goal of someday living a Spartan life in which they can explore outdoor adventures while living on the road.

The meticulously maintained Craftsman cottage and surprisingly large, well-groomed property they’ve owned since 2005 is for sale at an asking price of $279,000.

Neiheisel, who is a Northwest High School and University of Cincinnati graduate, and Johnson, a graduate of St. Ursula Academy and Emory University in Atlanta, are executives with nonprofits in Over-the-Rhine and have enjoyed living a short walk from the UC campus and the Clifton Gaslight District. Their previous home was in Clifton Heights, another “sweet spot” that Neiheisel said allowed them to live the urban lifestyle they’ve come to love but plan to give up eventually.

“We took a post-Bengals game walk one Sunday and saw a sign (in the 400 block of Riddle Road) for an open house. So we came in and said ‘Wow, this is a beautiful place,’” Neiheisel recalled. They left thinking they might buy it, but initially decided not to.

“Within a week, I waffled on that and said I wanted to buy it,” he said.

What they believe is the dining room’s original iron and slag-glass chandelier made in the style of Stickley was one of many features that inspired their decision.

It also helped them become engaged. Not long after moving in, Neiheisel purchased a ring and hid it where the light’s suspension chain hooks into its body. He encouraged Johnson to climb up and see if she could find a maker’s mark on the fixture. She found the ring instead, and they married the next year.

A painting of the house by local artist Michael Hutchins also hangs in the dining room and played a role in their nuptials. They used a copy of it as the cover image on their wedding invitations “so people wouldn’t have trouble finding the house,” Neiheisel said.

The couple’s love for their home is shared by friends and family alike.

“Everyone comes into this house and says ‘Oh, my god, I want to live here,’” Johnson said. “It just makes you want to sit down and never leave.”

But they will leave if they can find a buyer who doesn’t need a lot of rooms and appreciates their home’s Arts & Crafts design, lovely garden and convenient location.

“For us, this is kind of the first step in simplifying our lives,” Johnson said. “This house is amazing, but it could be really hard to sell.”

Take the Tour

The front door to the cottage Willeke built has a centered buzzer that has to be wound manually on the inside. The iron knocker features a geometric Arts & Crafts motif and hides a tiny, grated peephole. Flanking the door are reproduction lights made by Arroyo Craftsman of Southern California.

Guests enter into a tight hall whose original closet had been converted into a powder room. Ahead, a wide, enclosed stairwell leads to two 13-by-15-foot bedrooms and a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. To the left of the hall is the 17½-by-18-foot dining room, which in Stickley’s cottage plans doubled as the kitchen. To the right is the 18-by-18-foot living room and a wood-burning stove that originally radiated heat to the second floor through a pipe system.

Both main rooms feature 20 wood-trimmed windows combined and lead to a kitchen likely added to the plan by Willeke, who started his career at age 16 as a draftsman for a local architect and likely would have wanted his sister and her husband to have the comfort of a separate kitchen.

The main rooms are true to Stickley’s style, one that Neiheisel and Johnson revere so much they knew they wouldn’t “do anything to mess it up,” he said.

Four-inch timbers divide the dining and living room walls and ceilings in a classic Arts & Crafts design. The home’s previous owner, UC infectious disease specialist Dr. Ken Skahan, added ceiling-to-wall bookshelves that match the original woodwork that he colored with an ebony and mahogany stain.

The house’s modern kitchen features a side door and a south-facing set of three-sash windows added by Skahan, whose bottom halves open and slide down behind the counter. Through another door beyond the kitchen is a three-season porch that may have been added by Willeke in the mid-1940s.

The architect’s records, which are archived at the University of Michigan and partially available online, show that Willeke returned in 1944-45 to Cincinnati from his suburban Detroit base to alter the first floor of his sister’s house. With large windows that open to the backyard, the carpeted porch was the perfect place for the reggae band that performed at the Neiheisel and Johnson’s 2006 wedding.

The couple’s property is made up of four parcels, one of which runs behind the house next door. The effect is a deep, L-shaped backyard that Neiheisel gives Skahan credit for turning into an urban oasis of flowering perennial plants and shrubs.

“He thought of everything. It’s amazing how well it is designed,” Neiheisel said, pointing to where 10 accent lights hook up to electricity along the back property line and numerous water spigots. The design includes a fire pit, 110-year-old, non-fruit-bearing osage orange tree and garage out back, a trumpet vine over a canvas-covered car port on the side and a front yard with pink blossoming azaleas and a white dogwood tree.

Special features in the house, the couple said, are an extra-large “garden tub” in the full bathroom that Skahan remodeled, two cedar-lined closets in each bedroom, a full bathroom in the basement, backyard access from a mud and storage room under the porch and an 8-foot-square deck on top of it.

“There’s so much about this house we like, it’s going to be tough to walk away from,” Neiheisel said.

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