CINCINNATI -- The interior of Ryan and Jimmy Messer’s 1880s Republic Street home was but a bunch of beams, bricks and support studs when they shared it on the first Over-the-Rhine Holiday Home Tour in December 2014.
Now it’s a done deal: a sleekly decorated, 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom, 3,660-square-foot dark purple beauty with a private deck and lot-sized carport that’s ready for tour No. 2.
The Messers’ place will be one of eight homes and two churches open to the public for 90-minute self-guided tours from 5-8 p.m. Dec. 12 and 12-3 p.m. Dec 13. The cost is $25 through American Legacy Tours' website or at 1212 Race St. on tour days. All proceeds benefit Future Leaders of OTR, a nonprofit that helps shape young lives in the neighborhood.
Other homes on the tour include a 120-year-old former tenement building slated for LEED certification, new construction by a pair of empty nesters on a site cleared in the 1970s and a 140-year-old, now energy-efficient home that required extensive structural repair and stairwell relocation.
“I believe these are city treasures we are saving,” said Ryan Messer, president of the Over-the-Rhine Community Council and spearhead of the holiday home tours. The Messers own more than a dozen OTR properties. "When we did our first place, people thought we were crazy, and the banks wouldn’t work with us.
“But we believed in what was going to happen down here, and it’s happened… It’s great to see people come down and tackle these old buildings that I’ve heard so many other people wouldn’t touch."
Andy Holzhauser and Janice Liebenberg, for example, moved into their 3-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom home near Music Hall with their daughter in November, hoping to demonstrate how an 1800s building can be remodeled to minimize energy use and provide a sanctuary for clean, healthy living. They’re awaiting LEED platinum certification.
It took them five years, Ryan said, and it wasn’t simple or cheap. Neither was the Messers’ project. The property they bought in March 2014 cost $96,000, even though its interior floors and staircase had collapsed and part of the foundation was sinking.
“We went down to the brick all the way until this was just a hollow space,” Ryan said of the three-story building. Space-cramped carpenters put in new floor joists and built a new staircase among other extensive projects the remodeling required.
“Our carpenters said it was one of the most complex staircases they ever worked on because it just winds up and up and up,” Ryan said. “They had to do it in a narrow building, so it took a great act of mathematics to get it figured out.”
In addition, the back of the house was slipping down into the earth and had to be shored up with heavy equipment. Back inside, the Messers preserved very little exposed brick, opting instead to insulate and drywall to minimize energy loss.
Ryan said he preferred not to say how much money he and Jimmy spent on the renovation and remodeling (Zillow estimates the house is worth almost $300,000). But he admitted that “retrofitting is an expensive and not always affordable” part of saving historically registered buildings like theirs that have been vacant for 15 or 20 years and are facing demolition.
“A lot of people wouldn’t be able to stomach” all the regulations they had to follow because the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places, Ryan said.
What’s amazing, he said, is that despite the fact much of the property in OTR is owned by 3CDC, Model Group, Urban Sites and the city of Cincinnati, families of all kinds are buying into OTR on their own.
Two families whose houses are on the holiday tour are empty-nesters and three are young families with children.
The Messers have two children, 8-year-old Anderson and 13-week-old Olivier.
“That a perspective of Over-the-Rhine that maybe people don’t expect,” Ryan said.
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The taste of both men is balanced throughout their house. Jimmy is into old masks and vintage posters, and Ryan’s style is a blend of traditional and Asian.
“I think we just get what we like,” Jimmy said. “We’re both of the opinion that if we both like it, it’ll work. But you’ve got to be able use it… We use all of our china."
Visitors enter through a new metal gate and a climb a few stairs to the front door on its south side, next to the carport.
The entry hall is a reflection of Ryan’s interest in Chinoiserie decor, which is a westerner’s interpretation of Chinese style. Straight ahead is a bright orange console table that picks up the orange lanterns strung across a dark blue wallpaper scene of Chinese stand-up paddlers guiding pagoda boats across a body of water.
Off the hall to the left is the music room, also decorated in Chinoiserie style. Two accent walls painted in a slightly lighter blue than the hall’s wallpaper tie the two rooms together. The music room’s chandelier – an upside down bouquet of white-painted wooden sticks – adds a casual feel that contrasts with the room’s classic piano and formal Chinese fold-out desk.
To the right of the entry hall is Anderson’s room, a generous space dominated by a lofted fort over a queen-sized bed. The space includes hanging shelves, a full bathroom, a couch for lounging and a tight space for a drum set. A mobile of the universe adds whimsy.
The three-story oak staircase with square white spindles starts in the bedroom end of the hallway. Stand at the bottom of the stairs and look up for perhaps the most dramatic vista in the house.
Jimmy said he loves the street he lives on – it’s all residential – and his neighbors, but first and foremost, he loves the way the staircase turned out.
"That in itself made (the house) special,” he said.
The second floor consists of the kitchen, a half-bathroom, the dining room and a 10-by-14-foot deck with seating and a gas grill. The charcoal, white and stainless steel kitchen, its adjoining butler’s pantry and powder room have all the modern musts, including room for Jimmy to display a large part of his tribal mask collection.
The dining room on the west side of the second floor is one of Ryan’s favorite places in their house. It features a 12-foot-long table, a 100-piece antique chandelier bought in New Orleans, a grandfather clock, a corner dry bar, a 6-by-3-foot modern painting of brightly colored smiling faces, two walls painted light gray and two covered with textured metallic paper. The Messers have hosted many a gathering there, both business and casual.
“We’ve entertained probably the most diverse people you’ve ever imagined: civil rights activists, musicians, artists and neighbors,” Ryan said. He especially loves what comes out of the storytelling sessions held around the table.
“It’s amazing how that room has made these connections we never had before,” Ryan said.
Up a third flight of stairs is the Messers’ master suite and nursery for Olivier. A long carpeted hall, which has closets on the north side and glass portals to the stairwell and beyond to windows facing outside, connects the carpeted bedroom and bathroom.
The contemporary bathroom has classic basket-weave floors, a marble shower with double-glass doors, a free standing soaking tub, a long, dual sink vanity and chrome fixtures throughout.
Beyond it is the nursery, a playful room themed to "Dumbo" after Ryan acquired a ceramic lamp base of the happy elephant made by his father. Across from the baby’s crib is a wall painted by local artist Cary Girardot. The room’s dresser doubles as a changing table.
Although the property does not include a garage, it does have a low-ceilinged family room in the basement with built-in shelves, a flat-screen TV, couch and four stuffed chairs. The room can be seen through a large opening in the wall at the bottom of the main staircase.
Bringing their old house back to life and making it a modern space has been "an expensive undertaking” that was unavoidable, Jimmy said.
“You just do it, and we did it. Otherwise it would be left for gone,” Ryan added.