Home Tour: Old College Hill farmhouse has everything a modern family needs -- except maybe AC

Mid-1800s home is as green as it could be

CINCINNATI -- Empty-nesters Diana Porter and Leonard Webb are music-loving, once-rural Midwesterners and forever children of the 1970s. Throw in a solid dose of the peace-loving, simple-life, respect-the-earth ways of the Church of the Brethren in which they grew up, and it makes sense they chose to live a self-sustainable life in a mid-1800s farmhouse smack dab in the middle of a tightly-knit section of College Hill.

All things must come to an end, however, and the married couple of 36 years is preparing to part with their beloved house and reduce their already low carbon footprint by moving into a condominium less than a mile away.

Porter and Webb's 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home, with its vast vegetable and flower gardens, mature shade trees, low-emissivity windows and solar water heating, plus rainwater collection and distribution systems, is for sale at $269,000.

The front and oldest part of the painted-brick, traditional farmhouse -- which appears to have been expanded and remodeled several times -- could date as far back as the 1840s, but the oldest public record Porter and Webb could find linking it to a name is an 1869 C.O. Titus property map that shows it belonged to "Jno. Reid."

The farmhouse is on a triple-sized lot and stands like an old friend above Wittekind Terrace, a tree-lined street of medium-sized, mostly red-brick houses a quarter-mile east of Hamilton Road. Two towering trees on the .64-acre lot, a tulip poplar and a pecan hickory, attest to its age, as does the covered front porch that would have been fit for the likes of William Henry Harrison.

The couple -- both graduates of Manchester University in Indiana and retired Cincinnati Public Schools educators who met in 1977 through a Cincinnati rock band she sang with -- had spent the early days of their marriage in Corryville. Once they had two children, however, they realized it was time to move.

"We needed a family-friendly place," recalled Porter, who is a founding member of Cincinnati's women's choir, MUSE. "Here in College Hill, kids can ride their bikes around. There's Crawford Field, the library and woods, and we had friends with a pool," Diana said.

Those friends, who had young children, too, and lived on the old Avery Farm property on North Bend Road, tipped them off in 1985 that the farmhouse on Wittekind was for sale because one of the owners was taking an out-of-town job.

"We came through the front door and knew it was the home for us," Diana said. Leonard recalled entering the house that first time and being able to see all the way through the house to the backyard. It's that front-to-back, bring-the-outside-in experience that inspired Webb to agree to put an offer in for the house that very day.

They worked out a land contract, moved their kids in, and took possession of the deed three years later in 1988.

"We've loved it for the 30 years we've been here, and we're ready for whatever someone wants to do with it," Webb said. "It will be a special buyer who will be attracted to it."

Visitors climb renovated stone steps that split a 3-foot-high stone wall across the front of the house to the front door and enter the original 8-foot-wide entry hall. On the right, a narrow railed staircase leads up to three original bedrooms. The entry hall continues straight ahead to the left and into an added family room -- once a screened porch -- with sliding glass doors to a house-wide deck the couple added, partially over what had been a concrete patio.

There are four other rooms on the first floor. The dining room, which has its original yellow pine floorboards that run perpendicular to similar boards in the front living room, features a fireplace that had been walled in, indicating the room served as the kitchen in the 1800s.

The current back-of-the-house kitchen, which like the family room was an addition of unknown time, was remodeled by Webb and Porter in 1995. After removing a brick wall that divided the kitchen from a bathroom and taking down drop ceilings with 1950s fluorescent lighting, the couple put in a series of wide, over-the-sink windows that face the backyard, all-new appliances, wood cabinets and an island with laminate countertops.

"We know that HGTV says you've got to have granite and stainless steel," Porter said. "That's what someone will want who buys this place, but, oh, that's not for us. We make pasta on these."

They also added a mud/laundry room and full bathroom off the kitchen in 1995, recycling dark cabinetry they had removed from their place in Corryville.

The mudroom and bathroom, Porter said, were essential to their gardening lifestyle.

"We can work in the garden, clean up here and leave all that stuff there so we don't have to traipse dirt into the house" she said.

A second stairwell between the dining room and kitchen splits at a landing. To the right is the master bedroom suite the couple created by enclosing and converting a sleeping porch into a spacious modern bathroom. To the left are a middle room used to study and play music (Leonard taught beginning band for 17 years at Fairview-Clifton German Language School and seven years at Clark Montessori), three bedrooms and a full bathroom that they added.

Though old, the Wittekind farmhouse has what a modern family needs, the couple said, except perhaps the aforementioned granite countertops and air-conditioning. Only the master suite has a window unit, but the main rooms all have ceiling fans. The house is heated by a hot-water boiler.

Porter and Webb said an HVAC appraiser estimated it would cost them $15,000 to install an air-conditioning system to cool the second floor, creating a system where the air would trickle down to the first floor and be circulated by the ceiling fans.

"We've never wanted AC, because then you have to transition back and forth between outside and in.

"If you're going to have a huge yard, you're going to be outside most of the time," Porter said.

"You really do acclimate to (not having AC)," said Porter, whose adult children to this day do not have AC in their homes.

What the couple has that is thoroughly modern is a sustainable lifestyle in an old house that has been upgraded by "elbow grease" only.

"We see our house as a blend between historically old and sort of modern," Porter said.

Their farmhouse is as green as it could be, Leonard said, but the projects they completed over the year have moved it significantly away from red: Solar panels on the roof heat the water, low-emissivity windows and upgraded insulation in the attic and basement save heat in the winter and cool air in the summer, and large barrels capable of collecting hundreds of gallons of water during every rain storm are part of a system that nourishes their yard, has lowered their bills and reduced energy -- human included -- spent on maintenance.

The couple is preparing to move into a 2,100-square-foot unit at Hammond North Condos where they will have access to walking trails through woods and meadows and a large terrace view of LaBoiteaux Woods and Spring Grove Cemetery. The place is a perfect match for them, and it means they can stay in their beloved College Hill.

"We've been very active in the community," particularly in the neighborhood's public garden, Porter said. "There's lots you can do here. It's a great, great community."

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