CINCINNATI -- The story of Stone Cliff -- a massive Tudor-style mansion built for a little-known millionaire in Hyde Park 88 years ago -- is one for house lovers who love a miraculous comeback.
If you've driven the eastern stretch of Erie Avenue that leads into Madisonville, you've likely noticed the stone gate pillars and conical guardhouse that mark the entrance to Stone Cliff, but you might have missed the stately mansion that sits across from Hyde Park Country Club a minute's drive up a pebbled road.
It was built for Gilbert Mosby, a one-time waiter who grew up a couple curves east of Wild Turkey Distillery in central Kentucky and went on to invent a cure-all elixir called Konjola that he parlayed into millions and a lifestyle more Hollywood than Cincinnati.
Mosby hired architect John C. Grunkemeyer and contractor J.H. Eberhardt to build him a mansion just before divorce ran the "Konjola King" out of Stone Cliff and ultimately out of town. The house, which Mosby lost in court, was hardly the palace it had been when entrepreneurial businessmen Kevin Carson and Daniel Caskey bought the 8,650-square-foot, five-bedroom, 5 1/2-bathroom building in 2011.
Seated under the new coffered ceiling in his dining room, Carson recalled the first time he laid eyes on the house Mosby reportedly built for $300,000 in 1929 ($4.2 million in 2016 dollars).
Carson and Caskey bought the house for $977,000 in 2011 at about the time they sold their tanning salons. They moved in the following summer with a 10-year plan to redo the estate, not for resale, but for their comfort and entertaining purposes. But Caskey accepted a job with the new salon company owners in Dallas, prompting a move there.
The couple hopes to recoup what they spent on remodeling, restoration, the addition of a garage and swimming pool and upgrading to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standards. The asking price is $2,995,000.
"In Trump's terms, it was a mess. It was bad," joked Carson, who recalled winding his way through "boxes upon boxes" strewn about the house on his first visit. There was a tarp covering the roof of the garage/apartment building, and water had damaged books and furniture left behind by previous owners as well as plaster ceilings. The once-grand Rookwood swimming pool was beyond salvation and taking on water leaking from the house.
"I remember we walked the halls and said, 'What the hell are we going to do with it?' I thought it was a unique property and we should keep it," Carson said. "This house had a lot of issues, but we thought we could build something modern while repurposing its old things."
Word of the quality of the Mosby mansion makeover has spread all the way to Hollywood. Actors John Travolta and Kelly Preston rented it during the filming of "The Life and Death of John Gotti," although Carson and Caskey never met them during the weeks the couple occupied the mansion.
A general contractor is born
Carson chose to retire after selling their businesses, in part to oversee all that was left to be done to the Mosby mansion. The improvements, he said, just kept coming and coming.
They included a geothermal heating and cooling system that required the digging of 12 wells; total window restoration and re-insulation of 75 percent of the house; a house-wide computerized Crestron lighting, TV, sound and pool gate control system that can be activated by a single switch; a second garage with attached, covered patio, flat-screen television and sound systems; a saltwater pool with attached hot tub and pergola-covered deck with a second sound system; restoration of the original front porch; installation of a new back porch that looks as if it were built in 1929; replacement of invasive honeysuckle with appropriate landscaping -- and much more.
Carson hired Pella Windows and Doors to replace just about every opening in the house except its original, monogrammed bronze front door. The work yielded impressive results, Carson said, adding that "even the president of Pella came here to see what we did."
Not all the old things Carson encountered survived the makeover, which he directed with the goal of striking a balance between old and new. Carson said he wanted to preserve the home's classic Tudor interior lines while creating a modern flow from room to room, especially in the compartmentalized rooms flanking the kitchen at the back of the house.
He made sure certain original themes in the house, such as the dog-eared, rope-motif trim around many first-floor windows, were included in the new millwork created by Shea Conley of Inside Out Design Build Professionals. And he trusted the talented craftsmen Conley lined up to create unique new bathrooms using marble and tile in a gray, black and white color scheme.
Visitors approach the house on a restored driveway, winding their way through a once-overgrown landscape that boasts a new pergola and the same forested vistas Mosby must have enjoyed.
Original art tile surrounds the front door, and there is a compass made of colorful pottery embedded in the concrete entryway. Carson and Caskey had the front porch rebuilt with brick flooring and concrete pillars that feature LED lights that create a dramatic glow all around the house at night.
Around the back of the house next to the original garage with its now-gutted, two-bedroom apartment space, guests will find a new garage built with stones collected from the property. It features a copper roof that supports a solar-panel system.
The roof on the house, however, is covered with heavily brushed and green-stained terra cotta tiles that came in 12 different sizes and were laid like slate. Carson said they culled tiles off the old garage to repair those on the house that had caused some major leaking, particularly in the kitchen.
Old tile issues
There were tile challenges inside the house as well that were caused by the removal of dated -- and mostly non-working -- toilets. Taking out the back-mounted toilets left gaping holes in the bathrooms' 1929-era art tiles, most of which, Carson said, ranged from being thematically outdated to borderline garish in color. (He saved a dozen or more rare, floral accent tiles made by Rookwood Pottery that he hopes the next owners will cherish as much as he does.)
"I wanted to keep each of the bathrooms the way they were, but the colors were not in the palette of things I love," Carson said. "Dan said, 'I'm not living in a museum,' and I decided we couldn't live in a modern way and keep the tiles. It was regretfully done. It was really tough."
All the old bathroom tiles but those that form a dome in the master closet -- formerly the bathroom -- were replaced with stone and marble tiles in various classic patterns, such as hexagonal, basket weave and subway.
Period sconces were salvaged and hung in places more befitting 21st century living, and some old leaded glass was moved and/or used as doors in new living room cabinets. The basement, which Carson said was once Mosby's man cave, was redone with a new color scheme and added bar room, tanning room, full bathroom and gym room with a spa.
Red tile trim baseboards and windows in the basement had to go, Carson said, but he preserved the game-room atmosphere by restoring the galleon-themed black and silver tile fireplace and bringing in a billiards table. He modernized the ambience with a 90-inch flat-screen TV and rope lighting above the room's soffits.
All five bedrooms in the Mosby mansion are on the second and third floors. Three of them, including the master, branch off a second-floor landing that features a sitting area with a wide window looking out over the front yard.
Carson expanded the master suite into three rooms by stealing what had been a sixth bedroom and making it the bathroom with a free-standing soaking tub and a large and tiled shower angled in a corner and framed with a Tudor arch.
The second floor lost a bathroom and a couple of closets to create two more spacious bedrooms with their own bedrooms, as well as a laundry room.
The third floor, which Carson said has its own HVAC system and would be perfect for two children to share privately, features two slanted-wall bedrooms designed for house staff and a long family room that's equipped with kitchenette and big-screen TV.
Carson admitted that a lot of the luxury he and Caskey added to the Mosby mansion was added on the fly.
"I never thought we'd do what we did with it," Carson said.
Bonuses for the buyer
Whoever buys the Mosby mansion from Carson and Caskey will have several decisions to make. One is whether to buy 5 or all 9 acres of the estate (the asking price is for 5). Another is whether to negotiate the purchase of the furnishings Carson and Caskey won't be moving to Dallas.
A third opportunity is to complete the garage apartment, which Carson said is fully plumbed and was once the home of Mosby's chauffeur. All of its interior walls are gone, and the rafters have been raised, making it a blank slate for someone to create a guest suite, granny flat or private party room.