Home Tour: Italianate in Downtown Cincinnati displays original art, six fireplaces and modern update

Posted at 9:18 AM, Oct 31, 2014
and last updated 2017-07-18 08:23:40-04

CINCINNATI -- Suburban to city transplants Steve and Diana Sadowski are among the few -- and the lucky -- whose home features an original wall mural by renowned Cincinnati illustrator C.F. Payne.

The 3-foot wide, 10-foot tall “Pig in a Tuxedo” artwork is usually the first thing the couple shows off when new guests visit their 1888-built, two-story townhouse on West Ninth Street.

That’s because it’s right inside the Italianate home’s vestibule, hidden behind a hinged, Eastlake-style wooden panel that doubles as an interior front door.

The winged-pig image is a variation of an illustration Payne drew for Cincinnati Magazine’s 1995 best-of issue. The tuxedo-clad pink pig is shown in front of Union Terminal wearing a monocle and cracking a mischievous smile.

“When you open the panel, there he is, looking you right in the eye,” Steve Sadowski said.

Payne sketched the pig mural then painted it over a five-day period with the help of Art Academy of Cincinnati student Derek Alderfer.

The mural, appropriately signed D.A and C.F, was the brainchild of Payne and his boyhood buddy, Andy Howe, who was the creative force behind the massive remodel of the Sadowski house. The couple are pharmacists by education and work for the holding company Express Scripts, Steve in mergers and acquisitions and Diana in pharmacy.

“I told the Sadowskis I was doing something special . . . and if they didn’t like it, I’d paint it over with white paint,” Howe said.

He didn’t have to. The mural has been a big hit.

Howe, a Wyoming native and high school mate of Payne, is president of Cranewoods LLC development company in Jacksonville, Fla. He bought the Ninth Street house in 2012 with the intention of remodeling then reselling it.

Diana Sadowski explained why and how she and her husband moved from the northern suburbs to their Downtown home.

The couple and their two children, now in college, were living in South Lebanon when Diana was diagnosed with cancer in 2007.

“Steve and I decided as I was finishing my treatments that once we got our kids out of high school we were going to do something we really, really wanted to do,” Diana said.

“That’s when we started coming Downtown and discovered how wonderful the changes are down here. So the timepieces in our living room are a reminder to us every day, not how much time we have left but that this is exactly how and where we choose to spend our time every single day.”

They started scoping out inner-city real estate in 2009 with a targeted move date of 2013. They looked at four-story condominiums in Over-the-Rhine and new units in the McAlpin, American and Park Place buildings downtown. Some had too many stairs. Others had high homeowner association fees.

“We stalked the neighborhood for a couple of years,” Steve said. Their mode of operation was to park near Arnold’s Bar and Grill on East Eighth Street then walk through the city.

They saw the Cranewoods sign on the Ninth Street building and realized it was the kind of house and location they wanted: two-stories, beautiful fencing, a grand staircase and great interior architecture, all within walking distance of Over-the-Rhine’s Gateway Quarter, good restaurants, Fountain Square and Great American Ball Park.

The four-bedroom, three bathroom, 2,700-square-foot home came with original radiant heat, central air conditioning, a private side patio and three parking spots out back. But it was “pretty much gutted,” Steve said, when he and Diana first saw the interior.

Nevertheless, the Sadowskis negotiated a $675,000 presale with Howe and pretty much turned the remodeling over to him and his team, which included contractor Chris Wiedemann, faux painter Angela Allison, cabinet maker Don Justice and interior designers Nancy Paul and Julie Bell.

The result is an architecturally old and restored interior whose décor of an original Paul Vollman painting, vintage posters from Jack Wood Gallery, local beer-themed illustrations by Jim Effler and modern lighting fixtures and furniture transition it through the 20th century into the 21st.

The hardwood floor restoration was one of Howe’s biggest challenges, he said. An upstairs bedroom, the only room in the house that is carpeted, supplied replacement boards needed elsewhere in the house.

Howe realized power sanders would remove too much of the flooring’s nicks, knocks and nail holes that he wanted to preserve. The solution was to have his crew get down on their hands and knees to sand and scrape off the old finish.

A few staining techniques were tried but failed to match the original hardwood.

“I didn’t want to lose that patina, but I couldn’t get it to happen. It just totally frustrated me,” Howe said.

“Then we were standing in the kitchen one day. I saw that a UPS guy had left a delivery by the side door. I went over to get the box and accidentally dropped my coffee on the floor. It didn’t look so dark that it hid the history of the floor. We figured that’s our color.”

Howe found a match to the coffee stain color in Minwax’s PolyShades, an all-in-one blend of wood stain and urethane.
Howe said his attention to detail led to less expensive projects than floor refinishing.

He estimated it took him “hours and hours” of shopping online sites such as eBay but only about $200 to purchase needed matches to the home’s old hardware, such as the starburst-design hinges on the Eastlake-style doors between the entry hall and living room.

“The funnest part (of the remodel) for me was researching and finding all those little pieces,” he said.

Howe’s goal was to keep the townhouse looking vintage but fresh. He saved the original chandelier medallions in the entry hall and living room and reproduced one for the dining room.

He fought to save imperfections in some of the original crown molding, an example of something Howe’s architect-friend Mark Gunther taught him to describe as being “gnarly good.”

“Everybody wanted to fix it. I had to keep stopping them from fixing it,” Howe said of the plaster molding around the 12-foot ceilings.

Among the old things that did need fixing were original sash windows, six fireplaces, the flat roof and air conditioning system.

The house lost its kitchen probably when it was converted to offices about 30 years ago. Howe reconfigured the back of the first floor and created a cooking oasis with General Electric, LG and Bertazzoni appliances, rough-edge granite countertops, farmhouse sink, custom 4-foot by 5-foot butcher block, custom cabinets and a backsplash made of miniature stainless steel subway tiles.

Off the kitchen, a long, custom bar was installed under the staircase. It features an under-counter refrigerator that holds up to seven 6-packs of bottled beer and seven 6-packs of canned.

A bedroom off the back makes for a cozy family TV and reading room. Next to it is a full, totally remodeled bathroom. Through another door off the kitchen is a paved patio perfect for gathering and grilling, and through a gate there are three private parking places.

Changes made upstairs were focused on the spacious master suite. Howe reconfigured walls and created a huge to-die-for bathroom with onyx flooring and shower stall, as well as a walk-in closet/dressing room. Under a modern glass chandelier in the middle of the bathroom is a sleekly shaped bathtub.

“This is what we wanted and probably more than we thought we’d get,” Steve said.

“It’s such a cool house,” agreed Howe.

Another cool thing is that there’s almost no yard to maintain, which is a big plus for the Sadowskis, Steve said.

“One of the happiest days of my life was getting rid of my yard tools and lawn mower,” he said.

It took months longer than planned to complete the remodel (the couple took occupancy in March), but that’s the nature of the business.

And the couple got something unexpected along with their new home: A new good friend in their builder.

“They’re always taking me out to dinner,” Howe said.

“Yah, but did he tell you he always pays?” Steve countered.


History of the house
The Sadowski house was built as investment rental property in 1888 and deeded to 38-year-old downtown resident Margaret Ross (1859-1931). (The National Register of Historic Places plaque hanging outside the house erroneously reads Margaret Rose.)

Ross’ husband, Charles B. Ross (1847-1912), was an “installment collector,” according to the 1900 Census. His father, Joseph Smith Ross, had been president of Portsmouth Insurance Company in Cincinnati and likely helped Charles and his only sibling, Joseph Jr., financially.

The two-story, Italianate building served as a rooming house, a nurses’ office/residence and business offices until Andy Howe bought it in 2012.

Finally, the home houses a single family.

This is part of the series where WCPO contributor Brent Coleman opens the front door to historic, unique, luxurious or just darned interesting homes in the Tri-State. Join him on the tour every Friday.​