Old horse barn gives birth to new dream home

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-08 05:00:44-05

ANDERSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Jerry Whitney wasn’t looking to move, but he was looking for a clear route from his Anderson Township home to the airport on a day when interstate traffic was heavy. So he cut down Five Mile Road toward Kellogg Avenue.

“I didn’t want to miss my flight,” he said. “And then I saw this place and said, ‘Oh, my god, look at that barn.’ And then I saw a ‘for sale’ sign and Five Mile Creek behind it.”

He fell in love. When his wife of 14 years, Karen, saw it, she fell in love, too.

On Dec. 31, 2012, seven days after that first sighting, the Whitneys bought the 30-year-old horse barn and its seven acres at a 30 percent discount from a motivated seller. It cost them $300,000.

Fast forward 18 months and the Whitneys – who had no previous home construction experience – moved out of a 300-square-foot trailer on the property into a home like no other, a dream house they played a big role in designing and decorating.

The shock of the unexpected experience has worn off, but not the excitement and contentment they feel for their fully modern, energy-efficient barn house. Also still strong is their appreciation for their project partners – among them architect Marc McConnell, builder Paul Kapitula, Keidel Supply, A&S Lighting, Tate Builders Supply, Cooknee Cabinets, KBR Countertop Specialists, Home Depot, IKEA, The Container Store and Peoples First Savings Bank.

All these forces came together to produce a four-bedroom, three-bathroom showcase of modern architecture and engineering that surprisingly fits inside a big, old, round-top home originally built for horses.

Not only does the place run on a geothermal energy system that held down last summer’s utility bills to $90 per month, it is designed to be the Whitneys’ "forever home." The couple asked for and got what architects call “living in place” features that will allow the Whitneys, who are in their 60s, to stay in their home permanently.

The house’s hallways and doors are extra-wide. There’s a 4-foot-wide shaft just behind a door off the entry hall where an elevator to the second floor and its master bedroom can be installed if and when it is needed. Next to the shaft is a laundry room with a chute from the second floor. The master bathroom’s shower door is wide and wheelchair-accessible. Even the landscaping is designed to require minimal maintenance and no chemicals.

There are picture windows in every main room through which the Whitneys, for the rest of their lives, can watch the water rush down Five Mile Creek, lots of wildlife – deer, cardinals, doves, woodpeckers, nut hatches, tufted titmice and blue jays – and the moon and stars.

Take the Tour

The Whitneys – she’s from Bridgetown and is a University of Cincinnati graduate, he is from Lima, Ohio, and is a Xavier University graduate – wanted to retain the bones of the barn. And there’s no mistaking what it used to be when you turn off Five Mile Road onto their curved driveway. The house’s Quonset hut shape is enhanced by two second-floor dormers, a glassy grand entrance and the original cupola poking out at the roof’s center.

The barn’s industrial-strength foundation passed inspection with flying colors and was retained, but most of the interior – the stables, tack room and hayloft – was gutted to the arched laminated beams that support the rounded roof. To keep it water-tight during a 100-year flood, the entire house had to be raised 14½ inches.

Architect McConnell was so inspired by the place, Jerry Whitney said, that he sketched the floor plan in eight hours and then started marking off the layout with blue tape.

What strikes visitors upon entering the Whitneys’ home is its whiteness, its angular walls and windows, and its uncluttered, modern décor. Yet hints of the barn are there in the entry in the form of a frosted two-paneled sliding door that leads into the living room and a long, floating ledge made of chocolate walnut Jerry Whitney picked up on a one-day drive to Kansas City, Missouri, and back.

The Whitneys had hoped to repurpose two sliding wood doors in the old stable, but their condition was too poor.

“So we were in IKEA one day, and we saw those panels on some cabinets and said, ‘There’s our barn doors,’” said Jerry Whitney, a sales executive with a logistics software company.

The doors might leak a little heat, but the gas fireplace and heated, polished concrete floors keep the living room warm.

“My parents came here for two weeks in October, and they were so warm. My mother learned how to work the thermostat and kept it at 70 degrees. We practically had to kick them out,” joked Karen Whitney, a longtime physician’s assistant.

To the left of the entry hall and beyond the elevator shaft, laundry room and mechanicals closet are two bedrooms that share what the Whitneys call their “spa room.” The bathroom features sparkly, speckled gray quartz countertops, a dual-sink vanity with matching mirrors, a standalone soaking tub and a glassed-in shower with grass-like textured tile. Chrome is the metal of choice for the hardware and fixtures.

To be added to the “spa” features later this year is a fenced-in outdoor shower.

While family photographs in the bedroom at the front of the house stir memories, the bedroom in the back is filled with a mix of family-made art and heirlooms and images from vacations the couple and their four adult daughters have taken.

A glass door from the back bedroom leads to a covered concrete deck that stretches almost the entire length of the house. The deck faces Five Mile Creek and the woods of Withrow Nature Preserve and is accessible from the living and great rooms as well as the 2½-car garage.

Walking back to the entry hall, visitors pass a colorful Campari liqueur poster and a large portrait of an 11-year-old Jerry painted by the late College of Mount St. Joseph art instructor John Nartker.

Across the hall is a stairwell that reaches to the roof. It features a light oak staircase with stainless steel chords and rail and leads up to two more bedrooms, the kitchen and a beamed great room. The vaulted room includes a sectional couch and two stuffed chairs, a glassed-in wine closet, recessed lighting and one floor lamp, a 9-by-6 picture window, a gas fireplace, a big-screen television and a separate dining area with chandelier that faces the front yard.

The great room is where they wind down on weekends with wine and the Wall Street Journal or watch birds – on sunny or gray days.

“Even if it’s raining, we don’t care. With all these windows, it doesn’t matter,” Karen Whitney said.

Three bird feeders hang off the fully plumbed, second-story deck where the couple grills out with friends and watches the ever-running creek and forest.

The 30-foot-long deck is party central when the weather is nice, but the kitchen fills the bill in the winter. Stainless steel appliances, a long, two-tiered white quartz cooking and eating island and glossy white and textured gray European-style cabinets give the kitchen the modern feel Karen Whitney prefers.

“It’s a fun, fun, fun kitchen to cook in,” she said. “We hosted Thanksgiving last year, and I couldn’t believe how easy it was to cook the meal. There’s so much space and convenience.”

To the side of the kitchen and overlooking the stairwell’s cathedral-shaped window is a quartz-topped desk that the couple uses as command central, to pay bills and handle other household business. 

Two bedrooms are situated down a hall behind the kitchen, but before them is an inviting, steel-railed spiral staircase. Karen Whitney uses the slanted-wall and naturally lighted bonus room – which has two large cubbyholes behind doors for storage –for yoga, Pilates and TRX workouts. The third floor’s balcony hovers over the kitchen and great room and provides an up-close view of a special light fixture suspended inside the windowed cupola.

“My parents gave us that,” she said of the brass and crystal chandelier. “It came out of the old Shubert Theatre in Cincinnati.” It lights up the great room like a stationary disco ball, her husband said.

A guest room with full bath and the master with bath and massive walk-in closet are back down the spiral staircase and below the bonus room. The couple outfitted their closet with a system purchased at the Container Store that holds all their clothes and accessories. There is no dresser or wardrobe in their room, just open space and a clear view from the bed of the backyard and the rising moon.

“It’s the most wonderful bed to sleep in, until you have to get up,” Karen Whitney said.

'We Took a Gamble on it'

The Whitneys had just remodeled their contemporary house on Little Dry Run Road, which sat on a half-acre and was what they thought they always wanted. Leaving it was far from their minds – until they spotted the old horse barn on Five Mile.

“We took a gamble on it,” said Jerry Whitney, whose experience rebuilding vintage cars equipped him with mechanical skills and gave him confidence they could build their own home.

“Our financial adviser said, ‘You guys are crazy if you don’t do it,’” he said. So they did, but not without sacrifice. Living in a trailer during the treacherous winter of 2013-14 and storing their belongings in a nearby 20-by-30-foot shipping container for 18 months weren’t the only challenges they faced.

“We’d never built a house before or made all the decisions we had to make, sometimes instantaneous ones like when your builder asks, ‘What do I do now?’ and you’ve got to have a decision right then,” he said.

“We turned it into an adventure that we could write a book about,” Jerry Whitney said. “Karen’s quote is, ‘We never thought we would live in a dream house, and now we own one.’ To go from a normal house to this is just amazing. I swear we were meant to be here.”

Chance to See the Whitneys’ House

The 2016 green living tours by the Cincinnati chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council includes the Whitney house on Sept. 17 ($15 for non-members). To join the Green Living Member Circle, click here. The group will tour a modern house in Northside on Jan. 16.