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Home Tour: Spectacular view of the Ohio River

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-19 07:57:44-05

CINCINNATI -- Dave and Pam Zelman seemingly could talk about their house forever. But forever will end shortly when the Riverside couple sells the 1840 Temple Style Greek Revival home they’ve preserved and improved.

“It took 15 of 17 years here to get it the way we wanted, which is ironic now that we’re moving,” Pam said.

Named for its creator and original owner, the Matthew Williams House — all four bedrooms, two bathrooms and 3,336 square feet of it — is on the market for $399,000. The Zelmans have already purchased what Pam calls a “practically new” 1858 house in Holly Springs, Miss., which is near her aging parents and not far from the rest of her family in Memphis, Tenn.

Behind them, the Zelmans will leave one of the last of a long row of stately homes that once lined River Road when it was a narrow dirt path that hugged hillsides covered with Catawba grapes, extended west to William Henry Harrison’s estate in North Bend and eventually led out to the rich agricultural fields of southeastern Indiana.

Today it is U.S. 50, a four-lane highway Irish immigrant Matthew McWilliams and his wealthy neighbors wouldn’t recognize. He would, however, recognize the view of the Ohio River he had off his antebellum veranda.

Pam Zelman said it had been a privilege to live in and fix up the McWilliams House.

“Antebellum homes define the South,” she said. “Here in Cincinnati, it’s a little different. I think having an antebellum house in Cincinnati is a rarity. I think I’ll miss this house, in this place and with a river view in a middle-class neighborhood. It’s really uncommon. This place matters.”

Long Admired Before Purchased

It was Pam’s preservation architect husband who first spotted the McWilliams House. 

“When I was an architectural student in the 1980s, I’d drive around looking at old houses and was always just in love with it,” Dave recalled. He saw a "for sale" sign in front of the house at a time he and Pam were living in Hamilton with their 3-year-old son. Moving at that time wasn’t in his hand of cards.

Three years later, however, “when our business life and all the entertainment was in downtown Cincinnati, Hamilton didn’t make a lot of sense to us anymore,” he said. They checked out the McWilliams House in 1998, which was owned by a fellow architect, Becky Bredwell.

“We knocked on her door and made a deal with glasses of lemonade,” Dave said.

“And chocolate cake,” Pam added.

The house, with its classic central halls on both floors, was in good shape overall. The green shutters on the front windows were original as were many of the glass panes throughout the house. Bredwell had upgraded the second-floor bathroom and shored up the house structurally.

“(Bredwell) did all the heavy lifting,” Dave said, but the house required new electrical wiring and plumbing. The house went without indoor plumbing for its first 97 years, Dave said.

The couple removed carpeting in almost every room, exposing squeaky but original pine floor boards that were painted barn red but responded well to stripping and refinishing. The avid antique collectors found the house to be very receptive to furnishings from various periods, as well.

“The nice thing about Greek Revival homes is they are reasonably spare and lend themselves to furnishings of all sorts," Pam said. "It’s a very flexible house type.”

Bigger Changes Were Needed

The Zelmans went about restoring and improving the house for six years before deciding they needed a structural and layout change. Their work on and research into the McWilliams House history was rewarded in 2005 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After two years of planning, in 2006 they closed off the original side entrance that opened awkwardly into the kitchen, which they then remodeled. They designed a 300 square foot addition — onto to the back of the house so as not to disrupt the architecture of the front — which is now an expansive mudroom with storage locker, a second full bathroom, a pantry and a door to the enclosed backyard and half-walled patio.

Features in the 2006 spaces that reflect the Zelmans’ love for old things include salvaged French doors leading to the pantry room with its round, stained-glass window that came out of a demolished house in Corryville, industrial pendant lights from a local school and an extra-tall antique, porcelain farmhouse sink.

“I’m going to miss that sink most of all,” Pam said. And she’ll miss the first-floor bathroom vanity that had been a lectern in a Burlington church. When they bought it, it was covered in brown latex paint, but careful stripping revealed the original blue milk paint underneath was intact. 

“I know whoever buys this house will rip it out,” Pam said of the sink. “I just don’t want to know about it. A lot of effort when into it.”

The Zelmans furnished their 14-by-14-foot kitchen with a high island table custom-made of reclaimed wood, bead board ceiling, new chocolate-color upper cabinets, open shelves that flank a brick fireplace (non-working) and new appliances. They chose to replace the flooring with inexpensive pine that is butt-jointed and secured with old fashioned rose head nails from an outlet in Vermont.

The kitchen opens through a 3-foot-wide door to a 15-by-15-foot dining room, whose ceiling is 11-feet, 2-inches like all the rooms on the first floor. Among its many antiques is a giclee copy of a portrait of the first of Matthew McWilliams’ wives, both of whom were named Elizabeth.

Library With River View

Beyond the dining room is the central hall, which is 9 feet wide and runs 30 feet from the front to the original back of the house. Its walls are blonde-colored and painted to look like stone. Reproduction chandeliers hang at each end.

To the left is a narrow opening to the second-story stairwell. Three other wide openings lead to a library and parlor in the front and a rear parlor. Both parlors are faux-painted and have non-working fireplaces and matching mantels.

The library, which likely was used as an office or bedroom (it has a closet) by previous owners, is “the smallest, most intimate room in the house,” Pam said. Its two sash windows face the Ohio River, and its built-in shelves are perfect for books or to display collections.

Pam said she knows the next owners might choose to repaint the parlors, but she cringes at the thought of losing the Groucho Marx, saying they painted along the wall above the longest bookshelf: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Through the wide, side-lighted door with transom and original rim-set lock is the veranda — 1½ stories high and supported by four fluted, Greek pillars. The Zelmans shored up and rebuilt the veranda, installing a grand central staircase and modern, durable planks.

Although the staircase is only 2-feet, ¼-inch-wide, Pam said they were able to get all the furniture they desired to the second story, where there are four corner bedrooms upstairs, three of which measure 15-by-15-feet. 

The 8½-foot ceilings on the east and west sides of the rooms slant to 5½ feet on the outside walls to accommodate the Greek Revival roofline. Four windows sit low in the south-facing rooms to accommodate the architecture. They pop out when ventilation is desired.

The second floor bathroom/laundry likely was a nursery when McWilliams built the house in 1840. In those days, bathrooms were outhouses and kitchens were in separate buildings to minimize damage from fire. The Zelmans’ unique bathroom features an extra long tub made from pieces of antique marble and copper off a tub surround that had been in the basement. They hide their washer and dryer behind a curtain in the room.

Home Helped Make Friends

Although he has a “new” old house to work on in Mississippi, Dave Zelman said the McWilliams House would always be special to him. Writing and speaking about it before preservation groups “has been a tremendous opportunity for me to be a little bit of an ambassador for the West Side,” he said.

“I get to tell them what a river city this was in the 19th century. People, as soon as I mention this place, they’re thrilled that we’ve been stewards to it and keep it in good shape. It has helped us make friends with a lot of people who have memories of it.”

It might be a struggle to find a buyer for his piece of riverside history, Zelman said, but “being able to be in this house and being able to get to Downtown, to Northern Kentucky, to Hyde Park so quickly is really special.”