Home Tour: Ruth Lyons' historic farmhouse gets modern renovation while retaining original charm
TV legend's Mount Airy home sits on 4.6 acres
Brent Coleman | WCPO contributor
5:00 AM, Oct 13, 2017
8:40 AM, Oct 14, 2017
CINCINNATI -- What are the chances television talk show pioneer Ruth Lyons would like what new owners have done to her historic farmhouse in Mount Airy? Maybe 50-50?
Probably much better than that, actually.
Former Cincinnati Board of Education member Alex Kuhns and his wife of three years, ex-Ohio state representative Christie Bryant Kuhns, bought the 4,300-square-foot Lyons home and its 4.6 acres in August 2016.
Working with builder RWB Properties & Construction of Finneytown, the couple made substantial changes to upgrade, brighten and open up the house to accommodate their modern lifestyle and a second child due in December.
The former owners of a two-bedroom fixer-upper in Northside blew out walls in a 1,200-square-foot addition that was built by Lyons (1905-88) and her husband, Herman Newman (1906-91). They transformed it into one large, high-ceilinged space that serves as kitchen, parlor and living room.
They fashioned a one-bedroom guest suite on the first floor that features private entry, a full bath with laundry room and an apartment-sized, eat-in kitchen.
Upstairs, they created a full bathroom between two children's bedrooms, vaulted the ceiling in the new master bedroom suite and gave it two walk-in closets, a second laundry room, a Carrara marble bathroom and French doors that lead to a new 14-by-20-foot open deck that required a major roofline change.
They built a wooden porch across the front of the house, extended the roof over it and moved the side front door to its original position in the center of the porch. They painted the house, which was white with red shingles, a light gray with white trim, removed its red window awnings and connected the house to a formerly detached, two-car garage.
That sounds like a lot until you notice what the Kuhns intentionally preserved.
Saved from the dark pine recreation room in the Lyons' addition is a custom, built-in pine cabinet. Low cabinet seating that Lyons and Newman wrapped around their pine-paneled living room survived, as did the original windows above them. The room's stone fireplace and hearth were modified slightly but look much the same.
The Kuhns saved and refinished the 19th-century yellow pine floors in the dining room, study and guest suite, laying new pine floors where there was no old pine. Four floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the study survived the remodel, as did the double-landing staircase.
Outside, the in-ground, aluminum swimming pool is as it was, and an old dinner bell used by previous owner Ron Schweitzer to call his eight children home still hangs from a nearby pole.
The work took just eight months to complete, except for landscaping and a few minor touches. The Kuhns' and RWB's whirlwind work was well appreciated by Schweitzer, who bought the house from Lyons and Newman in the early 1970s, and some of his children when they returned for a post-remodel tour.
"They seemed to love it," Alex Kuhns said. "The dad couldn't believe it. He kept saying, 'You thought to do this?' "
Alex, who grew up in Northside and has a master's degree from Lindsey Wilson College in south-central Kentucky, and Christie, who grew up in Roselawn and earned her law degree at the University of Cincinnati, had their first date over coffee at Clifton's Baggio's Bistro in late 2012. They married two years later on the grounds of their alma mater, Walnut Hills High School, and their son, Kai, was born the next year.
At that point, the two-bedroom house they renovated on Otte Avenue in Northside became impractical. They had no room for overnight guests.
"Even if we didn't have any other kids, we didn't have a guest room," Christie said. "(Kai's) toys alone kind of pushed us out of the house. We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it, and it had become ours. I didn't want to leave."
The Kuhns shared three musts for their new place:
They wanted a large property for family gatherings like Christie's family enjoyed when she was a little girl. "We wanted land," Christie said. "I grew up with and still love 'Little House on the Prairie' ... but in the city, it's hard to find a lot of land on our budget."
They wanted to live in a neighborhood they could help revitalize. Mount Airy met that standard. "We thought we could help start the rebirth of it," she said. "Mount Airy has a lot of assets. I think it's a hidden gem in the city."
They were committed to hiring as many minority-owned companies as they could to complete their renovation.
Patience on price
The Kuhns first visited the Lyons House in January 2016. They thought it was dark and maze-like inside but liked that the property included direct access to the 1,459-acre Mount Airy Forest, where Alex could play his beloved disc golf and the kids could explore when they got older.
"The first time we saw it, we liked it and saw its potential, but the price was not affordable for us to do a renovation," Christie said.
Alex, who had worked in construction and seen many dilapidated, even "creepy" properties, said he sensed the love and positive spirit that Lyons, Newman and the Schweitzer family had brought to the house.
Christie agreed: "Even though it hadn't been remodeled in years, you could see it was a special place."
When the price came down seven months after that first visit, the Kuhns struck a deal with Schweitzer, bought the Lyons House and began planning the remodel.
Alex said he is especially proud of the master suite, which required raising the roof in the dead of winter.
"Now it's a special part of the house, where it used to be kind of like, 'Ooooh,'" he said, cringing.
In addition to the master suite and front porch, one of the drastic changes the Kuhns made occurred in the Lyons’ addition at the back of the house. The enclosed kitchen was classic 1970s, with heavy wood cabinetry, outdated appliances and orange Formica countertops.
The Kuhns gutted it and removed a dividing wall. The new kitchen features custom gray cabinetry by Unity Kitchen and Bath of Fairfield, glittering white quartz counter and central island tops, a white porcelain farmhouse sink and stainless steel appliances.
What used to be the Lyons’ recreation room -- which featured dark pine ceilings, beams and paneled walls in a scallop motif and a professional-quality billiards table in the middle -- also was gutted, except for one cabinet. Today, that cabinet serves as a bar. Placed on top is a sign that reads "Mable's Mercantile," an homage to Christie's middle name and Olson's Mercantile in "Little House on the Prairie."
The Kuhns removed a second wall that closed in the recreation room from the living room, opening up the entire back of the house. Some pine paneling and a deep drop ceiling that extended out into the vaulted living room to create a den-like feel were removed. Salvaged paneling was reused where needed, and the now big and spacious room's light gray paint job brightens Kai's carpeted play space.
The result is a lovable, high-functioning family home for the early 21st century, just like it was for Ruth Lyons 50 years ago.