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Home Tour: Pops conductor's home is a showpiece

Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-12 11:34:44-05

CINCINNATI -- Conducting a Home Tour interview with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra’s high-energy maestro John Morris Russell was bound to be an up-tempo experience. It was a pleasant surprise, however, that his wife, historical preservationist Thea Tjepkema, would be equally passionate about sharing their 1929 Tudor Revival home in Hyde Park.

To keep them from talking over each other, Russell suggested they split up. He would take photographer Gary Landers on a tour while Tjepkema (pronounced CHEP-kemah) would walk me through the vaulted living room and library/music room of their five-bedroom, 3,994-square-foot-home.

But before we broke apart, they just had to tell us the serendipitous path that led them to home ownership.

Russell and Tjepkema had their children, 16-year-old Jack and 14-year-old Alma, while living in a 1922 Arts & Crafts bungalow a few blocks away. It was during the years Russell was associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as well as the Pops under the late Erich Kunzel.

The family’s together time included having breakfast along a stretch of Erie Avenue locals call East Hyde Park.

“We used to take the kids and walk between our house and the Coffee Emporium, and we’d always walk down this street,” Russell said. “I’d say, ‘Honey, when my boat comes in, we’ll live on this street. But you pick the house.’”

But Russell landed a conducting job in Windsor, Ontario, and the family moved away for a number of years. They were happy “living the Canadian life” in 2009 when Kunzel died and the Pops called on Russell to take his place. He, Tjepkema and the two kids moved back to Cincinnati and hired Team Chabris of Keller Williams Advisory Realtors to find them a home on Victoria Avenue between Paxton and Erie avenues.

They were in luck. A single father with two daughters who owned a spacious old Tudor Revival home was about to downsize and sell. The agents took Russell and Tjepkema to see the house.

“I saw it said and said, ‘Oh my god, this is the house that we picked,’” Russell said.

“So like any good Cincinnatians, we returned and moved in a couple of blocks from where we used to live,” he said.

Once inside, the house looked like it belonged in the same fairy tale the couple was living.

Plenty Of Room To Entertain

The living space in the front of the house and the paved patio off its back side were ideal for the many large, music-oriented parties the couple hosts. Fifty people can fit in the living room, and the dining room table Russell inherited seats 16. 

The living room, with its original, all-wood, beamed and vaulted ceiling, is acoustically awesome, Russell said. And the staircase landing’s balcony window provides a perfect spot for the couple to sit, listen to ensembles perform and “reign supreme” over their party guests, Tjepkema said.

The balance between window and wall space is just right for their 12 potted house plants and their music- and European scenes-themed art collection. There’s even a lofty spot for Russell to hang his three European deer antlers that came from the Mariemont Inn via Wooden Nickel Antiques in Over-the-Rhine.

Despite all this goodness, however, the house needed substantial upgrading.

The couple began to tackle projects soon after taking occupancy in July 2011. Previous owners had done well to preserve and add to its original Tudor character, but major issues remained. Russell and Tjepkema’s to-do list began with interior painting, new insulation and heating and cooling.

The ‘Long Game’ of Remodeling

The couple — he with his magic-baton leadership skills and she with her passion for preserving history — were undaunted by the work that lay ahead.

“I’ve got to tell you John’s favorite quote: ‘The only thing that works in an old house is the owner,’” Tjepkema said with laugh. 

Russell said he approached their projects with this strategy: “We like to play the long game: Do it once; do it right.”

That meant going all in with a geothermal heating and cooling system consisting of a loop of four, 250-foot-deep tubes, even though it meant living with a torn up front yard for about a year.

“We were the laughing stock of the neighborhood. Those tubes have to settle for about a year, so we had this big muddy pond in the front yard,” Russell said. “I was so tempted to stick a sign in it that said ‘Hyde Park Swim Club.’”

Their energy bills average $250 in the winter and $150 in the summer.

Tjepkema, who as a preservationist has a lot of experience using historical colors and textures, became a painting contractor in the first months of their occupancy.

“When we first moved in, it was a painting marathon,” Russell recalled. “Because everything was white except for the dining room, which was yellow with tiny speckles,” said Tjepkema, finishing her husband’s sentence.

She turned to the historic palette of paints designed by Sherwin Williams to capture the essence of 1929. She painted the living room, for example, in a very pale yellow and the family room in a mellow gray.

With the painting completed, the couple went about decorating. Tjepkema hung her antique and vintage art works, which include an 1891 bird’s-eye-view map of Savannah, Ga., where she met her husband, and one of northern Netherlands, where her Dutch family is from. One of the largest paintings they hung is an early 1800s oil painting of Russell’s great-great-great grandfather, Irishman William Kerr.

He joked that when he had the 200-year-old painting examined by an art professional, the appraiser said something like “Well, it’s in a nice original frame.” 

The library — which former owners converted from a porch, using oak beams and trim around the windows and double, leaded doors — is home to more than a dozen small busts of famous composers — among them Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt, Verdi, Handel and Mendelssohn. The room also accommodates the couple’s pride and joy: a baby grand made by Cincinnati’s own Baldwin Piano Co. in about 1929 that had been owned by an icon who conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1946 to 1958.

Inscribed on the side of the black piano are the words: “Personal Piano of conductor Max Rudolf, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.”

They Call it Five Oaks

The Russell-Tjepkema House is perched back from the street on a lot that features five mature oak trees. To the right of its classic, wooden Tudor door with stained glass is a small tile made for the couple by a Michigan artist by impressing the leaves from the three oak varieties on the property — pin, white and laurel — along with two acorns, which represent their children.

Guests enter a cozy foyer, which includes a coat closet behind another Tudor-arched door. To the left and down a couple of steps is the dining room. Angled off to the right, through a thick arch that was faux-painted to look like limestone, is the grand living room. Its vaulted ceiling — the only one he knows of on the block that was not painted white, Russell said — impresses the eye, as do the textured walls, original oak floors and hand-carved oak fireplace surround the couple believes previous owners imported from England.

Stretching across the back of the house are a powder room off a short, step-up hallway that links to the step-down kitchen, Jack’s room with a full bathroom and a family room with added built-in shelves and a wet bar. 

Russell points with pride to an antique Victrola cabinet in the far corner of the family room and shows how to control its volume by opening and shutting its doors. He raves about the cabinet’s stippled patina as an example of selective antiques shopping.

“All the pieces we’ve got … we just wait, wait, wait to find the one with the right texture,” Russell said.

Occasionally, he rolls the Victrola into the living room and plays old 78 records on it.
“It fills the house with sound. It’s really incredible. This little thing is awesome,” Russell said.

Like the French doors in the library, the windows in the family room open to a world of wildlife. Tjepkema said the visitors to their yard include two barred owls, wild turkeys, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, foxes and even an occasional coyote.

Kitchen Remodel in Future

One major project, among several, left to do is raising the drop ceiling in the kitchen. Expanded years ago by removing the butler’s pantry off the side door, the kitchen is a little too cave-like for Russell and Tjepkema. 

But they will keep what is often the talking point in the otherwise modern kitchen: a two-level cabinet with 1980-style rough tile top and doors hand-painted with what appear to be Europeans from several centuries ago frolicking in colorful costumes.

The bottom cabinet doors are a favorite of Tjepkema because they appear to be Dutch figures. Also a favorite keepsake of hers is a small piece of Goedewaagen Pottery from the Netherlands that she displays in their Empire-style dining room along with new pieces of Rookwood, Teco and Pewabic pottery and an old Ohio piece by McCoy Pottery.

Below the house are a two-car garage (there’s also a three-bay garage behind the backyard basketball court) and three rooms that most likely had been for house staff at one time. One room serves as Russell’s office, and a second is a “teen den” with new tile flooring and a flatscreen television in a room-wide entertainment center the couple installed.

A third, smaller room leading to the garage includes a wine cellar Russell dug out of space that used to be a fire-bricked incinerator. He and his son made the cellar door with wood they had cut and milled from an ash tree and dogwood in their yard.

The project is representative of the sweat equity Russell and Tjepkema have put into their property. Sure, Russell said, they hired out some of the big jobs, but the ideas and much of the accomplishments were theirs.

“You just do one big project a year, just like you buy one antique a year,” Russell said.

“Just one?” responded Tjepkema, whose to-come treasures include a pair of end tables with lion’s feet legs for the living room. She would also like to remodel their master bedroom suite, which was not part of our tour.

No matter what changes are in store for the house’s décor, there has to be plenty of table-top space for Russell to conduct his business.

“We cleaned up before you came,” she said, “but there’s usually this music laid out everywhere. On the table over there, the coffee table here, the dining room table….”