CINCINNATI -- Joe and DeAnne Vallo's journey to becoming pioneer homeowners on Over-the-Rhine's West Elder Street culminated in the mural-like painting they commissioned artist Keith Neltner to create. It takes a little explaining -- about five minutes' worth -- but their devotion to their adopted city, its German heritage and its landmarks is palpable.
The block letters "CIN" are in one upper corner and "OTR" are in the other. Below them, respectively and in italics, are "Prost" (German for "Cheers!") and "Singen." In the middle, the phrase "A Toast to All Who Gather Here" and six stars encircle a beer label-like barmaid wearing a sash that reads "Vallo." Images of the Tyler Davidson Fountain in its original Fifth Street location and Music Hall flank the maid.
Joe does most of the explaining because the painting's less obvious elements relate to his family. The stars represent him and his five siblings, German-Americans who grew up in the small town of Minster in west-central Ohio. The "Toast" reference recalls a title of one of the songs his large family sang together.
Hidden to the average eye in the painting are replications of a wall-trim stencil discovered during Joe's thorough demolition of their nearly 150-year-old house.
Joe, who runs a one-man business management service, and DeAnne, who is an office coordinator at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, reared two children over a 21-year stretch while living in Loveland. As their kids became older and more independent, the couple found themselves drawn to downtown Cincinnati and began looking for a place to live there in 2010.
They hired real estate agent Cathy Frank to help them move into the city. They looked at renovations, apartments, condominiums and empty shells, and they almost bought a new place at 15th and Pleasant streets in Over-the-Rhine in 2012. But DeAnne was diagnosed with cancer, and the move was put off until she beat it.
In that interim, prices in OTR south of Liberty Street skyrocketed.
"What we had seen before now cost $100,000 more," Joe said. So when the Vallos resumed their search, they took it north of Liberty and found a property on a street virtually untouched by gentrification. They made their choice based on the property's garage space, proximity to Findlay Market and an unobstructed view of Mount Auburn. Since then, redevelopment in and around their Findlay Market neighborhood has taken off, making them feel a little bit like financial fortune tellers.
It took two years of working with Mark Gunther of Wichman Gunther Architects and contractor Joe O'Neil of J Michael Companies to get the house ready for occupancy in November 2015. It was quite the project, Joe said, but the shell of the old brick building was sturdy and stood up to the many changes required to create a comfortable empty nest.
An addition on top of an existing back building includes a 180-square-foot modern kitchen, a 500-square-foot deck and a third-floor guest room. Walls were moved, the staircase was rebuilt (the Vallos preserved its original cherry railing), two bathrooms were created and the building's street-level storefront -- which 90 years ago housed the produce shop of pizza king Buddy Larosa's grandfather, Sicilian immigrant Sebastiano LaRosa -- was "white boxed" for a future shop.
Original brick walls and ceiling beams were left exposed where possible, but just about every other hard surface in the house had to be replaced, as did the plumbing, lighting and heating and cooling systems.
Like coming home
Some of Joe's German relatives had floated down the Ohio River and settled in Cincinnati generations ago. He has been able to locate several inner-city houses in which they lived, and moving into their Elder Street digs was a joyous occasion.
"In an odd sense, I felt like I was coming home," Joe said, who believes a Vallo left Italy and took the name to Germany many generations ago.
"We just fell in love with it," DeAnne added. "Out of that horrible situation (her cancer) came the wonderful situation of living here. We love this so much more (than the new condo). We were saved by ourselves."
Guests traverse a chute-like hallway off the street to a central door that leads upstairs to the first level of the house's living space. To the right is the living room and its Cincinnati Vallo-centric painting. Two new openings, which are trimmed to match the house's original woodwork, as are the baseboards, lead into the kitchen.
Designed by Nisbet Brower, the kitchen features flat-front maple cabinets, a white subway-tile backsplash, stainless-steel appliances, gray Silestone quartz countertops and a central island, half of which is a dark-stained butcher block made of oak.
Supplementing their super-Cincinnati painting are framed pieces of art resting on a shelf that floats on an exposed brick wall. The imagery includes a Moerlein beer label by Cincinnati artist Jim Effler and a small poster-sized version of the mural Neltner designed for the side of a McMicken Street building that pays homage to OTR's brewing history.
New meets old
The street, or "historic side" of the house, as Joe calls it, is the Vallos' master-bedroom suite. They said they had originally planned to place it in the back of the building for its hillside views, but Gunther convinced them they would enjoy it more often if that space were devoted to the kitchen and deck, where there is seating for nine people.
The master bathroom is a wrap-around affair that includes a double sink with floating vanity, a dressing room, a shower and a laundry room. Four features in the space -- one new and three old -- stand out. The wall between the bathroom and stairwell is a criss-cross pattern framed with pine and backed with translucent plexiglass that allows for privacy and increased flow of light.
Old are the curved wall and molded baseboard at the corner of the dressing room and master bedroom, the decorative panel wainscoting and the big brick wall that runs the depth of the room on one side.
That wall, DeAnne said, required a lot of work by Joe.
"I thank him often for doing it, because it's really cool," she said. The fireplace in the room is also restored brick and someday will have a gas insert, Joe said. It extends to the 10 1/2-foot ceiling.
The angled ceilings get a little wonky in the carpeted upstairs bedroom and multipurpose room, but strategic placement of furniture eliminates most of the ducking for tall people.
The Vallos spend a lot of their time in their multipurpose room, where there are two IKEA desks illuminated by one of five sets of track lighting in the house and three round portal windows that face Elder Street, a widescreen TV, a leather couch and a Murphy bed they bought at Costco and use when visitors overflow the one guest room. Matching the bed cabinets in color are exposed ceiling beams Joe sanded and coated with polyurethane.
Heavy lifting and nostalgia
As he walks through their beloved home, Joe Vallo points out things he will always remember about converting and decorating the place. Bad was having to haul out 4,000 pounds of demolished materials in small bags. Good is finding a forever home for the suite of furniture he inherited from his great aunt. It sits in the guest room now and still has its maker's sticker on the bottom.
The maker was Joseph Knostman, who no doubt was German.
How fitting is that?