October 2009 Issue
Nick and Ruthie George’s “urban farmhouse” is the perfect marriage of their former city life with their new pastoral surroundings.
The story of Nick and Ruthie George’s move from Akron to Bath Township sounds a lot like a plot summary for the popular ’60s sitcom “Green Acres.” Like Eddie Albert’s Oliver Douglas, Nick is a lawyer who yearned to live in the country. Like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Lisa, Ruthie is a dedicated urban-dweller reluctant to leave the couple’s Akron abode. Of course, Bath Township, situated just beyond Akron’s western suburban fringe, is more upscale than Hooterville — a number of impressive residences are nestled in its wooded, rolling hills. And Ruthie, in her jeans and gingham painter’s cap, is definitely more down-to-earth than Hungarian socialite Lisa. But it isn’t hard to imagine her mouthing Lisa’s final solo line in the show’s iconic theme song — “Goodbye, city life!” — as her husband pulls her from their old living room into the front yard of their new home.
Until, that is, you see the place.
The Georges’ “urban farmhouse,” as project architect Ronald A. Reed likes to call it, is no “Green Acres” shanty. The 5,000-square-foot contemporary structure, set on four and a half wooded acres, is endowed with every convenience imaginable, including a luxurious master bath with a Jacuzzi tub and steam shower and a sauna in the finished basement. The irony of the story is that the place Ruthie balked at building turned out to be the house of her dreams. Over the years the couple had tried to achieve a similar result in their previous abode, a 1950s ranch that Ruthie grew up in, through a series of additions and remodelings — projects limited by the half-acre lot and structure itself.
“We were always trying to make the house look like this,” Ruthie says as she gestures with outstretched arms to the living room, a two-story space with an entire wall of glass overlooking a deck and the woods beyond. “From the moment we moved in, there was nothing that felt foreign about it.”
Reed, a principle at Westlake Reed Leskosky in Cleveland, admits that designing the “urban farmhouse” was a daunting task. Ruthie, after all, was firmly attached to the place she’d called home for most of her 63 years, regardless of its shortcomings. But like her 65-year-old husband, she had considered downsizing to something that was easier to maintain in the years since their two children had moved out. “I also had this creative desire to start fresh,” the former high school art teacher and current Akron Art Museum docent says. That creativity best evidences itself in the home’s black Washington-state brick exterior, a choice she passionately defended to Reed, who had envisioned beige, and a showroom salesman, who tactfully suggested the color was better suited for commercial use.
“She said, ‘When this house is done, if it looks like I can drop an engine in the living room, then we’ll have something!’” Reed says, chuckling at the memory.
There are plenty of other commercial touches. In fact, the two-story building, with its long horizontal banks of windows, would look equally at home in the city or a suburban office park. Inside, a steel-and-wood staircase with horizontal lengths of cable instead of the usual vertical balusters rises from the first floor to the second, where an open hallway between the master suite and two guest rooms overlooks the living room. Stainless-steel sinks undermounted in plate steel top the bathroom vanities. And all of the woodwork, including the built-in dining-room buffet/hutch, wet bar and armoire-like bedroom closets, was finished in silver automotive paint with the same nine-step process used by car manufacturers.
But the Georges, with Reed’s guidance, also endowed their new abode with more traditional finishes. The roof and parts of the exterior are covered with panels of zinc that resemble old-fashioned barn roofing. “The longer it’s up, the better it looks,” Nick marvels. White maple floors — a concession made by Ruthie, who confined her preference for slate and porcelain tile to the baths — stretch through the public rooms. Even the whole-house paint job, a carefully orchestrated endeavor that required 14 subtle variations of white and light gray, was chosen not only to give depth to the rooms but also to reflect the seasonal color changes outside. Reed says the silver automotive paint provides the same effect.
“You get that incredible phosphorescent green in April or May,” he enthuses. “And in the fall, when everything starts turning vibrant oranges and reds, it picks that up. It’s very cool in winter. So it plays back the environment. To me, the whole point of having a house in the woods is to be surrounded by that.”
The Georges filled the rooms with leather furniture and an abundance of contemporary art by local artists — all in the blacks, grays and bright primary colors Ruthie prefers — from their previous residence. The most interesting new additions are the aforementioned built-ins, with chrome legs that make them look like true casement pieces, and the retractable screen hidden behind a steel beam over the granite fireplace, a feature that replaces the television for both cable and DVD viewing. A projection system is housed behind an opposite wall, on the floor of the master bedroom closet upstairs. The screen and projection system, along with the audio, living-room window shades, lights and gas fireplace, are all controlled by touching a small computer screen on an end table — the ultimate high-tech feature for the hard-core couch potato.
The bulk of new freestanding purchases are in the kitchen, which the Georges chose to outfit with units by Italian manufacturer Valcucine instead of the usual built-in cabinetry. A commercial-looking sink in a stretch of stainless-steel countertop on legs shares space with more traditional-looking undercounter storage, an overhead contraption with a single lift-up fiberglass door that Reed refers to as a “crockery garage,” and a European beech island with a gas-burner inset that also serves as a breakfast bar. “In Italy, the cabinets are furniture,” Reed explains. “When you leave a house, you take them with you.” Despite the stainless-steel appliances and light-gray industrial rubber floor covering, the space really feels like a country kitchen, complete with the requisite kitchen table next to the granite fireplace — a feature the room shares with the living room next door.
A door in the corridor from the kitchen to the three-car garage opens to the back yard, where heirloom tomatoes, herbs and perennials grow in square beds off a brick-lined gravel path next to a built-in barbecue. “I really think we need a screened-in porch, which we will add, eventually,” Ruthie says as surveys the low-maintenance wood-composite deck during a tour of the grounds. But “eventually” may never come. The couple had so much fun designing the home that they occasionally contemplate doing it again.
“I say to Nick every once in a while, ‘I could build another house. Find some land!’” Ruthie says.