October 2008 Issue
HGTV’s Matt Fox put his do-it-yourself expertise to work on a weekend retreat that became his full-time home.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Matt Fox’s house is the water. Lake Mohawk dominates the view from almost every window of the contemporary two-story structure. For the majority of homeowners in this gated community 18 miles southeast of Canton, it’s the very reason they bought a summer vacation home here. If they’re not looking at the lake, they’re swimming in the lake, boating on the lake or barbecuing by the lake.
But when the neighbors close their houses for the season, the longtime co-host of HGTV’s “Room by Room” remains. Three years ago, he sold his suburban Cleveland home and made the getaway his permanent address. The move was motivated in part by pure economics. Despite his success, the 52-year-old Findlay native had never been comfortable paying two mortgages. And when he and co-host Shari Hiller stopped shooting full seasons of “Room by Room” and started doing specials in Los Angeles, he no longer needed to live near their Cleveland-area production facilities. More compelling was his love of the lake. He was so enamored with the man-made body of water that he put a camera on a tripod in his dining-room window and began taking a picture of it every day.
“I miss a couple of days, of course, when I travel,” Fox says as he sits at the dining room table. “It’s kind of cool to see the transition of time. It’s really beautiful.”
Yet the 36-year-old house, which Fox bought on impulse in 2001 after years of visiting Hiller and her husband Bruce’s Lake Mohawk retreat, had never been properly outfitted to serve as the primary residence of one of America’s best-known do-it-yourself gurus. His redecorating had been limited to stripping the kitchen and living room of ’70s tan-and-brown vinyl wallpaper, painting the walls an off-white, and laying a similar-colored tile on the floors. And although he tastefully furnished a first-floor den and second-floor guest room for his mother, the rest of the house was used as “a dumping ground” for castoff furniture from his Cleveland home. The move to Lake Mohawk in 2005 prompted a major effort to create a well-appointed “man cave” that’s easy to maintain.
“When people come here, I want them to enjoy themselves, not worry about, ‘Can I put a dish down there?’ ” he says firmly.
One of the first projects Fox tackled after he moved to “the lake house” was remodeling the two full baths. The first-floor master bath had been damaged by a water leak. And he considered the black tub, toilet and sink in the second-floor guest bath a real eyesore, one he corrected by installing almond-colored replacements.
He then turned his attention to removing the rough-sawn cedar paneling from the walls of the formal living room on the second floor. (Because the house is built into a hillside, the second floor actually functions as the first.)
“It looked really dark and dreary,” he says, “and it was just a big dust-collector.”
He painted the walls a warm chocolate brown and furnished the space with choice pieces from his former Cleveland home. An old floral “flop couch” was replaced by a sectional upholstered in rust-colored diamond-cut chenille and augmented by a pair of contemporary white-twill recliners and occasional tables with steel bases and rustic stone-tile tops. Finishing touches include an arrangement of wall clocks he picked up at discount retailers such as Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx and valances he whipped up by stapling geometric-print cotton upholstery fabric over padded plywood frames. The adjoining screened-in porch, like the house itself, was painted a forest green and filled with woven vinyl furniture that’s a dead ringer for wicker.
Next up was the first-floor master bedroom, a space he moved into after occupying one of the two guest bedrooms upstairs. “[My guests] felt like they couldn’t do anything when I was sleeping,” he explains. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll let people have the run of the upstairs.’” He painted the walls an off-white, then faux-finished them with a whisk broom dipped in slate-blue paint to create a shingled effect, complete with the occasional faux “nailhead.” A favorite chair from his Cleveland home — a rocker with a tooled-leather-slat seat and back — completed an eclectic mix of furnishings featuring an unfinished pine bed and antique armoire, the shelves of which were outfitted with wicker baskets for drawer-like storage.
One of the last projects Fox tackled was the biggest: removing the wall between the formal dining room and kitchen — a small space by today’s standards, especially since the eat-in dining area had been converted into a home office. “If you were in the kitchen, you couldn’t talk to anybody out in the dining room unless they ducked down to the little pass-through,” Fox adds. He relocated the salvaged oak cabinetry to one end of the L-shaped work area, staggering it to create interest and provide a gradual drop to countertop level. The resulting kitchen/dining area and adjacent entry hall were painted taupe and outfitted with track lighting. One of his favorite objects in the house is the lamp on the buffet table. The bronze base is actually a sculpture of a tree with a cat on one of its lower limbs and a couple of children climbing up to get it.
“I like interesting lamps,” he says. “I always have.”
There are still things on Fox’s to-do list: install new kitchen countertops, add a tile backsplash, tear out the range hood and replace it with a built-in microwave, get a new stove. Indeed, he considers buying the black ceramic-top electric range his biggest remodeling mistake. “It gets all nicked up, and you can’t keep it clean,” he grouses. But he’s not sure how much more money he wants to put in the place. There are drawbacks to living in a summer-vacation paradise year-round. Winters can be lonely. “You start talking to the mailman more than you want to,” he confesses. And while Lake Mohawk is within reasonable driving distance of Canton, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, consolidated shopping trips and errand runs are an absolute necessity.
More disturbing is the fear that the Lake Mohawk house is beginning to lose its novelty. Gone is the excitement of packing up for a weekend away, the relief of escaping everyday pressures by simply driving through the community’s front gate. And friends and relatives aren’t visiting as often because they don’t want to intrude on his daily life. He’s actually thinking of buying a primary residence near Cleveland just so he can enjoy the house’s “vacation feel” again.
“I would like to leave here and turn it back into my ‘lake house,’ ” he says.