February 2007 Issue
Belle of the Block
A Dayton couple brings luxurious new style to an old local haunt.
Back when they were still slinging beers there, the old Southern Belle was one of those local watering holes to which the word "legendary" reasonably and perhaps even accurately applies - it's tough to find Daytonians of a certain age who don't have a story about the bar.
Here's mine: One late Saturday night three friends and I were playing pool at the Belle and realized that two bikers, complete with chained wallets, square-toed boots and serious leather, were itching for an evening-closing rumble and had chosen us as the most likely candidates.
The story of how my friends and I got out of that particular predicament, some 15 or 16 years ago, would take more space than we have here. Suffice to say that we survived unscathed, the bikers went someplace else to cause trouble and now, remarkably, the place where the entire episode transpired has been completely transformed into a place of beauty and calm. Gone is the dingy, nasty pool-table corner; in its place is a tasteful room with a piano, light yellow walls and colorful abstract artwork.
"Everybody has a story about the Belle," says Mary Rogero, the Dayton architect who, with her firm, Rogero Buckman Architecture, has turned the historic old bar building into a cool, ultra-modern urban mansion. Rogero, in fact, served an unusual triple role as architect, builder and interior designer. "One of the great things about this project was those stories, and the memories people in town have about this place. By saving the memories and stories associated with being here, it makes the house even richer."
Rich, indeed. The Belle stood out in Dayton's Oregon Historic District of nicely restored Victorian-era homes and attracted a weird, sometimes combustible clientele. An ownership change and the bar's move to a less-residential part of downtown a few years ago presented an opportunity for somebody to do something with the bar building - a valuable piece of real estate in the popular, crowded Oregon District.
Along came Michael and Anise Irvin, both 57, whose adult children lived in the district, and who wanted to enjoy Oregon's urban-funky-historical-retro atmosphere, but who also wanted the amenities and convenience of a new home. Renovating the abandoned Southern Belle turned out to be the thing that fulfilled both desires.
It wasn't easy, though. Michael, an emergency and trauma physician who retired from practice to form an HMO that he sold to Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, had money to spend and a dream house in his imagination. He and Anise were already spending most of their time in Spring Island, South Carolina, where they had a sprawling second home that they loved.
"But we wanted to come back to Dayton," Michael says. The idea was to split their time between Dayton and Spring Island - "We're crazy," he says. "We're the only people you know who have a summer vacation home in Dayton." They wanted Rogero Buckman to turn the Belle into a place that closely reflected the style and ambiance of their Southern home.
The building was gutted; nothing original remains but the brown-brick exterior walls once famous to bar rats and pool players. The home that has emerged inside that shell bar is amazing. Rogero and Irvin realized early on that in order to get the size of house they wanted, they had to reuse the existing building rather than tear it down - the setback required by new city codes would have given them a house half the size of the 6,200 square feet they got by using the whole bar building.
They employed green design as much as possible - using special insulation that cuts energy costs, lots of skylights that fill the house with natural light and pressed-bamboo flooring that comes from an easily renewable resource. "But the main green thing is recycling the building," Rogero says.
To anybody who remembers the old bar, the impressive changes start with the front door. Today it's cleanly done up with frosted glass and brass hardware. Now, instead of dingy walls and pool tables, the visitor is greeted by a sensory delight: an expansive great room with 22-foot-high ceilings lit by tall, upper-story windows; a baby-grand piano; big windows that light up pale-yellow walls filled with artwork; contrasting woodwork of cherry and ebony; a stairway that seems to float magically up from the center of the room; and chic modern furnishings.
Rogero and her team expanded the Belle vertically to make room for everything the Irvins wanted. Since the footprint of the building goes right up to the city sidewalk and excludes any possibility of a yard, they turned the bar's roof into a spacious second-story patio area tricked out with a state-of-the-art grill, a hot tub, potted grasses and funky furniture that looks like neon-colored ice cubes but which turn out to be soft and comfy. The patio overlooks a pretty park and gazebo across the street and offers a glimpse of Dayton's downtown skyline between the peaks of the neighbors' 19th-century rooflines. "This is my yard. Don't you love this view?" Irvin asks. "Could you get any better than this?"
The Irvins' master bedroom is cherry paneled and minimalist, with more skylights and his/hers dressing areas. The master bath is also split into a convenient his-and-hers layout, but what really catches the eye is a gorgeous, stone-lined shower big enough for half a football team.
The bedroom is where Michael stops to demonstrate the state-of-the-art smart-house electronics system that manages nearly every aspect of the dwelling from a single keypad. He can raise and lower skylight blinds, set the music in every room, turn TVs on and off, manage heating and air-conditioning, make security checks and even see how things are going at his South Carolina home.
But despite all that, it's the fantastic main-floor great room, with its combination living space/dining area/kitchen, that most visitors will especially enjoy. Irvin, who has served on numerous nonprofit boards and is noted for local social activism and philanthropy, wants the room to be used frequently by Dayton-area groups he supports for meeting space, or for fund-raising social events. An arts cooperative and several social-service organizations are already on the family's calendar of gatherings.
Irvin and Rogero expect that people will walk in and instantly start making happy comparisons between what they see now and what they remember from the Southern Belle: that the sleek black kitchen bar is located where the Belle's bar once stood, and that the long corridor that serves as a gallery-in-the-making for local artwork used to have booths and tables at which visitors might once have had a beer.
"You know," Rogero suggests, looking around the room, "what we should do is have a big Southern Belle revival day." Irvin seems to consider the idea for a second and then laughs. "I'm afraid of who'd show up," he says.
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