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Home of the Month: History mixed with whimsy in Linwood Preservation District

This house in the Linwood neighborhood has been many things – private home, hair salon, dental offices, nursery school – but its bones have remained strong and its personality intriguing.

So much so that current resident Erin St. John Kelly refers to the house not as an “it” but as a “she.”

“I think of this house as my old lady friend,” said Kelly, who moved to Buffalo from Brooklyn in 2010 with her husband, attorney Charlie von Simson, and their two daughters.

She describes the architectural style of their home as modest Italianate Victorian. Standout features include a living room with soaring ceiling, tall windows and French doors and a dining room so large that even a table with 10 chairs, a Quaker meeting house bench and a piano leave plenty of space to wander and look at artwork and collectibles.

The house is just one place people can visit during the Historic Linwood Tour of Homes on April 29. (See end of story for details about this self-guided walking tour.)

But this is hardly the type of historic home that feels like a museum. Fun can be found here.

Consider the small Hello Kitty microwave in the kitchen. “I didn’t want a big hulking microwave. We only use it for making popcorn and heating coffee,” said Kelly, director of communications and journalism teacher at Buffalo Seminary.

Oh, there is more: Walnuts spill out of a bowl watched over by a decorative squirrel – one of many squirrel-topped nut bowls in the home. Sputnik chandeliers hang from the ceilings. And among the oddball things found in the living room? A mod “moon” chair and plexiglass-topped foosball table.

The old, handmade foosball table she found at Serendipity Shoppe was warped so they repurposed it. “Now it’s a table for putting drinks on,” said Kelly, who was born in Montreal.

Wall art includes a large painting of a fox in the living room and a rubbing in the dining room from Emily Dickinson’s tombstone that Kelly said was done with wax years ago by her step-grandmother. It reads:  "Born Dec. 10, 1830. Called back May 15, 1886.”

(According to the Emily Dickinson Museum website, “Called Back” was a popular novella written by Hugh Conway – real name John Frederick Fargus – that Dickinson called “a haunting story ... ‘greatly impressive to me.’ ”)

An exterior view. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Since the family moved into the house, the living room and kitchen have gone through major renovations.

The living room: You’ve heard the phrase “If walls could talk”? Well, in this case, it was the dropped ceiling in the living room that was hiding secrets. After the couple decided to return the ceiling to its original height, the demolition crew discovered three layers of ceilings they had to remove.

That was just the beginning. In an article Kelly wrote for Buffalo Magazine (Feb./March 2011), she also recalled the “scary sci-fi stalk of silver ducts.” The renovation took six months and involved “dozens of tradesmen and professionals, hundreds of work hours,” she wrote.

Today, the ceiling rises to approximately 20 feet, the hardwood floor is refinished and the previously nailed-shut French doors and windows are restored and fitted with custom storm windows. The French doors also have new screens.

The kitchen: The couple wanted to have the tile removed from the floor and walls – only to discover that the wall tiles were hiding bricks. They decided to keep the brick walls exposed, even though a good deal of masonry work was involved.

“The masonry work was an unexpected budget item,” Kelly said.

The renovated kitchen now has tall white cabinets, with glass fronts near the ceiling; a soapstone countertop called “Niagara Black” with green veins; and a new Lauzon maple floor.

They kept the stove that was there – a commercial Garland gas range with six burners, a raised griddle, broiler and two ovens. Kelly said that receipts she found indicate that it was delivered to previous owners on Christmas Eve, 1981.

The renovated kitchen. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Other projects included restoration of a tub and the piano they found on Craigslist. The couple also had a large painting restored that von Simson, a partner at Barclay Damon, had received from a friend.

The sale price of the house was $450,000. They have invested about $160,000 into the house – including restoring the pool.

The house has other stories to tell. It has been home to several businesses in the past, including a hair salon, dental offices and more.

A room at the back of the house was likely a doctor’s office; it still has the built-in magazine racks and filing cabinets. An elliptical machine and TV are now found here as well as Kelly’s collection of squirrel-themed nut bowls from thrift shops.

She also inherited owl decor from her grandmother, whose name was Grace Kelly.

And part of the second floor was once an apartment; the balcony had stairs that led to it. The room with the fireplace is now a home office.

In discussing the house she calls “inspirational,” Kelly noted how grateful and respectful she and von Simson are of the previous owners who cared for the historic home.

“We all did everything we could for her,” Kelly said.

The dining room features a fireplace, beamed ceiling and old stone-look floor. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The blue print: the house at a glance

Erin St. John Kelly and Charlie von Simson moved to Buffalo from Brooklyn in 2010 with their two daughters – Grace, now 22, and Clare, 19. Here is a peek inside their mid-19th century Italianate Victorian in the Linwood Preservation District.

The floor plan: Living room with fireplace, tall windows and French doors; dining room with fireplace and table for 10; library; kitchen with dining area; and an exercise/TV room that the two dogs like to hang out in. The second floor, which once had an apartment with separate entrance, is not yet fully renovated. The house has four full baths, two powder rooms, four bedrooms plus a second-floor laundry room and office with fireplace. A saltwater in-ground pool and gardens are found outside.

Furniture: A collection assembled from family inheritances; estate sales; thrifts shops (the Serendipity Shoppe, now located inside First Presbyterian Church, was a favorite); Grange Furniture and ABC Carpet and Home in New York; Anthropologie; Restoration Hardware; IKEA; and Room on Hertel Avenue. They found the piano on Craigslist and had it restored by Illos Piano Restorations.

Lighting fixtures: The house came with two Sputnik chandeliers and two “half Sputniks.” The globe pendants in the living room are from Pottery Barn. The round flower-inspired pendant in the library is a popular IKEA design.

Floors: Old hardwood topped with area rugs, including several from Tiftickjian on Delaware Avenue; new Lauzon maple flooring in kitchen; stone-look floor in dining room, probably added in the 1920s-’30s.

Paint colors: Benjamin Moore “Natural Elements” in the living room and dining area off kitchen; Benjamin Moore “White Dove” on trim; Sherwin-Williams “Creamy” in dining room; Benjamin Moore “Elmira White” from its Historic Color collection on the exterior with “Black Forest Green” trim.

Artwork and accessories: A painting by the late Buffalo-born Walter A. Prochownik, which the couple had restored; a fox painting by local artist Polly Little; stained glass art; African bead work, including on a vase and bowl, from Louise Sano’s boutique, Global Villages, on Grant Street; owl- and squirrel-themed collectibles.

“I became a squirrel collector later in life,” Kelly said.

– Susan Martin

Kelly and von Simson have been fixing up the library. The bay window area will soon be updated with hand silkscreened wallpaper from Buffalo-based Red Disk. The design is a contemporary interpretation of Charles E. Burchfield's historic wallpaper design, Untitled ​(Flowers at Night). They also chose C2 Paint, another Buffalo-based company. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Linwood Tour details

The 2018 Historic Linwood Tour of Homes is scheduled for noon to 5 p.m. April 29, rain or shine. Historic structures will be open for the self-guided walking tour of private homes, the Saturn Club, Oscar’s Bed & Breakfast and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.

Advance tickets, $20, can be purchased online at historiclinwood.org or by mailing a check to: Linwood Preservation District & Friends, P.O. Box 176, Buffalo, N.Y. 14209. Mail check by April 25.

Tickets can be purchased for $25 on the day of the tour at WNY Artists Group, 1 Linwood Avenue, where the advance-sale tickets and guide books will be available that day for pickup. Questions can be directed to historiclinwood@gmail.com or (716) 939-1546.

* Check out the March Home of the Month:

Home of the Month: Loving loft living

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