Labor of Love

Jack and Mary Ellen Thinnes bought their Kelleys Island house as a retreat from long workweeks on the mainland. They never imagined how much time the residence would require — or how much fun they would have doing it.
Jack and Mary Ellen Thinnes wanted the Huntington-Kelley House from the moment they saw it. The Western Reserve-style home, along with the for-sale sign in the front yard, caught their eye while they were cycling along West Lakeshore Drive on a sunny July day in 1983 during their very first trip to Kelleys Island.

The Cincinnati natives loved old homes. Jack, president and chief executive officer of an advertising agency, grew up in a century Victorian his father filled with antiques. And Mary Ellen, vice president of a market-research firm, loved the house’s history. It was built in 1840 and 1841 by George Cabot Huntington, the man responsible for establishing the island’s grape-growing, wine-making and stone-quarrying industries. His wife Emeline was the daughter of Datus Kelley, who bought the entire island with his brother Irad in the early 1830s.

Moreover, the couple desperately needed a weekend escape from their 60- to 80-hour-a-week jobs. The 40-foot-long porch, with its unobstructed views of Lake Erie, looked particularly inviting. “It was just so important that we had someplace totally different to be,” Mary Ellen recalls. “It was very tranquil, sitting on the porch, watching the world go by, looking out at the lake and across into America.”

 Neither of them expected to spend the next 30 summers fixing it up.

The five-bedroom, 2½-bath home was structurally sound. “The floor joists in the basement were cedar logs that still had the bark on them,” Jack says. “And the floors were solid 1-inch-thick pine boards that were later covered with parquet flooring on the first floor and second-floor center hall.” But the interiors were relics of the 1960s. At first, the Thinnes and their 14-year-old son were so thrilled to have a vacation home on the water that they happily lived with them. But after a few years, the couple embarked on a renovation of the 2,650-foot structure that they describe as equal parts challenging and amusing.

“We have had more fun and more laughs just between us or with friends, family and other islanders over these projects,” Jack says, then chuckles. “Each one of them was interesting.”

The Thinnes began their remodeling journey in the late 1980s by gutting the second-floor bath, a room that hadn’t been completely redone since it was added in 1927. The couple quickly discovered the plumbing wasn’t properly vented — it took 20 to 30 minutes just to drain the clawfoot tub after a bath or shower. “The sink actually acted as a mini vent,” Jack says. “If [there was] water in the sink beyond the trap, everything would kind of stop draining.” The problem was so vexing that Jack and Mary Ellen refrained from occupying the first-floor bedroom — a former parlor converted into a master suite by the previous owners during the 1970s — so guests could use the more modern adjoining bath.

 “We thought, We can’t do this to them,” Jack says.

Once contractors finished the bathroom with new fixtures, a subtly patterned dark-green wallpaper and rose-marble floor, the couple turned their attention to their upstairs bedroom. The walls and ceiling were covered with wallpaper depicting large birds on an avocado background.

“It was frightening,” Jack says, then laughs. “I don’t know what they were, but they were big. And they had menacing looks on their faces.” The couple began stripping the walls, only to find another horror: five to seven layers of paper — nearly a century’s worth of renovations — underneath. “It was like, ‘Oh, my! Maybe the birds wouldn’t have eaten us after all,’” Jack says. “But we had it off of a couple of walls, and we just kept going.” Mary Ellen picked out a restful green Villeroy & Boch pattern to replace the disturbing images.

The Thinnes spent a subsequent summer of weekends painting every inch of woodwork in the house, an undertaking that began when Mary Ellen asked Jack to give the living-room fireplace mantel a quick coat of soft white. “Because that mantelpiece connected to the baseboards, the baseboards looked dingy,” he explains — a discrepancy he noticed as he continued to paint his way from the baseboards to the doorframe, then out to a hall baseboard.
 “That baseboard connected to every other piece of baseboard in the entire house, including the second floor!” he grouses good-naturedly.

After the paint dried, Mary Ellen stripped the first- and second-floor halls of another six to eight layers of wallpaper. Professionals replaced it with an off-white moiré stripe and continued the laborious task of stripping paper in the three remaining upstairs bedrooms. The couple eventually moved into a bedroom with three walls papered in a pink Villeroy & Boch pattern and a fourth covered in a coordinating floral. Two shallow back-to-back closets in the new master bedroom and an adjoining bedroom-turned-sitting room provided the bulk of space needed to add a Jack-and-Jill-style bath, a project completed when contractors renovated the bedroom and bath directly below in 2001.

With new plumbing safely installed, the Thinnes could finally tackle the downstairs rooms. They removed the dropped commercial-tile ceilings installed throughout the first floor at some point during the house’s lifetime and repainted the originals underneath.

The couple then attacked the kitchen. Ironically, the room had been rendered less user-friendly by the addition of a half-bath and dining nook so narrow it could only accommodate a bar-height table and two chairs. According to Jack, the counter separating it from the rest of the kitchen made moving between the two areas downright painful. “You had to walk around the thing and hit your hip on it,” he recalls.

The couple ordered contractors to gut, reconfigure and outfit the room with custom cherry cabinetry and laminate countertops that approximate the look of dark-green marble. Mary Ellen notes that the grape-cluster-print wallpaper is a nod to the original owner and the viniculture he brought to Kelleys Island.

“We picked up the color of the grapes and used that in the wall color in the adjoining dining room,” Mary Ellen says. The rich red room, with its arched doorway and period-reproduction chandelier, is a favorite with visitors.

The interior renovations culminated in the adjoining living room, where Mary Ellen used three applications of a chemical wash to remove a varnish finish popular during the 1940s from the plaster walls. Jack sealed and painted them a pale yellow, a color repeated in the rug. Mary Ellen points out two of the many antiques used to furnish the house — a hexagonal table and a 19th-century “gone with the wind” kerosene lamp wired for electricity. The reason it’s called that, she explains, is not because of the movie, “but because if a big gust of wind comes, it blows over.” 

Now that the Thinnes are retired, they consider the Huntington-Kelley House their primary residence. Ask them whether they’d have purchased the place if they knew the work it required, and Mary Ellen immediately answers, “Yes, absolutely.”

 “Actually,” she adds, “I might have been more interested in buying the house because of the opportunity to do it.”