A Mid-Century Mastperpiece

When the house of their dreams became available on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, Donna and Stewart Kohl embraced the challenge of bringing the home back to ‘perfection.’

Donna Kohl wanted the mid-century modern split-level on Chautauqua Lake the first time she glimpsed its long, low roofline behind a stand of arborvitae trees. She and husband Stewart had been looking to buy a lakefront home on the Chautauqua Institution grounds since they first vacationed at the New York summer resort in 2000. But acquiring such a residence was a lofty goal. The dozen-plus properties located right on the water are passed down from one generation to the next.

“Most of these houses have been in their families for three, four, five generations,” observes Stewart, co-owner of Riverside Companies, a Cleveland-based private-equity firm. “They’ll never get sold.”

The couple happily made do with a condominium, then a 1950s ranch across the road from the water, until the impossible happened: In October 2008 their real estate agent called to announce that a lakefront house on the institution grounds was about to be listed — a house that turned out to be Donna’s dream home. Minutes later, she was checking out the 5,400-square-foot concrete-block structure with its columned and pierced-concrete-block entry, still appealing despite its mint-green paint job, set on a double lot with 150 feet of lakefront. She peeked inside one of the floor-to-ceiling windows and saw a spacious sunken living room with a curving wall and concentric steps leading to a two-story foyer. The walls, save for one stretch of stone in the living room, were covered in Weldtex, a striated wood paneling prized by mid-century architecture fans, and painted a deep cream.
“I lost my heart completely,” she says. That was before she saw the in-ground pool and hot tub out back.

Donna verified the agent’s claim that the house, completed in 1952, boasted a pedigree. It had been designed by Paul Revere Williams, the Los Angeles-based architect of the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge, Fountain Coffee Shop, Crescent Wing and bungalows, along with residences for the likes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Carey Grant, William Holden and Frank Sinatra. But despite its style and status, it was showing its age. The couple set out to return it to mint condition.
“Donna has done a lot of restoration work,” Stewart says. “And the work continues today to just bring the house back up to what I would describe as being perfect, like it might have been in 1952.”

The Kohls began by painting the rooms linen white — the ideal foil for the contemporary art to be installed — then replacing the house’s 80-plus windows. Donna identified the latter as a priority the following March, when she discovered 2 inches of frost inside the corner of a dining-room window. A new heating system, updated electrical wiring and plumbing followed.

The couple designated the first-floor his-and-her master suites as guest rooms and claimed the second floor as their sleeping quarters: a lone guest suite with an enclosed porch and rooftop deck that provides commanding views of the lake. Local contractor Gary Moynihan installed large closets with built-in cabinetry — an existing feature in almost every other room of the house — and gutted the bath. It was then outfitted with rectangular vessel sinks on quartz-topped birch cabinetry, a stone-tile double shower, heated bamboo floor and towel warmers.

“We took the best elements of every hotel we stayed in to design this bathroom,” Donna says.    

In the kitchen, Moynihan replaced the Formica countertops on the original white cabinetry with white quartz, a color and material that contrasted nicely with the new Blanco-brand composite sinks, and covered the reddish linoleum with a floor striped in two tones of bamboo. “Stewart and I couldn’t decide which of the two colors we preferred,” Donna explained. “So I said, ‘Why not let’s do both?’” He finished the job by painting the area between the countertops and cabinetry cream before installing a backsplash of horizontal glass tile, a feature that changes color with the light and mimics the exterior’s long, linear grouting.

 “Paul Williams did not grout and show all the sections,” Donna says as she points to an outside wall visible through the kitchen window. “He only depressed the horizontal lines.”
The Kohls opted to keep most of the other interior fixtures and finishes, right down to the turquoise corner tub, rectangular sink and commode in one guest suite. Although Donna removed the tawny wool carpeting in the foyer to expose the original slate floor, it remained in place throughout the rest of the house. In fact, the only notable new finish outside the kitchen and master bath is the ceiling of reproduction Weldtex in the foyer. The 24-inch-square panels, placed so the striations create a harlequin effect and then painted white, approximate the original ceiling in the living room and dining room — and cover a long crack that stubbornly reappeared after each repair.  

Outside, landscapers leveled a slope of trees and overgrown rhododendrons between the house and concrete pool deck to install a concrete-paver patio complete with outdoor kitchen. Painters then applied coats of peachy buff, a color closer to the house’s original salmon exterior. (“I could not go quite that dark or deep,” Donna admits.) The hot tub’s green-and-white exterior tiles were replaced with buff-colored slate that matched the pool deck, and the pool was resurfaced with a slurry of gunite, abalone shell, and blue, green and clear glass pieces. Finishing touches include streak-proof panels of tempered glass that replaced wooden safety railings around the upper terrace and master-suite deck as well as wire fencing around the pool.

As projects were completed, Stewart and Donna began filling the house with a striking collection of furniture and art. A trio of sealed planters placed like giant steps along the sweeping staircase to the second-floor master suite displays abstract stone pieces by Cleveland sculptor Bruce Biro. Prints of works by Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist lead the eye down the steps from the foyer to the living room, where comfy white-twill and damask sofas and chairs sit under an arrangement of Pittsburgh artist Atticus Adams’ cloud-like mesh sculptures on the stone wall.

“We chose not to furnish mid-century modern because it’s not very comfortable,” Donna says as she surveys the room.

Exceptions include a vintage swan chair in a corner near a large stone planter that now serves as a pedestal for the couple’s iconic Robert Indiana “LOVE” sculpture. Together they form a partial barrier between the living room and dining room, a space furnished with a glass-topped metal table surrounded by Philippe Starck “ghost chairs” of clear polycarbonate. “Orange Marilyn,” a portrait of Marilyn Monroe that collage artist Cameron Gray arranged with photographs of subjects ranging from bombings to Britney Spears, hangs next to two equally colorful works on one wall. “Smiling Chuck,” a collection of 20- by 24-inch Polaroids — each featuring a different facial feature — assembled to create a T-shaped image of American artist Chuck Close, beams from over the buffet. Donna demonstrates the ceiling-mounted “flower fan,” a fixture with petal-like blades that slowly open from a “closed-bud” position as she increases the speed.

That dining room, along with the rest of the house, has hosted invite-score-worthy events like this summer’s reception for jazz great Wynton Marsalis, who composed a classical piece for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. But it is primarily a place for the Kohls to relax with their daughter, four grandchildren and various relatives and friends. “If the kids come here and put their feet up, it doesn’t matter to me at all,” Donna says. “It’s supposed to be a comfortable house.” Stewart reads a passage from a book Paul Revere Williams’ granddaughter wrote about his work: “Residential architecture was so very important to my grandfather, especially being able to please his clients and provide a pleasant environment for them to enjoy their families.”

“We think, if he were to come here, he’d be quite pleased,” he says.