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Poultry-keeper's cottage blends old with modern

Home about to be added to U.S. Register of Historic Places

When Ramona and F. Eugene Smith were house-hunting in the mid-1950s, they wanted something different from the cookie-cutter Cape Cods and ranch homes that were sprouting across the country.

They found it in a Tudor-style cottage that once housed the poultry-keeper for the nearby Stan Hywet estate, which includes the seventh-largest home in the U.S.

The Smiths - he an industrial designer, she a graphic designer - bought the house in 1955 and turned it into a family home that retains elements of its history while accommodating their love of modern design.

Today, that house is poised for acceptance into the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, a recognition that would honour the care Ramona Smith and her late husband took in adapting the old building for a new use.

At the time the work was done, there were no national standards for renovating old buildings, noted Tom Wolf, a spokesman for the Ohio Historical Society's preservation office.

Yet the Smiths had the foresight to alter the house with a great deal of sympathy for its past, he said - a factor that led the Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board to recommend the building for the national register.

The nomination is in the hands of the register's keeper in Washington, and a decision is expected this fall, Wolf said.

The cottage was originally both a granary and living quarters for the family of the farmer who cared for the chickens at Stan Hywet, then the country estate of rubber magnate F.A. Seiberling and his wife, Gertrude.

Seiberling wanted the estate to be as self-sufficient as possible, so its original 1,700 acres included poultry, dairy and beef cattle operations and probably a produce farm, said Mark Gilles, Stan Hywet's director of historic structures. The farms supplied the Seiberlings with food and produced food to sell, he said.

The poultry-keeper's cottage was built onto the end of a massive chicken run. The chicken run was demolished in 1955, but the house bears the scar of its outline on a brick exterior wall.

The house was on a part of the estate that was sold to developer Frank DeWitt in 1955, the year F.A. Seiberling died. DeWitt intended to tear down the cottage because it didn't fit with the housing development he planned to build, but his wife, Grace, persuaded him to save it.

About that time, Eugene Smith was scouting the area for a home for his young family. Someone told him about the cottage at the end of a dirt road in the woods, and "this was exactly what we were looking for," Ramona Smith said.

Today, the house stands out in its West Akron neighbourhood, its stucco and timbers tying it more closely to Stan Hywet up the hill than to the neighbouring ranches and Colonials.

The Smiths changed the rear entry to the front and added a porch and garage that blend with the home's exterior. Inside, they took down walls and doorways on the first floor to create an open floor plan that the Smiths' son, architect Mark D. Smith, said was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

What was once feed and grain storage became a living room, dining room and kitchen, with the original brick walls and concrete floor exposed. The Smiths never covered the surfaces because "we loved the fact that it is what it is," Ramona Smith said.

Eugene Smith designed storage cupboards for the living room and wall-hung cabinets for the kitchen, with open space above where lights could wash the brick and highlight items on display. The brick was left its natural colour in the kitchen but was painted white in the other rooms, brightening the space and creating a crisp backdrop for artwork and midcentury-modern furniture.

One set of casement windows was replaced with a picture window in the living room to look out onto a shade garden, but otherwise, the windows throughout the house retain their original character, right down to the stylized leaf-shape latches.

The Smiths, however, replaced the original panes with leaded and sometimes stained glass, most of it made by Cleveland artist Doug Phillips and one window by Ramona Smith after she took a class to learn how.

She said windows that elegant wouldn't have been appropriate to a farmhouse. "We took liberties like that," she said.

The upper two floors, once the living quarters for the cottage, are now occupied by bedrooms, bathrooms, office space and a library. Those rooms retain many of their original features, including old bathroom fixtures, oak doors with vertical mullions and wood floors.

All along, the goal was to retain the building's character while making it livable. "We tried to maintain as much as we could, because we felt it had value," Ramona Smith said.

Her latest project is a small bathroom in the basement with worn paint on the walls and a skylight above that a neighbour boy once stepped through years ago during a snowball fight.

Courses of brick were recently added to the top of the room's walls and the window reframed to stop a leak.

"You know, with an old house, you're never done," she said.

History, it seems, never stands still.