When you drive up to the rambling yellow and white Georgian with its expansive front lawn, you can’t help but sense that this is a home with its own story to tell. The massive julep sculpture sitting near the front walk hints at more recent and lively additions to the narrative.
Homeowners Scott and Ashley Lankford, college sweethearts who recently returned to their native Louisville after four years in Palm Beach when she joined a local medical practice, fell for the house at first sight. “I walked in and said, ‘This is it,’” says Scott, a musician and member of popular Nervous Melvin and the Mistakes and past member of iconic local bands Big Wheel and Love Jones. “It was more than we wanted to spend and it had dark window treatments and paint, but I could see the potential and that was it for me. I was already licking the doorknobs.” Ashley took slightly more convincing, but not much. “We looked at it for ten minutes and the next time we were in it, we owned it,” says Scott. “We knew the house and had driven by it for years growing up. It just felt like a great old Louisville home.”
The house, which began as a log cabin, morphed into a shotgun house and was then transformed into a sprawling Georgian by architect Frederick Morgan, was loaded with character, but definitely in need of updating. “It was stuck in the nineties,” says interior designer Lee Robinson, “with these massive window treatments and dreary colors. We took the curtains down and decided we didn’t need to replace them. The windows are stunning.” Lee was the couple’s first and only choice to be the designer who would bring the home back to life and infuse it with their eclectic sense of style. “There are a lot of great designers in town, but we knew Lee understood the historical relevance of the home and could modernize the look without compromising the integrity of the architecture,” says Scott. “Everything he does makes sense to us. And we knew he would know exactly what to do and what not to do to restore the home’s grandeur and make it livable.”
And what not do to, according to Lee, was to change too much: “You don’t change the bones,” he says. “You don’t alter the original details—the molding, the door knobs, the floors, the hinges. This house has some beautiful original floors and it has a wall of built-ins with hardware from the 1800’s. We kept all of that.”
The first thing Lee did do was eradicate the nineties palette with fresh paint and paper. “We had to update everything,” says Lee. “We brightened and lightened and brought in some beautiful wallpaper. Then we brought in the furniture and started playing.”
Lee created a luxe transitional look that seamlessly melded antiques with mid-century modern and abstract art with classic portraiture using many of the couple’s own furnishings and possessions. “The Lankfords have great taste and their own story. I didn’t want to start from scratch.” The foyer hints at the mission of mixing old and new by borrowing the traditional décor flourish of placing two tables with mirrors on either side of a door in perfect symmetry. “But we chose surprising contemporary tables as a twist,” says Lee. “It’s an idea that was inspired by the Rockefeller home.” Wallpaper with palm fronds adds glamour and a personal touch: “It’s a nod to their Palm Beach past,” Lee says.
An unfussy and unforced marriage of old and new, the edgy and the traditional are evident in each of the rooms. Immediately off the foyer, in Ashley’s study, a large modern painting by local artist Billy Hertz accents one wall while portraits of their Cavalier King Charles Spaniels grace the other. (The couple has three spaniels: Miss Lucy Honeychurch, Fergus and Luke and a one-year-old golden retriever, Sailor Belle.) White leather chairs pop against rich ostrich-print wallpaper. In the living room, a Mies Van Der Rohe leather chaise is placed in front of a portrait of Stephen Foster. “Ashley’s grandmother outbid the Filson Society for that painting,” says Scott. “It’s a very rare portrait because he was basically a pauper, but the story goes that she waited to see who had the highest bid and she outbid them.” In the same room, a striking five-foot-tall wooden bird sculpture stands guard by a window. “We call him the Bobo man,” says Scott. “I forget which country he’s from, but he used to guard villages so he was out in the elements and he’s pretty weathered.” Somehow, in this home full of carefully-curated belongings, scattered Hermes throw pillows and sparkling glass tables don’t look out of place with a well-worn piece of folk art.
Lee has his theory about the secret to successful eclecticism:
“All things of quality work together,” he says. “In the library, we have a true Louis XIV chair next to a Mies Van Der Rohe chair next to a Chinese Chippendale piece and it works.”
The fact that the furnishings, artwork and accessories are an outgrowth of the couple’s real passions and lives also makes a difference. “The look is authentic,” says Lee. “There’s a horse chest in the den, but Ashley rides and it’s her horse chest. None of this is some new furniture company’s interpretation of anything. Nothing here is contrived. It’s real.”
Among the authentic details that have a place of prominence in the home are family items—like the 1863 sign over the kitchen door. “This sign came from the Epping Bottling Company that Ashley’s family owned downtown,” says Scott. A glass 7Up bottle from Epping Bottling Company sits on the shelf in the den. “I love ancestral items,” says Lee. “If a client has them, I find ways to use them.”
The home as it has quickly evolved under Lee’s skillful guidance—conveys a delightful sense of history—both of the structure and of the couple who inhabit it. But they’re not done yet. “It’s still a work in progress,” says Scott. “We’ve made it our house, but we’re by no means done.”
Phase one is behind them, but phase two lies ahead. “What’s going to happen is more customization,” adds Lee. There are plans to renovate the master suite, adding a bar, ultra-modern closets, a glamorous master bath and a bedroom with a panoramic view of the sweeping backyard that isn’t visible with the current layout. It’s all part of the process of adding their chapter to the story that began in a little log cabin and continues in this carefully restored showplace. “I still can’t believe we live here,” says Scott. “What’s the Talking Heads line, ‘This is not my beautiful house...My God, how did I get here?”