Few residential areas of this city are as distinctive as the neighborhood adjacent to the Overton Park Zoo in the Evergreen Historic District. Chip Williamson and Chris Cooper have long had a love affair with this particular part of town, and spent quite a bit of time house-hunting in the area. But this particular house “spoke to them,” so, appreciating that it was a hidden gem buried in overgrown landscaping, they bought the place in 2007.
Built in 1912, the architecture of what is now the Williamson-Cooper House can be classified stylistically as Arts and Crafts, as it incorporates such outstanding period features as a green tile roof, two fretwork ceilings (one wood, one plaster), a grand staircase, large interior columns, and a conservatory. It’s anything but a cottage, however; the home’s four floors and 25 rooms include a whopping 7,000 square feet of floor space.
As you might expect from owners with a property of this vintage, Williamson and Cooper are fascinated by the provenance of their home. They know that among the previous owners was William M. Bell, a prominent commercial real-estate developer, who had an office on the top floor of downtown’s Sterick Building during the 1930s and ’40s. As it turns out, members of the Bell family, including Bell’s granddaughter, have come from New Orleans to revisit their roots and admire the renovations. They shared fascinating tales of “bags of diamonds” kept in one of the safes set into the walls of the house, which were found plastered over when the new owners purchased the property. An 80-year-old aunt even recalled that the Bell children were allowed to play with these diamonds as if they were marbles. Imagine such a thing! True or apocryphal, one can’t help humming “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” while walking through the premises.
Williamson and Cooper bought the home from Eric and Ann Brown, who had lived there for 25 years. The property had been divided previously into five units in the post-World War II period when housing was scarce, which meant that the Browns had to wait until the leases of the “sitting tenants” expired before they could occupy their whole house. The current owners often run into people who are familiar with the building, and they even encountered a fellow who once lived in an apartment on the top floor.
Renovations to the house have been extensive, yet the Williamson-Cooper House clearly retains its historic character. The new look is not exactly “minimalist,” but the interior has indeed been opened up to let in the maximum amount of light. The décor is purposely not weighed down with superfluous objects. Because the owners love to entertain, it was essential their home be made to flow easily and graciously from room to room — and, of course, the dining-room table had to seat at least 10 people.
The color palette chosen is crisp, elegant, and monochromatic with grey, beige, and chocolate predominating throughout. The beautiful oak floors are original, as are several of the chandeliers and much of the home’s hardware. The two fireplaces downstairs are positively baronial, and the house still has a functioning elevator.
Fortunately for Williamson and Cooper, their friend and neighbor, Elizabeth Rodriguez-Chapman, was ready, willing, and able to help them out with their interior decoration. She and Merri Curry, her sister, own Charming Chesterfields, an antiques and design firm. The result is that many unique and interesting pieces have been found for the house, including such delights as mirrored obelisks, Swedish chairs featuring unusual carved dolphin arms, a pair of rare leather military-campaign chairs from the mid-nineteenth century, “root ball” sculptures made of wood reclaimed from the sea, and mixed-media artwork and furniture by Brantley Ellzey and Stephen Crump, both award-winning local artists.
The renovated kitchen is truly spectacular and fit for an English manor house. Its original hexagonal tiles in two shades of gray were preserved. The new design is light and bright with pendant lighting, Palladian windows, and a shiny, marble-topped central island — and just imagine the luxury of two stoves.
Because the house did not have a true master bedroom, walls were added and rooms reconfigured. One of the renovated bathrooms is especially handsome with its stone walls, copper tub, heated stone floor, and stone steam shower. There are also two upstairs terraces.
A guest suite on the top floor has a separate kitchen and bath. Below ground, the finished basement is most often used as a “catering kitchen.” Ultimately, they say, this space could become a separate apartment.
A romantic garden design is a key element in the overall plan. Guests enter the beautifully landscaped grounds through a pair of old-fashioned lampposts. The home is framed lushly with roses, azaleas, hydrangeas, lilies, magnolias, crepe myrtles, and hostas. The back terrace was reconstructed from bricks found on the property.
This elegant home naturally lends itself to big parties, and the owners have generously hosted several fundraisers for Congressman Steve Cohen, as well as a holiday party for the Child Advocacy Center, on whose board Williamson currently serves. Of course, they entertain their many friends with assorted private Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties. And next year they are planning a very special event to celebrate their home’s 100th anniversary. Since 1912 was also the same year “that great ship went down,” they are calling it a “Titanic party.” Part of the fun will be to open — after all these years — one of the previously mentioned safes. Empty or not, it will be an exciting party gambit.
Williamson is a busy IT analyst at FedEx. Cooper is the senior managing partner of West Tennessee Eye, an optometry and ophthalmology practice. He also manages the professional affairs liaison program for Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc.
When not working or entertaining, these owners are serious globetrotters, and of course they pick up souvenir “treasures” wherever they go. For instance, a series of wonderful watercolors from St. Petersburg, Russia, hang on their walls. And on the lighter side, several shelves hold a collection of mugs from Starbucks coffee cafes they have visited around the world.
Sharing their home are two beloved miniature schnauzers. Both Sasha, a 2-year-old, and Chica, who is 13, are rescue dogs — and lucky indeed to have the run of this special home and garden.
These owners like to tell people how their objective has been “to restore the house to its former glory within the neighborhood.” Although renovations to a home of this size are always a work in progress, I think we can safely say to Williamson and Cooper: “Mission accomplished.”