September 20, 2018
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A Museum Moment

The Civil War was a current event when this Italianate home was built in Downtown Evansville. Today, the abode feels rich with history.
The S.E. First Street home of David James is a tasteful and true example of Italianate architecture.

Stepping into the McJohnston-Orr house in the Riverside Historic District is like visiting a museum. Victorian décor and well-placed, quality antiques enhance the home’s Italianate architectural style down to the smallest detail. Even the hallway joining the front living area to the kitchen has been faux painted to mimic the appearance of warm, flickering candlelight reflecting on the original plaster.

Charles F. McJohnston built the home on First Street in 1869 — the same year Ulysses S. Grant took the 18th presidential oath of office, and the transcontinental railroad tracks were laid across the United States. Thirteen years later, McJohnston sold the house to James L. Orr, whose family owned Orr Iron. He passed it to his daughter Martha Orr Denby and her husband Charles, a longtime U.S. ambassador to China.

Today, period pieces such as an 1800s tapestry-upholstered chair, a French porcelain vase, and Wedgwood china in a variety of colors attest to owner David James’ innate sense of style and connection with the house. A former hairstylist, James is passionate about the Riverside Historic District and preserving Evansville’s original homes. The 48-year-old Evansville native, who enjoys decorating “on the side,” was living in an older yet less grand house in Henderson, Ky., when he found the First Street home in 2006 and “had to have it.”

What he loved about the home were the details. “The most amazing thing is this craftsmanship that is lost,” he says, in newer homes, referring to the intricately carved cherry woodwork and burled trim that top the dining room wainscoting. James has been told it would cost more than $100,000 to replicate this type of artistry today. Historic documents indicate the woodwork likely was added to the home in the early 1880s, after Orr purchased it. Around the same time period, work resumed on Willard Library, a historic treasure with similar stained, round decorative panels. Equally impressive is the dining room floor, inlaid with rosewood and wild cherry.

Other no-shows in modern architecture include ornately decorated brass door hinges and built-in interior shutters that fold into the home’s generous window frames. “These shutters are great,” James says. “I don’t know why no one does this today.”

The home boasts eight unique Italian tile-framed fireplaces that James doesn’t use because the temperature transition could cause the aging tiles to pop out. The fireplace in the formal living room features eye-catching three-dimensional iron detail, but the real attention grabber hangs above it: an oversized antique oil painting of a nude woman kneeling at a fountain. James found this piece in a local antique store where the owner shared this anecdote: The 1839 painting was on display in the original Neiman Marcus department store in Texas until a group of religious conservatives demanded its removal as an election-year tactic long ago. The painting ended up in the basement of a Henderson family with distant ties to Neiman Marcus and then found its way to the antique store.

The only first-floor room to hint at the 21st century is the kitchen. James accentuated the sleek, somewhat minimalist Fehrenbacher cherry cabinets, installed by a previous owner, with a beige granite countertop. Nearby, on a shelf above the black granite-topped antique table, is a rare Wedgwood basalt vase. The fine black porcelain piece bears the image of the Roman god Neptune’s son Trident. According to James, only one specimen identical to this valuable family heirloom exists, and it sits in the nearly 10,000-piece Wedgwood collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama.

These details give the historic home a feel similar to its ambience centuries ago (save for the 42-inch flat panel TV upstairs, where the homeowner spends most of his time). Yet, at one time, James considered hiring a decorator. His mom said, “Don’t do that. Your stuff is way better.”

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