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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Grand Entrance

On a nearly perfect, warm weather morning, Joni Matthews opens her front door to greet an out-of-town guest with warmth and excitement. A small but dressy affair is in the making and the house’s energy is palpable as preparations flow for the late afternoon gathering — cocktails with a few family and friends.

Over the hostess’ shoulder, she is seen again coming down the hallway with a vase of fresh flowers — no, that’s her sister Marcia Matthews Hocker. At first glance, the two look so much alike it can be startling. The wife of David Hocker of Owensboro, Kentucky, Marcia is on-site to arrange cuttings from her garden, among a dozen other tasks. Both detail-oriented women are willowy brunettes with a penchant for classic fashion accented by a pop of the unusual.

It’s a taste that also is demonstrated by Matthews’ Evansville home. Built in 1940, the brown brick Colonial Revival stands out along a row of two-story homes near the University of Evansville. Seventy-year old oak trees, English ivy, yews, and flagstone walks keep sentry at the front lawn, while the face of the house, trimmed in white and the deepest Brunswick green, announces, “Enter friends!”

Matthews purchased the house in 1986 from the family of Julius and Margaret Ritter, the original owners. “It always had special meaning to me,” she shares, “because my grandparents — Harry and Loretta Matthews — built the house next door. I have a picture of my father in his Navy whites with this house in the background. In fact, my mother’s parents, Elsie and Fred Schrepfer, were friends with both families. They spent a lot of time at Harry and Loretta’s and probably visited in this house, too.” She adds, “And I loved Mrs. Ritter.”

Some 30 years later, the house reflects its current owner’s distinctive taste while never losing its original integrity. The excellent bones — inside and out — are layered with delightful combinations of elegance and whimsy, lively color, and time-honored neutrals.

On the subject of whimsy, the screened-in porch off of the living room is one of two tucked-away havens within a haven — more on the second one later. Shabby chic touches with found object lamps, a large, functioning Coca-Cola cooler, and a stately primitive cabinet mix comfortably with Matthews’ century-old wicker (from the old Greek-Shears Funeral Home at 120 Walnut St. in Downtown Evansville, now apartments), cushioned classically in piped sailcloth canvas. The porch floor is its own work of art, hand-painted in primary colors by local artist Robin Church. It was commissioned some 20 years previous and is all the more appealing with its current slight weathering. The porch’s natural light is filtered by bordering yew shrubs that have been allowed to grow tall, ensuring privacy, shade, and a National Geographic experience this spring when they provided a nesting place to a sweet cardinal family.

The home’s living room is marked by refinement and is used to cleverly display prized collections and artwork. A hand-painted and gilded Italian dresser that came through E Erickson Antiques offsets the points of high color found in the room’s hanging art. Throughout the room are several brilliant originals by Marcia Matthews Hocker, and Leroy Neiman’s “Delacroix’s Tiger” is centered over the mantel’s collection of antique Chinese foo dogs. Glancing up from writing at her antique Kittinger secretary, Matthews can enjoy the original, oil on canvas Peter Max — part of the “Liberty Head” series — that the artist, an old friend, painted for her as a gift.

On a lamp table near the couch, an amusing coterie of Herend figurines congregate, as if daring the mantle’s foo dogs to leap down and watch them scatter. Sailor, the beloved cocker spaniel and true protector of the home and yard, ignores them all as he shuffles by on his way to check on things in the kitchen.

Not only is food assembly in full force, but a fly-by conversation unfolds about updates.

“Well … first, we took it down to the studs,” Matthews recalls when asked about the kitchen renovations started in 2011. Maintaining the original wall and plumbing layouts, revamping meant careful planning to place a significantly larger stove and refrigerator, add a wine cooler, a dishwasher, and still provide the cabinet and counter space required for storage and function. Matthews’ respect for the home’s original fixtures led her to preserve the kitchen’s cast iron/porcelain sink and its cabinetry by installing them in the laundry room.

Matthews breezes by with a silver tray to the dining room now dressed in a flowing Ralph Lauren navy blue silk handkerchief dress. Or is that Mrs. Hocker? Obviously, it’s go-time. Guests will arrive shortly.

As the rooms and yards fill with the small group’s talk and laughter, the Matthews sisters can be found at opposite ends of the action. They are in-sync hostesses, making introductions as needed, helping with hors d’oeuvres and drinks, and noting that for these couple of hours, everyone is enjoying this home as much as they do.

After the sun has set and the last guest has left for dinner, it is a perfect moment to visit that second haven found within Joni Matthews’ house — more of a subterranean bonus room than what it’s called: the basement. Like the main floor’s living room, in the wintertime its fireplace crackles most evenings.

Unlike the living room, however, this spot with its dark wood-paneled walls, inclines the visitor more to lounging on the oversized armchairs and ottomans seemingly designed for slumped posture and draped limbs. The comfy chairs and ottomans came from Matthews’ San Francisco home where she lived for approximately five years. It’s a well-appointed low-lit room; an ideal setting for cocktails and conversation, watching playoffs, or sneaking away to quietly read a magazine.

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