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Sunday, May 19, 2024

River Retreat

The silence was so deafening she couldn’t sleep, explains Chicago native Laura Lee about her first evenings spent at the West Side Evansville home she shares with her husband Chris and their three sons. The two-story stone home with a basement overlooks a serene piece of the Ohio River, which can only be reached through forest surrounded narrow roads, which were gravel when the Lees first made the drive to see the house, four miles off of the Lloyd Expressway.

Laura and Chris Lee met during Laura’s second semester of her senior year in college at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The pair agreed to date long-distance as Laura, who was a year older than Chris in school, took a job back in her hometown of Chicago. After five years of dating across states — Laura was attending the University of Chicago Booth School of Business while Chris was in law school at Indiana University Maurer School of Law — they were engaged. After Chris graduated in 1993, he left his native city of Bedford, Indiana, and moved to Evansville to take a job at a local law firm. The couple, married in 1994, lived in Downtown Evansville in a condominium while searching for a house.

During the home search, Chris continued to hear about an intriguing stone house overlooking the river. On a Sunday morning, before they had children, Laura said, “Let’s just get in the car and go drive.” They found themselves on Smith-Diamond Road, not far from what later would be their first home on River Ridge Lane, and asked for directions from people walking. The passersby instructed them to continue down a gravel road and they would see the house; they were unsure if it was for sale. When they reached the home secluded on a ridge over the Ohio River, Chris saw a for sale sign and told his wife, “That’s the house.” Laura, who had grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, looked at the thick trees and quiet surroundings and replied, “Where are we?”

The two didn’t stop in immediately, and decided to wait and call the previous owners Brian and Darla Fenneman to ask for a tour. Soon after, they walked through the home with Chris’ parents and loved it.

“It was beautiful,” says Laura, “but I thought it was too much. I had never owned a home before.”

The 10,000-square-foot home with six bedrooms, six bathrooms, and four fireplaces was not a traditional starter home. In 1996, the Lees purchased it and 10 acres from the Fennemans, who had owned a large amount of acreage around the house. The Fennemans kept some of the acreage and built a house farther down on River Ridge Lane, before later moving out of the area.

Built in 1946 by Henry B. Walker Sr., an attorney and a colonel in World War II, the home was later sold to his friend Julius Land, who sold it at auction to the Fennemans. The architect Carter E. Hewitt of Peoria, Illinois, who may have been inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, built the house. An apprentice of Wright’s, William Wesley Peters studied at Evansville College and constructed several homes in Evansville.

“There are so many really, really neat aspects to this house,” says Dr. James Renne, an orthopaedic surgeon at Deaconess Hospital, an architect, and Peters expert. “The cypress is all over the house, you can’t even get it anymore. All the load-bearing walls are poured concrete, and the escape routes are so interesting.”

The escape routes mentioned by Dr. Renne refer to almost every room having two exits.

“As I understand it, when (Mr. Walker) came back from World War II, he built this,” says Chris. “Every room has an exit. As you walk through, you’ll go into a room and there’s always another exit. Some are easier to find than others. Every one has an extra door. You can always get out of a room.”

“Sometimes I feel like it’s not even ours,” says Laura. “The man who built it had his own vision.”

The Lees can only speculate as to if Mr. Walker had a fear of fire, or if the design of his home simply was to enhance his ability to entertain his guests.

Today, the home provides an escape for a busy family. Both Chris and Laura have successful careers and their sons Nick, 17, Joe, 15, and Matthew, 14, are typically busy. Chris works as a litigation partner at Wooden & McLaughlin, a law firm founded in 1970 in Indianapolis, which recently opened an Evansville office. He also served in the Indiana National Guard retiring after 20 years of service. Laura works as the vice president and senior trust officer at Fifth Third Private Bank. She began working in the trust industry in 1988 and has been at Fifth Third Bank since 1994.

Quiet and secluded from the hustle of the city, their sanctuary has two screened-in porches, with screenings redone by the Lees early on into ownership. One porch connects to the master bedroom. The dining room’s porch connects with the living room through a sliding wall. The area opens up to a beautiful pool overlooking the river below.

“A lot of times we bring our food outside to the porch and it’s a real escape from the world,” says Laura.

The Lees’ dream of a pool on the bluff became a reality in 2010 with help from Fox Pools of Evansville. Danny Fuquay at Aching Acres did the heavy lifting with initial sod and landscape work and Billy Egli and his father Bill of Bill Egli Concrete completed all of the stamped concrete and pathways around the pool area.

Three years later, the family also remodeled the attic area on the top floor of the home, which at the time were stairs leading to nowhere, says Laura. The renovation took about a year and allowed their three boys, who had outgrown a room they all shared together on the first floor, to upgrade to the entire top floor without separate bedrooms. Laura chose to keep the boys together in one area even as they aged, because it was a practice she had begun when her husband was deployed to Bosnia in 2002 and later to Afghanistan in 2004, and she was working full-time caring for three young children.

Laura says B&S Home Improvement was instrumental in the significant structural work needed in the attic remodel. Nick, Joe, and Matthew, who all attend Mater Dei High School, each share a common room where they can study while having a gorgeous view of the river, and also have a bathroom upstairs. Todd and Mark Johns at Howard Johns Plumbing aided the Lees in adding a bathroom on the top floor and have a special connection to the house — their ancestors did some of the original plumbing to the structure years ago.

The Lees’ sons are all accomplished athletes with a passion for wrestling, which led their parents to converting a 500-square foot former horse barn on the property, made from Saint Meinrad limestone, into a training room for wrestling. It is complete with a wrestling mat, weights and gym area, and a bathroom with a shower.

“They spend more time in the barn than anywhere,” says Laura. “It is used in a very good way.”

The family credits Brian Wildeman at Landscapes by Dallas Foster, who has been helping to enhance and maintain the landscape around the home and barn for the last couple years. Living off the beaten path, the Lees also recognize Mark Pugh at Alpha Organics who helped tame the lush, aggressive grass and brush around the house for a number of years. Action Pest Control has maintained the property for more than 10 years.

In addition to the attic renovation, the Lees did work on nearly every room in the home except for the kitchen. They have replaced all of the lighting fixtures, toilets, and sinks in the house. Their friends Jenny Kuhn and Angie Wulff of Evansville, and Mark Weintraut of Mount Vernon, Indiana, all aided the Lees with painting and finishing projects, which have been spread out over the last 20 years.

While there are a few more projects here and there still on their to-do list, both Laura and Chris feel blessed to live in the Evansville area and appreciate being a part of the community.

“I wanted to feel like you can come in and sit down and your home wraps around you,” says Laura.

In our story, “River Retreat” in the July/August 2015 issue of Evansville Living, we incorrectly suggested that the architect of the Chris and Laura Lee home overlooking the Ohio River on Evansville’s West Side was likely inspired by William Wesley Peters, an Evansville native who became an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Although the architect of the home was identified on the home’s original blueprints, it had been passed on to the Lees – local lore – that one of the architects on their home was Peters. Dr. James Renne, a retired orthopedic surgeon and Peters authority who we quoted in the story, visited the home with our writers and photographers to talk with the Lees and determine if any connection existed between their home and Wesley Peters.

“After just one year with Frank Lloyd Wright, Wes Peters returned to Evansville in 1934 for two years where he began his brief private architectural practice,” Dr. Renne says. “While here, two relatively small houses were completed, only one of which still exists. These houses were built for working-class families and incorporated many innovative features characteristic of Wright’s Usonian design concepts. The existing Peters designed house, located in the Rosedale neighborhood on E. Indiana, a few blocks off of the Lloyd Expressway, is being prepared for a move to the University of Evansville campus where it will be available for study, inspiration, and appreciation. The architect of the Lee’s house may have been influenced by Wright’s work, but not Peters.”

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