Painting to preserve history

Owners restore Knowlton-Bourn house to its original splendor

by Melissa Martin

With so many hues, shades and finishes to choose from, picking a paint color is never easy. 

The decision is that much more complicated when an entire palate of colors has to be selected for the exterior renovation of a home that is approaching 150 years old.

Just ask Brecksville residents Joe and Liz DiVincenzo, who recently repainted the exterior of their Old Highland Drive home, commonly referred to by locals as the Knowlton-Bourn residence.

While repainting an old house isn’t revolutionary, the DiVincenzos say there’s far more to the process than picking out colors when you live in one of the city’s oldest residences with a history all its own.

“For us, it’s always been about responsibility,” Liz said. “From the time we purchased this house, we wanted to preserve the home’s original character not only for ourselves but for our community for years to come.”

Brecksville’s roots

Dr. William A. Knowlton, a prominent and well-respected Brecksville physician, built the Victorian-Italianate style home in 1879 after being wounded in the leg serving as an officer in the Civil War. He walked with a limp the remainder of his life. 

Records indicate Knowlton decided to become a physician partly because of unsafe medical practices he saw during his hospital stay in Washington, D.C. He saw patients in his Brecksville home and also made house calls on horseback. A doctor’s visit at the time cost 50 cents, and his obstetrics fee was $5.

Soon after moving into his home, Knowlton moved to Cleveland and developed a prestigious medical practice. He also served as chairman of the obstetrics department at Wooster University. The house was sold to his professional protégé, Dr. Ernest Bourn, and continued to be used as a doctor’s office for several years.

After several years, the dining room in the formerly green and white Knowlton-Bourn house came to serve as the community’s first public library. Bourn’s wife, Mary, served as librarian. 

The house was passed on to the Bourn’s daughter, Dorothy, who eventually sold it to Brecksville Mayor Jerry Hruby. The home was then sold to the Keavy family before being sold to the DiVincenzos, who are the home’s sixth owners.

Bringing back the past

Since buying the house 10 years ago, the DiVincenzos have renovated nearly every room. Walking into the residence feels like stepping back into the late 19th century. 

Advanced Painting, which specializes in residential, commercial and even philanthropic projects,repaired the exterior of the DiVincenzo home this past July before giving it an all new aesthetic. Photo by J. Kananian

While some rooms had been modernized in recent decades, the DiVincenzos have brought them back to their roots. The original wood flooring remains, as do the building’s high ceilings, windows and fireplaces. The thick black walnut trim and molding adorning every room remains in its original wood tone and, to this day, has never been painted.

In addition to refinishing the floors and polishing the trim, the DiVincenzos have renovated and expanded the kitchen and installed a tin ceiling, a look that would have been popular at the time. They’ve also adorned the walls of several rooms with custom reproduction wallpaper featuring ornate designs that fit the era when the home was built.

The couple has conducted extensive research on late-1800s home design and opted to use exclusively an authentic brand of paints made specifically to replicate the color palate used in homes built in those years. Adding to the home’s period feel is the extensive collection of antiques the couple chose, including period fireplace mantles, rugs, curtains, lamps, light fixtures and even door handles and hinges.

“It’s all the little details that give it that truly authentic feel,” Liz DiVincenzo said.

Decorating for yesterday and today

When it came time to restore the home’s exterior earlier this year, Liz knew she had more homework to do. The DiVincenzos knew there were structural features that needed to be displayed correctly to give the home the appearance it was designed to have. But they didn’t know how to achieve that look on their own. 

When they purchased the home 10 years ago, Joe and Liz DiVincenzo were surprised to find the original woodwork and hardwood floors remained throughout the house and hadn’t been painted over. Photo by J. Kananian

The DiVincenzos hired internationally recognized color expert Amy Wax, who has been featured extensively in HGTV Magazine, This Old House, House Beautiful, Seasonal Living Magazine and the New York Times. In addition to creating her own painting app, Wax has created and an extensive line of Benjamin Moore paint colors.

Wax not only helped the DiVincenzos choose six timeless paint colors, she helped them figure out where to place each color on the house to follow the intended architectural form of the building. 

To make sure the job was done accurately, the couple hired Bob Manashian and the painting team at Advanced Painting, who realized right away the job wasn’t their typical paint job. It was more about restoration and bringing the DiVincenzo’s vision to life.

“We wanted to give a nod to the fact that this is a historical house and I think we accomplished that,” Liz DiVincenzo said, noting that she and Joe wanted the house to look like a traditional Victorian home, but with more subdued, elegant and even regal colors.

Broadview Heights-based Advanced Painting, in business since 1979, rose to the challenge. The team dodged summer rainstorms and overcame COVID-related paint shortages at the manufacturer level to complete what Manashian says has been one of the most rewarding projects his team has tackled to date.

“The six different paint colors and all the intricate detail work just makes this house a showstopper,” he said. “This house could be there for at least another 100 years – maybe more – and it’s great to know that you were involved in bringing it back to life.”

“It’s definitely a big change from the old green and white,” Liz  DiVincenzo said. “But the colors would have been very appropriate for the time and look just as good on the house today.” ∞