Showcase Home: A Study in Contrast
Debra McCabe’s home on the historic Ivy Hill estate in Forest is truly a house of contrasts. An eclectic mix of elegant and casual furnishings is set against the backdrop of her century-old log cabin. The great styling here is really not surprising, considering Debra’s background. She is the owner of The Columns, which is arguably one of the chicest retail boutiques around.
The approach to the Ivy Hill estate winds through the development known as Ivy Hill, by a serene golf course, along a private road that runs past a landing strip, through massive iron gates, and finally a tree-lined drive leading to the estate. Today, the Ivy Hill estate is owned by Debra’s parents, Fern and Allen Harvey, and it comes with a long documented history. In the 18th century, the site was a plantation known as Petty Grove, owned by Parson Charles Clay, an Anglican minister in Albemarle County who performed the funeral for Thomas Jefferson’s mother. When Clay came to Petty Grove to operate his farm, he became reacquainted with Jefferson, after which they developed a good friendship. Clay’s home, purported to have been built in 1790, featured a centered two-tiered portico which, according to historical accounts, “was not architecturally distinguished.” Long after the original home burned to the ground, local resident and previous owner Herbert Thompson built a Georgian-style mansion designed by well-known architect Stanhope Johnson. During the mansion’s construction, Thompson built another home, much simpler, of logs. The family lived here until the main house was completed in the late 1930s.
Debra’s father Allen Harvey explains the origins of this remarkable log cabin. He says that Thompson “went around the countryside and bought up every chestnut log building that he could get his hands on.” Then Thompson had each building dismantled and stacked the chestnut logs in a pile until he had enough to build the cabin. As Harvey points out, forward-thinking people were rescuing old buildings and reusing the valuable logs long before recycling was in vogue. Few woods can compare to chestnut; it is arguably the best available because it never deteriorates. Some of the logs on Debra’s cabin are over 200 years old.
Debra McCabe’s cabin is unlike most log homes. From the exterior, the shutters on each of the multipaned windows of the two-story home and the lovely tin roof line present a more elegant picture than a traditional log cabin. Gardens line a stone path to the entrance, with mulched beds sprinkled here and there over the lawn leading down to Ivy Lake.
The front entrance leads visitors into a great room with 14-foot ceilings and highly polished oak board floors. Debra, who has been here for 25 years, explains that at one time the interior walls looked just like the exterior. “The chinking was brown and dull,” she says. Historically, chinking was fashioned from mud, grass and tiny pieces of wood. Today plaster is used to fill the cracks between the logs. “We painted all of the chinking with a white plaster paint, cleaned the logs and put a coat of polyurethane on them,” says Debra. The effect is quite dramatic and presents a canvas where she has used her decorative skills.
Typical rustic log cabins often feature big, chunky furniture that mimics the logs themselves. Not here! She uses delicate, frilled furnishings skillfully mixed with the casual. A friend of Debra’s shares the perfect description of her home: “This is a princess’s house, but a king wouldn’t mind living here!”
The great room boasts a lovely stone fireplace with elegant seating. In marked contrast, an old wagon wheel light fixture hangs from the ceiling. While it seems fitting in this home of so many contrasts, Debra actually isn’t a fan of this artful item; she says she keeps it because her father loves it. And she has to admit: “It is great to put greens on it at Christmas!”
Debra enjoys collecting treasures, and exhibits her tasteful choices throughout the house. A variety of chairs and ottomans are strategically placed, providing niches to relax and retreat after a long day at work. Apart from the dining room chairs which do match, few chairs are the same. Each has its own personality.
Cabinets and armoires display and store her collections. Debra sometimes picks up pieces at Greenfront in Farmville, and also discovers her treasures at estate sales and area shops. The large 19th-century armoire in the dining room came locally from Terrace View Farm. “The owner was getting ready to pitch it,” she says. “He said, ‘If you can move it you can have it.’” So she found some able bodies and they quickly moved it to her home. She changed the solid doors to glass, and now it holds her silver and dining room serving pieces.
The choice of lighting throughout the house is an interesting mix of feminine lamps and lovely ceiling fans, often fashioned by combining a fixture with a simple fan. An old crystal chandelier hangs above the dining room table. When she moved into The Columns’ first location in Lynchburg, the chandelier hung inside. She replaced it with a newer fixture, and took the antique fixture home to enjoy in her dining room.
Debra recently renovated her master bath with the help of Colin Anderson of Lynchburg. By breaking through to the attic, she achieved very high ceilings and a spacious bath. A white soaking tub and a four-legged porcelain sink, both from Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery, are elegant contrasts to the dark-grained woodwork and wonderful, heavy old door.
Her master bedroom was converted from an antiquated space into a charming room featuring a gracious four-post bed and an antique armoire. She installed mirrors in the armoire’s doors, their reflection opening up the space even more.
A combination sitting area and kitchen is at the other end of the home. Debra renovated this space six years ago with the help of Alex Mason with Robertson Construction. “He has a great eye,” she says. Like the master bath, this was a major renovation that she wanted to keep authentic and accurate.
To give the room more space, she removed an entire stone wall across the back portion of the kitchen, opening up a sitting area. Then she used the stone to create a corner fireplace with gas logs. This restructuring provides improved traffic flow for entertaining and easier access into the dining room. A long counter along the back of the sitting room features an old porcelain wash sink. Above, the cabinets are overflowing with glassware, another of her collectibles.
The cabinets in the kitchen are original to the house. “When I redid the room, I had them faux painted by Charles Schraeder,” she says. Though she did meet some resistance from her father about redoing “those gorgeous old cabinets,” she says that he too was very pleased with the result.
According to Debra, perhaps the best thing she installed in her kitchen is a built-in steamer. Situated next to the sink, the steamer is tied directly into the drain system. She says she cooks everything in it, and since water flows from the bottom, it is very easy to clean. “If ever I build a new home, I would install several of these. I would rather have three of these steamers than burners on a stove!” she says.
Another of Debra’s creations is featured above the kitchen sink. A light fixture fashioned from an earthenware hens-and-chicks flower pot hangs upside-down. Light reflects out of every opening in the pot.
Directly off her kitchen is a special spot that Debra calls her “secret porch.” “If anyone is looking for me and I am not in the garden, I am here!” she says. Overlooking her water garden, arbor and flower beds, this tiny area holds a bench, a table and a chair. Ivy Lake offers a beautiful view. Here she can curl up with one of her cats, browse through a magazine, plan her day, enjoy some quiet time, or just watch the birds at the many garden feeders.
Debra’s gardens are all well planned, and like her home, meticulous. A water feature she designed and installed herself emerges from a large hole where a tree once grew. When the tree fell, she decided that rather than fill the resulting hole, she’d make use of it. A tiny waterfall trickles into a small pool of water with lilies and other aquatic plants along its shores.
Throughout the garden are large stepping stones almost lost in the grass. Debra exposed the stones in the front walk, and one of her “someday” projects will be to expose all the stones so they can be enjoyed in their entirety. The terraced garden, where Black Angus once grazed, now features walnut trees and other hardwoods, and garden beds leading down to Ivy Lake where she has a large dock and pontoon boat.
Perhaps the highlight of the entire house is the open-air back porch. With floor space almost the size of the house itself, the area is ideal for entertaining. Here Debra stages dinner parties in front of a massive stone fireplace, or serves cocktails from the open-air bar. “This is my favorite place,” she says. “Actually, it is my friends’ favorite place. Mine is the tiny porch off the kitchen!” The area boasts couches, a porch swing, an outdoor grill…everything to create the perfect outdoor living space.
Because she has a designer’s eye, Debra planned all the renovations and every decorating detail herself. She claims she inherits her creativity from her father. She also gets many of her ideas from magazines. “My time is so limited. When I go through magazines, I can see what I like and usually find out exactly where to buy it,” she says. Eventually she hopes to build the home of her dreams-—and has folders and folders stuffed with ideas.
Debra’s intrinsic ability to see an object and transform its use to an entirely different function is uncanny. It provides a surprise element to her decorating that makes a tour through her home just plain fun. And she herself is a woman of contrasts. “I am into birds and have four cats!” she quips. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the impeccably dressed business owner running her beautiful retail space toiling at home—mowing her lawn, weeding her gardens and vacuuming the logs on her walls (which are always in need of cleaning, she says). Yet somehow, she does it all. She loves her home and finds joy as its caretaker. As much at home in a pair of cowboy boots as she is in the elegant full-length mink coat that hangs on a hook on the back of her front door, Debra may even be found wearing them together!