By LESLEA M. HARMON
“Make new friends, but keep the old — one is silver and the other gold,” goes the song. Shelle England and her husband Doug (also known as
Mayor of New Albany) seem to embody this sentiment in their homemaking at historic Rabbit Ridge, on Ind. 111 in New Albany.
Rabbit Ridge is a historic estate, built by riverboat entrepreneurs and embodying the independent spirit of a burgeoning community on the mighty Ohio
in 1840. The Englands have filled the home with finds from New Albany as well as from across the river, and further afield. From other homes, storefronts, barns, and churches — as long as it fits their style, the Englands have appropriated it. Not unlike New Albany, itself, with its downtown mix of historic shop fronts, modern community centers, and timeless vintage homes, the Englands’ Rabbit Ridge has seen different purposes, looks, and inhabitants in its 170-year history. “We’ve had the place for 42 years,” explains Shelle, from a seat in her welcoming TV room. “It had no electricity or heat when we bought it, and it had been squatted in. Every coal-burning fireplace had been used to burn wood, and there were holes in the floor.”
The 1840s Country Home, originally built by Charles Dowerman during the steamboat-building boom, had been neglected for years, but the Englands saw its potential. From an old summer dining room, a modern TV room was reborn. Enormous antique multi-paned windows salvaged from an old shop front in the West End of Louisville let light into the downstairs TV room, as well as the upstairs sitting room. Stained glass and vibrant paintings pop in contrast to the neutral color scheme, beneath an exotically styled ceiling fan.
While the windows offer an irresistible view of nature and the opportunity for backyard bird-watching, the Englands did not stop there in their quest to remodel the house with classic touches from other buildings. One of the bedrooms features ornate wood paneling recycled from an old church confessional. Above the gorgeously appointed wall, stained glass windows from St. Mark’s church in New Albany and the Dane house in Louisville co-exist as if they were designed to be installed side-by-side, instead of coming from two different structures, originally. Across the room, an attic was converted into a balcony area, adding square footage to the room and giving it a sort of clubhouse feeling.
Not wanting to get rid of anything useful on the property, the Englands recycled old boards from the former barn and used them for rafters throughout the home, adding the warmth of wood to the décor.
There’s no denying that the friendliest room in any home tends to be the kitchen, and the evidence of the England’s active social life is everywhere in this open, multi-purpose room. A jukebox, an arcade game from the 1980s, a vintage Coke machine — these touches and more invite fun and frivolity among friends and family.
“We’d have parties, and people would always end up in the kitchen,” says Shelle. “We used to have cabinets in the middle of the room that hung down, and we couldn’t see our guests from the other side of them. We just took them down and made a bar, and hung these lights.”
She gestures upward to beautiful brown glass fixtures suspended from the ceiling. The mix of new cabinetry and lighting with antique décor and whimsical collections is completely charming, encouraging you to grab a seat at the bar and chat awhile.
Next door, the formal dining room in robin’s egg blue is the perfect representation of the England’s decorating style. Contemporary art hangs above antique furniture. Elegant table settings surround a striking centerpiece created from dollar store decorations. In the corner, a petite carousel horse in crackled blue paint adds interest as it stands guard before an improvised closet.
“The closets in these old houses were not deep,” explains Shelle. “We needed more room, so we brought in this chifforobe, and cut
a hole in the wall to fit it.”
The vintage chifforobe has the look of built-in cabinetry, without taking up the kind of floorspace that an armoire typically would.
An Oriental-themed living room in earth tones is filled with a collection of figurines from trips abroad. Memories from a diplomatic mission to New Albany’s sister city in China sit among other pieces of Asian art on the mantelpiece, and Japanese gifts from visitors from the Hitachi Corp. decorate a side table. Mounted to a wall, a traditional wooden Oriental screen adds interest to a corner. In the midst of it all, an extra long couch invites taller-than-average visitors to stretch out and take a load off.
Currently covered in a regal honeybee print, “the sofa has been reupholstered four times,” says Shelle. “Doug and I picked it out before we were married, to be our first sofa for our first home, so we’ve just kept it through the years.”
While the lower level’s original floors were unsalvageable, the beautiful original Indiana pine floors remain upstairs. The master bedroom is a relaxing oasis of blue and lavender, highlighted by flecks of gold, and showcasing more antique furniture mixed with contemporary pieces. Across the hall, the Dowerman room boasts an ornate bed from the 1840s, and a pristine turn of the century fireplace salvaged from the Dane Mansion 40 years ago.
Former servants’ quarters on the upper level are now an upstairs kitchen and computer room. Adorning the ample space and adjoining
sitting room are favorites from Shelle’s giraffe collection.
“I’ve downsized,” she explains. “I used to have 170 giraffes in my collection, but it’s time to move on to other things.”
A screened in observatory upstairs looks out on what was once a view of the river.
“This would have been the place where men went after dinner to smoke, or where people went in the summer to cool off,” says England.
A former tack room has been converted to a full bath in the back corner of the upstairs.
“We really didn’t restore the house the way the historical society would have liked for us to,” explains Shelle, “but we made it userfriendly,
and we did it the way we liked it.”
Rabbit Ridge, like Old New Albany, itself, is no museum — but, instead, a place where new and old come together to create a unique
environment for friends and family to gather, enjoy the day, and prepare for the future.