The old Athey house, as long-time Paducah Lifers call it, was once a few weeks shy of destruction, seemingly on its way to being torn down to make way for a dog park. Bill and Judy Sheppard had other plans for it.
“This house is really a love story,” Judy said. “I just love the sweet story about it and the memories that it holds. There are so many wonderful stories about the Atheys, who used to love to entertain and dance.”
In the early 1950s, Paducah businessman Raymond Marsh Athey wanted to give his new bride, Marcia, “the best,” Judy discovered after researching the house’s history. Marcia’s father, a wealthy coal operator, had given the young couple property on the corner of Pines Road and Woodland Drive as a wedding gift. With the help of an architect and contractor, Athey utilized the best materials, appliances and equipment that was available in 1954. The original cost for building it was $39,000, no small chunk of change for that time.
Fast forward to 2007. Judy, a realtor, found the house in bad shape. Having been in many houses, though, she could see its potential.
“I knew the house was going into foreclosure,” she said. “The listing agent was a friend of mine and convinced Bill and me that we could do a fabulous job of rehabbing, because I had a vision for it.” Though the house’s owner accepted their offer, the mortgage company still sent it to foreclosure and ended up outbidding them. Then an ice storm in January of 2008 caused a tree to fall on it.
“The house remained vacant and then was condemned by the city,” Judy said. “Neighbors were irate because vagrants were living in it and property values were affected. Somehow it came on the market in 2010 and we purchased it.”
The mortgage company had begun rehabbing the property. They had repaired the roof and installed central heat and air, removed the old boiler and replaced some glass in windows. The Sheppards hired Anita Kerr, an architect with J. Pat Kerr and Associates, to do a simplified blueprint to restore the house more completely.
“We wanted to keep some of the original character that drew us to it,” Judy said, “but, modern with amenities. I did much research and determined that the original architect, Lee Potter Smith – who also designed Paducah City Hall – was a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of the design is related to that, but I actually think it is more like a California modern.”
The house oozes personality. Rich wood paneling makes a parquet-like design on the walls of the main living area. Hand-chosen bricks from an old KOW plant were acid-washed to achieve the perfect color. Exposed wood beams support tented vault ceilings in the living area and hearth.
“We never learned the exact type of wood on the walls in the living room,” Judy said. “But mahogany or cherry has been suggested. The bricks were a big deal, too. Mr. Athey had the brick brought in from Pennsylvania and acid-washed them until he got the color pink he wanted. The tented vault ceiling was handcrafted on site to make them fit perfectly; something that wouldn’t be approved by today’s building codes.”
The Rumford fireplace is also an interesting feature, Judy said. A design that originated in France in the 1700s, the interior fireplace walls are curved. When a fire is built, the logs are placed on their ends and arranged like a tent. This efficient design provides the house with maximum warmth.
Another “green” feature of this 1950’s gem is found in the original patio. A curved brick wall set into the lot was designed to capture cool air and funnel it into the living area. Since the house originally did not have air conditioning, this was an ingenious comfort. A huge, almost 60-year-old Japanese maple anchors the back yard.
“We had an arborist come and feed its roots,” Judy said. “We really wanted to be able to keep it. He said that it he thought it was probably the oldest Japanese maple in Paducah.” Unfortunately, the ice storm in 2009 broke off a big portion of it. But, like the house it graces, it survived.
“Mr. Athey was also well-known for his extensive wildflower collection,” Judy said. “He was an amateur botanist and studied native grasses and wildflowers. In fact, 156 acres of land in Logan County, adjacent to the Tennessee border, were named in his honor in 1990. It is now known as Raymond Athey Barrens State Nature Preserve. Every year he went to the Smokey Mountains to hunt wildflowers.”
Judy learned about the house’s early routines from Ray Athey, Jr.
“He said he had such happy memories of his childhood here,” she said. “He remembered that every day his father would come home from work and his mother would already have dinner made. Before they sat down to eat, though, his parents would have a couple of drinks, turn on Glenn Miller and dance in the living room. The children would watch their parents dance, then they’d all sit down and eat a home-cooked meal together.”
He also remembered carving his mom and dad’s initials on the door of the fireplace where wood was stored. “Ray was surprised to see the elk head above the fireplace,” Judy said. “He said his dad had a deer head hanging there that his grandfather had killed.”
The Sheppards are keeping the love alive. “Though a foolish financial investment, we have had such kind remarks from people about the restoration,” she said. “It fits our personalities and – as one can see – we LIVE in the house. I believe the house has been resurrected for a purpose – just not money in our pockets.”