Living in the Gump House on East Holston Avenue has been an adventure for Rick and Lisa Rolen.
They’ve been in the unique, historic home for 19 years and have breathed new life into the property, renovating it step by step to make the place modern and livable while retaining its character.
Built in 1820 and renovated in the early 1900s, the house still boasts features that speak of eras long past. There’s a hoop skirt balcony high above the front porch, looking out through four massive 22-foot-high white columns. The side porch is set high enough off the driveway for horse-and-carriage passengers to safely step down.
There are 9-foot ceilings and 21â„2-foot-thick walls. The 100-year-old radiators, which the Rolens kept, still help heat the home — although it took some imagination to hide or decorate them all.
Back in the time when all wealthy people had full-time staff around the house, the Rolens’ guest cottage was a kitchen house, and in the main house, what’s now a wet bar and kitchen prep area was a butler’s pantry.
“Those kinds of things I find fascinating,” Lisa said. “It’s a wonderful house. They don’t build houses like this anymore.
“You do have a wonderful sense of history here.”
The home was built by John Bowman as a wedding gift for his daughter. It’s one of the oldest existing homes in Johnson City and was part of the 160-acre Hillrise Farm. That land is now home to the Johnson City Country Club as well as the Johnson City Airport.
It wasn’t until 1907 that Harry D. Gump, the notable developer and businessman, bought the house and gave it a thorough renovation. Gump started the first modern subdivision in Johnson City, now called The Gump Addition, in the late 1920s, with this home as one of the highlights.
The Gump House is a parklike property of nearly three acres, with trees, a creek and a big lawn. Lisa said she was smitten the moment she saw it.
“When we were looking for a house, we saw lots of new subdivisions, and they were nice, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We wanted an old house with character. Then finally we stumbled upon this one. I got halfway up the driveway and I said ‘This is it.’
“I’m a city girl, but I love the privacy. There’s plenty of room to play. It’s got the best of everything.”
Not every house was right for them, and not every home owner was right for the Gump House, but this was the perfect match.
Rick is a doctor at Johnson City Internal Medicine Associates and served in the Navy. The couple met in Italy, where Lisa lived for several years. She’s also spent time in Libya, San Francisco and Charleston, S.C., among other locations, and has experience renovating historic homes.
Lisa’s experience includes working in the hotel industry, serving as a flight attendant for a cargo airline called Flying Tigers, and operating MC Design Studio for 10 years.
She credits her parents with giving her “a really great global, visual database to see things, that makes it all interconnected.” Her love of Italian style attracted her to the bold, simple elements of the Gump home’s design.
When they bought the place, the Rolens knew it needed updating, but they didn’t realize at first just what was in store for them.
They started out simply wanting to add air conditioning to make it easier on Lisa’s asthma. That required serious rewiring, which turned into redoing the entire attic-like third floor. The more they uncovered, the more updating they had to do, including the removal of lead-pipe plumbing. Soon the job spread to all three floors.
“We started out just doing air conditioning and ended up reviving the whole house,” Lisa said. “It just evolved. We had no plan to gut and redo the whole place.”
They remade the third floor, half as a storage area and the other half as an elegant, comfortable recreation/relaxation room with big-screen TV, recliners and a bar.
That required hauling out 13,000 pounds of plaster from the attic. Then the narrow stairway to the third floor wouldn’t accommodate moving the furniture up step-by-step from the inside, so the Rolens had it hoisted from the outside through a large window via furniture jack.
They installed a half-bath right next to the TV viewing area, but plumbing issues wouldn’t allow a full toilet, so they installed a wall urinal that somehow still looks elegant. (Ladies use a second-floor bathroom.) That’s in keeping with the Rolens’ sense of humor and their down-to-earth approach to making it a functional home rather than one just for show.
“We live in every single room in the house,” Lisa said. “We’ve completely updated it so it’s in the 21st century, and we have done a lot in terms of making it user-friendly.”
The 7,174-square-foot home has four bedrooms and 31â„2 bathrooms. The second floor houses the bedrooms and two baths and Lisa’s office with its wall-to-wall windows; “It’s like my tree house,” she said.
The first floor, with its decorative plaster walls and mix of hardwood, stone and painted floors, contains all the public rooms, including a large entrance hall, reading room, garden dining room and library/TV room.
Two of the four massive front columns had faulty bases and needed to be repaired, not an easy job. In fact, finding craftsmen and contractors with the expertise to do some of the renovation work was at times a challenge because the Rolens wanted to reproduce old techniques as much as possible.
Much of the work they did themselves. With no kids around, they were able to leave parts of the house in disarray when they quit each night, then pick up the next day right where they stopped.
Lisa did extensive faux finish painting, a technique fairly common in Italy and San Francisco but not here, making the wood floors in several rooms look like marble tile. Lisa is an expert cook, as well, and loves to entertain, so the kitchen was remodeled to her high standards.
“When this was built, the kitchen was a working space for the help,” she said. Now she calls it “a working kitchen of the highest order.”
The radiator in the kitchen, with a decorative ceramic top to it, now serves as a warm place to set bread so the dough will rise, she added. The screened-in porch next to the kitchen is now a sun room that Lisa at first didn’t like, “but now it’s my favorite room in the house.”
They totally redid the old kitchen house — twice — to turn it into a cheerful, comfortable guest cottage that is extremely popular with family and friends. And they buried the electrical lines coming from the main house to the street.
“It’s had a wonderful face lift but we retained everything we could possibly retain,” Lisa said. “We’re very big on recycling. We would not have built a house this big for ourselves, but we feel like we rescued a big house, and to us that’s a big difference. And it’s a house that needed rescuing or it would’ve been lost.”
There are still imperfections, such as original doors that don’t hang straight and floors that aren’t quite level. The Rolens wanted to maintain the house’s character. They also had to work around many features that couldn’t be moved around, such as interior chimneys.
“An old house is like old age,” Lisa said. “You just learn to accept that there are some things you can’t change.”
Alas, the Rolens are ready to downsize and they’ve listed the house for sale ($775,000). They have their hands full with other property they own — an Italian bed-and-breakfast with 10 acres of olive grove, and a 350-acre farm in Virginia that they plan to develop into a hunting destination.
But they’ll always treasure the Gump House — even if it was nearly two decades of work, one project leading to another. Everything, it seems, has turned out well.
“We’ve been led by serendipity,” Lisa said with a smile. “It’s been a great ride.”