Highly Focused 

A connoisseur illuminates the 20th century in a Monument Avenue refuge.

Thus, maybe unwittingly, Kissee makes a historical and aesthetic connection between his two great interests — livestock and art.

The French panel is one of scores of otherwise mostly American paintings and prints that Kissee has collected for more than a decade. "When I started collecting, I was attracted to art of the 1920s, '30s and '40s," says Kissee. "What I was drawn to were the round features of the individuals, the obvious strength of the American people during that period between the two wars and the real grit that was depicted in the works. The depression was such an important time. I love the clothes, the cars, everything about the era. I appreciate what Americans were going through."

Art historians label the works that Kissee collects as social realism.

In addition to rural scenes — including a painting hanging over the living room's front mantel of a Depression-era farm foreclosure auction — period cityscapes are in the collection. "The Third Avenue El" is one of a number of Kissee's holdings by Danville-born painter Harriet Fitzgerald. Hanging prominently over the living room's rear fireplace, it records Manhattan's long-demolished, elevated transit line.

It was Kissee's ever-expanding collection of art, pottery, and arts-and-crafts furniture that inspired him to purchase the 1909 Monument Avenue house nine years ago and move from his decidedly modernistic, solar-heated house in Charlottesville. "I went in there and saw that staircase and the large rooms — the house lent itself perfectly to act as a showcase for my art."

Andy Cobb, a longtime friend and Charlottesville interior designer, was with Kissee when he was first shown the house. "Andy said, 'If you don't buy that house, every time you go by there and see other people living there, you're going to be miserable."

"It was a huge struggle financially," admits Kissee. But he took the plunge, and with Cobb as his design collaborator, never looked back.

"The house has a masculinity about it," says Cobb. "It's not a romantic art collection and it's not a romantic house. It's not too formal."

The Colonial revival house reminded Kissee of his family's home in southwestern Missouri, which had sparked a lifelong interest in architecture. The place was situated on a farm on the edge of a small town. "I grew up in the house that my grandfather had taken my grandmother to when they were married," says Kissee,"It sat perched on a big hill and had high ceilings, mantels, heavy woodwork and a beautiful staircase. It felt like what a home should feel like." Kissee says his Monument Avenue house gives off the similar vibrations.

Kissee is quick to attribute his passion for art collecting to Eugene Worrell, a newspaper mogul for whom Kissee once directed a Limousin-cattle breeding program. "He's had a huge impact on my life," says Kissee. "Especially that he collected major, major, major works of art. He has been very focused in collecting wildlife art and ancient coins. He and his wife knew I had an interest in architecture and art in addition to cattle. He encouraged me to be very focused."

Entering Kissee's home, one is enveloped by an overwhelming sense of warmth. The front hall walls and the deep living room are wallpapered in earthy stripes and painted the color of beaten egg yolks. "Andy is the one who created that," says Kissee, crediting his designer, Andy Cobb of William A. Cobb Interior Design. "He's taken off with what I like. He has made the house soothing and comfortable."

The rich wall colors also make the paintings stand out and help meld the variety of textures and shapes of objects that populate the spaces — oak furniture, 20th-century American pottery and an occasional tabletop figurative sculpture or European antique. There are comfortable, oversized sofas and easy chairs, which rest comfortably on boldly patterned rugs.

Just beyond the living room and hall is the dining room. A prominent architectural feature of the room is an oversized, gently-bowed window that overlooks a large shade tree. The maple is sculptural in winter and provides a colorful, leafy screen in summer and fall.

The dining room is decidedly cooler in effect than the golden-hued spaces nearby. The lower, paneled walls are painted a linen white. Above a plate rail, Cobb installed a leaf-patterned wallpaper by William Morris, the influential British designer of the late-19th--century aesthetic movement. "There are a million red dining rooms in Richmond," Cobb says dryly. "I like to use green in dining rooms. There's a warmth about a dining room [and a dining room table] that the background can be cooler."

The room's centerpiece is an overscaled, Regency-period, walnut dining table that can be expanded to seat up to 24 people. Another Depression-era oil, "Reading the Blueprint," hangs over one of a pair of 18th-century, Italian tables.

While he thoroughly enjoys throwing a party, Kissee is quick to admit that he's no chef. "I don't enjoy it. I'd rather clean up than cook," he says. Affairs are likely to be catered.

In recent months, Kissee and his designer have focused their energies on a major redesign and reconfiguration of the rear of the first floor.

"There was a graciousness to the front of the house, but the kitchen was dead-end," says Kissee. "It had not been properly done and needed a 20-year update."

A dimly-lit, rabbit warren of service areas — a pantry, powder room, laundry, butler's pantry and kitchen — were joined in one large space. "We opened all that space up to make sense of the considerable number of windows," Kissee notes. Cobb added additional doors and windows, and divided the newly enlarged space gently into two parts— a kitchen and a sitting/dining room — defined by a large curved arch.

On the kitchen side he designed cabinets and woodwork — painted in shades of off-white — that reflect the Edwardian-era woodwork of the house. The brilliance here is that the kitchen doesn't overwhelm, but appears to have always been in place.

In the rear sitting/dining area, a fireplace was reopened and newly purchased furniture has been upholstered in patterns and colors inspired by a braid rug.

This space opens onto an intimate, brick-walled garden.

Simultaneous with the kitchen reconstruction, Kissee and Cobb remodeled four upstairs bathrooms. Here, like the kitchen, there is certain modernity but also a savvy transition between old and new. Kissee credits C.E. Spitzer, a Richmond contractor, for his sensitivity as well as his craftsmanship on the kitchen and bathroom work.

"I could live anywhere in the country; my business is all over North America and Europe," says Kissee, looking back on a year of construction turmoil and almost a decade of living in a huge home that he probably never envisioned himself restoring and making his own. "But I choose to live here. It's wonderful to come home to, a great place to rattle around in. It's been a struggle, but that doesn't matter. I knew I'd find a way." HS

The Kissee home will open for Historic Garden Week in Virginia on Tuesday, April 22.




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