Comfortably Elegant: An exclusive look at the new home of Jay and Nancy Wilkinson

By+Kathy Jonas, Photos by David Hubler

It’s not easy making a large home feel warm and comfortable. Ever been in a castle or a mansion where drafts are commonplace and the furniture is dwarfed by the space? Jay and Nancy Wilkinson have managed to pull off ”cozy” in their new home recently constructed in northern St. Joseph County. 

Carved out of a wooded, hilly area, it is the perfect spot for entertaining and enjoying the four seasons of Indiana. It features five fireplaces, a downstairs bar that rivals an English pub and a full outdoor kitchen located off a screened porch/sunroom.

Large windows provide a bird’s eye view of Mother Nature. A screech owl lives out back along with deer, coyotes, rabbits, and several varieties of birds, including a large blue heron. An English Springer Spaniel – Grace – rules the inside roost. Two cats are also in residence.

“I would describe the house as quiet and comfortable,” Nancy said. “We want people to come and put their feet up and relax. I tell them I don’t care if they want to come over in their pajamas. Don’t dress up if you’re coming here.”

Formerly residents of Shamrock Hills, Nancy said the couple wasn’t sure exactly what they wanted, but knew they liked the East Coast shingle-style home. “I was looking at magazines and thinking about what we envisioned,” Nancy said. “Comfortable was the first thing that came to mind.”

“Our last house was partitioned off,” Nancy said. “We wanted something that was open when entertaining so I could cook and still be a part of what was going on.” She said the granite table attaches directly to the island and has turned out to be a wonderful gathering spot for family and friends.  

Back to Cozy

The home, built by Jim Rans of Rans Custom Builders, does not have a formal living room, but instead has a “family center” or what used to be called a “great room.” 

Designer Len Mysliwiec of Lifespace Design Inc. in Fort Wayne said the goal of a “family center” is coziness and that means eliminating high ceilings and the huge rooms of the past that were more akin to a reception hall. The trend is for rooms to have visual separations, such as the Wilkinson’s granite island/table combination. 

Decorator Susan Seyfried of Susan Seyfried Design said she has worked with the Wilkinsons on their Shamrock Hills home, their place in Telluride, Colorado, and their lake house, so the challenge was to come up with something that wasn’t too rustic or lodge-like, but also wasn’t pretentious. “We came up with a kind of old world European, semi-traditional feel,” she said.

The hickory hardwood floors and stone and marble fireplaces add to that ambiance, Seyfried said. The hand-carved stone hood over the stove was custom made by the Francois & Company and took four men to bring into the house, not to mention the time and effort it took to install it. 

Fancy a Pint?

The European feel and love of antiques is even more evident in the basement, which originally was going to be used only for the exercise room and wine cellar.  That didn’t happen! It’s a far cry from an unfinished basement – it feels more like The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden.

Nancy said her husband found the 1875 Brunswick Blake & Collender front and back bar and matching pool table in Reading, Philadelphia. A local antique restorer, cabinet maker and artisan, Bruce Bostic, took about nine months lovingly restoring the 1873 piece and making it fit like a glove in the Wilkinson’s home. 

“I had a lot of sleepless nights,” Bostic said of the project. Taking an antique piece, cutting it down, adding all the modern amenities including a television behind the glass on the back bar, were all challenges he had to tackle. The bar has a sink, dishwasher, special lighting, and unimaginable details making it look authentic but still functional.

Bostic took a portion of the wood from the bar and made a game table in the nearby booth. The room also includes a popcorn machine, a barber chair and huge jars of candy – enough to make Willy Wonka jealous.

The floor behind the bar is reclaimed limestone from Jerusalem that dates back to biblical times. The 1910 stained glass doors in the bar were once in the Penrose Hotel in Philadelphia. A 200-year-old antique German beer tower on the front bar is an original draft system complete with plumbing and holds the equivalent of two kegs of beer. 

The bathroom off the bar features an antique wood French “Herbeau” toilet that resembles a throne more than anything else. When the chain is pulled and the toilet is flushed, a bell rings. A candleholder and candle is attached.

Hoosier Hysteria

The exercise room is a little bit of a shrine to all things Hoosier – the Wilkinsons are huge Indiana University fans (both graduates) and donated the workout facilities at the IU football stadium – The W. Jay and Nancy Wilkinson Performance Center-the largest in the country and lovingly referred to as  “The Wilk.” Their impressive home workout room is full of IU sports memorabilia, including a basketball jersey signed by Coach Tom Crean, and an autographed photo of Bobby Knight throwing THE chair. 

There are so many custom details in this home that it is a little bit of sensory overload when walking in for the first time.  Nancy has an office that is adorned with her grown children’s artwork and Jay has a library with a marble and wood fireplace and a scale model of a 1910 barge that sunk on Lake Michigan. Bostic researched the piece and framed and mounted information he discovered.

The outdoor kitchen, fireplace, hot tub, wine cellar and carriage house could be the subject of other articles.  A few tidbits from the wine cellar: the doors are from a monastery in Manchester, New Hampshire, circa 1860 and the floors are reclaimed stone from a chateau in Burgundy, France. Landscaping was done by Jim Brubaker Designs, Inc., of Fort Wayne.

But Nancy’s favorite room in the house is the sunroom that converts into a screened porch in the warm weather. “It’s really beautiful in the summer,” she said. “The house is not super secluded but it is very private and we love the woods.”