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Issue Date: August 2010 Issue

Making Waves

Colleen Smitek
Most high-end homes are defined by all the extras they have. Gene and Janet Blackstone's Bratenahl home is just the opposite.

No hand-carved wood or hammered copper accents. No curtains, no lamps, no rugs. There's no patio, pool or fancy outdoor kitchen. No basement bar, gym or home theater. And, considering how much the owners love music, it might seem especially odd that there is not even an iPod dock.

Instead, there is a pipe organ.

And that one extra has made the Blackstones' 9,000-square-foot home more complex than any residence — old or new — that lines the lake.

Gene grew up in Port Elgin, Ontario. Both his parents played the violin. His great-grandfather was a bassist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. At age 8, Gene had a gift for music but a lack of coordination, so his father asked a music-teacher friend what his son should play.

"Get him a pile of wood ... a marimba," was the answer.

Gene stood on a platform to reach the wooden bars. He loved the sound the metal tubes made when he struck the bars with his mallets.

When Gene was in high school, the head of the music department took note of his medical aspirations. Knowing that the rigors of his studies would work the left side of his brain far more than the right, she set out to make him a better doctor by stimulating the side of the brain that engenders empathy.

"Her proposition was that I practice a minimum of four hours a day," Gene says. Specifically, three hours on the piano and one on the pipe organ. In return, she gave him a key to her office so that he could use her piano whenever he wanted.

Gene now has his own piano — a Bosendorfer Imperial concert grand piano made in Austria. It has 97 keys (most pianos have 88). His passion, however, is the rich sound of the pipe organ.

He brought the piano with him when he and Janet moved to Cleveland from Birmingham, Ala., after Gene became head of clinical investigations at the Cleveland Clinic's Heart and Vascular Institute. These days, he mostly plays after work. It's how he works out his frustrations. It's what keeps him sane, his wife quips.

When the pipe organ is finished, it will comprise 6,123 pipes installed on opposite walls of the three-story room. The half that is nearly complete immediately draws the eye, with dozens of steel and mahogany pipes of various lengths jutting out in unpredictable angles. "Even when there is no music playing," says Gene, looking up at the towering pipes, "you still have sculpture."

But the organ doesn't just dominate the room. It dictates every dimension and detail of the house.

The lowest note played on the organ has a wavelength of just more than 80 feet, meaning the house must be at least that long. The largest pipe is nearly 40 feet tall, which determines the height of the house. The vaulted ceiling, too, had to be angled so sound waves bounce toward the sides of the rooms, rather than into the middle where they'd be "sopped up by all the bodies" during a concert, says Gene.

The choice of materials was equally important. Sound should bounce, not dissipate or — even worse — echo. To that end, porcelain tiles cover the concrete floors, the walls are extra thick and the windows are made of one-inch glass. During construction, Gene would periodically stop by and clap to check for echoes. You have to understand the physics of music, he says, while also knowing that "acoustics are not necessarily an exact science."

So the Blackstones needed an architect who understood music. Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove introduced them to Richard Fleischman, who has designed more than 400 buildings across the country. Fleischman, known for creating contemporary spaces, lives in a Bratenahl mansion built in 1905 by J. Milton Dyer, the same architect who designed Cleveland City Hall.

Fleischman subdivided his property into 10 lots on which he built houses of glass and steel overlooking the lake. One lot remained when the Blackstones met Fleischman. They admired how the homes already built appeared clean without being stark, but they needed more than good aesthetics.

"We were looking for an architect who had some appreciation for music," Gene says. When they learned that Fleischman had designed nearly 70 churches, many with pipe organs, they knew they'd found their lot and their architect.

The Blackstones began having weekly meetings with Fleischman in June 2004 and continued them until the house was completed in 2008. They feared that the finished product would feel like a music hall, not a home. "How do you design a house so that you can actually live in it?" Gene asks.

The challenge was as huge as the house, where the main floor is a cavernous 96-foot-long room — long enough, as Janet likes to joke, to race their wheelchairs when they're old. It's a modern version of the classic basilica shape. But instead of pews and pillars, sound waves bounce off exposed steel and concrete.

Fleishman used subtle details to break the space into distinct living areas. A lower ceiling and stripes in the Italian porcelain flooring set apart the dining area. "When we eat in here, we don't feel like we're in the middle of a football field," Gene says, laughing. Furniture groupings achieve a similar effect.

The Blackstones have also commissioned two, 40-foot stained glass windows to make the space feel more intimate. One will depict the Beatitudes while the other will celebrate the joy of childhood.

Admittedly, though, Gene and Janet spend most of their time on the second floor, where their bedroom, study and den all have lake views. In the study, side-by-side computers overlook the water. The adjacent den contains a sofa, two cozy chairs and the home's only TV. This is also the only place you'll find clutter — mostly books and papers. "We have too many books," says Janet, a first-grade teacher at Cornerstone Christian Academy in Willoughby.

Gene and Janet say the lake is peaceful but also distracting. There are sailboats and sunsets. There are bald eagles, wild turkeys and hawks. "You're grading papers, and you keep looking up because you're afraid you might miss something," Janet says.

The fact that the Blackstones' leisure time is spent primarily upstairs doesn't mean the first floor is neglected. Gene cooks, Janet bakes, and they both love to entertain, including Christmas dinners for the faculty at Janet's school, a dessert reception for medical students and a spaghetti dinner fundraiser.

Guests enter the home through the first floor gallery, an open space where the Blackstones eventually plan to hang their art. The closets can hold 200 coats. "We hate to put them on beds," he adds.

There are also two guest bedrooms, primarily for the Blackstones' two adult children and grandchildren, who live out of town, and a kitchenette.

Guests can then climb the stairs or take the elevator to the main floor. The couple envisions eventually holding musical performances here — though Gene claims to be a little rusty as he hasn't served as a church organist since leaving Alabama.

The kitchen, they found, was almost as difficult to design as the pipe organ. "We worked on so many ideas you cannot imagine," Gene says. "We have stacks of rejected design ideas."

Their list of wants was long and seemingly contradictory at times. They wanted privacy yet good circulation with the rest of the house. They wanted to be able to see both the driveway (for arriving guests) and the lake. They wanted no upper cabinets but plenty of storage. They wanted a convenient area to make their daily meals but a large area to prepare for parties. They wanted glass countertops that wouldn't shatter. They each wanted their own cooktops. "My wife and I each like to cook, but we tend to get in each other's way," Gene says, laughing.

Janet also wanted a place to bake and, perhaps hardest of all in this very modern house, a place to display her collection of teacups. "I like a little bit of old, traditional things," she explains. She was about to give up and pack the teacups away when they finally found the right design.

In the middle of the kitchen, they created a U-shaped island that houses a half-sized refrigerator and a small dishwasher. "In a very compact way, [it] has everything we need for day-to-day living," Gene says. The room also features a cooktop and oven for Janet and a larger Thermidor cooktop where Gene makes breakfast. Fleischman saved the day when he found a New York manufacturer of glass countertops: The teacups are displayed in a glass cabinet built into the side of the island.

A large butler's pantry includes a sink big enough for washing pots, a full-sized refrigerator, upper cabinets, a dishwasher and an oven for Janet's baking. (Her specialty is gumdrop cookies.)

Nothing is typical in the Blackstones' house. And they designed the house to work for them.

"We know how we live," Gene says.
Year built: 2008

Style: Contemporary

Size: 9,000 square feet

The lot: .35 acre

Baths: 5

Bedrooms: 4
Friday, August 06, 2010 6:35:31 AM by Anonymous
A beautiful piece of architecture designed by even more beautiful people! The people that live in this house make it a warm and wonderful place to visit. They are simply delightful and it is a pleasure to call them friends.

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