A rustic home boasts elegant design in the Appalachian foothills
Every day when she wakes up in her new Old World-style farmhouse at Blackberry Ridge Farm, Debbie Dobbs counts her blessings. The views alone merit Matins. A breathtaking panorama of eastern Tennessee's Appalachian foothills unfurls from the house's hilltop perch on the 300-acre farm. Interior designer Todd Richesin of Knoxville sweetened the views further with century-old French stained glass; throughout the house tinted panes transmute even a gray day into melting cathedral colors. Then there are Debbie's three grown daughters--Mandy, Angie, and Stephanie--and her husband, Tracy, blessings of the first degree.
Debbie's world was not always so abundant. When her youngest daughter, Stephanie, was 10 years old, she developed a rare cancer with only a 20 percent survival rate. Debbie's marriage came to an end at the same time. Alone and needing advice on whether to pursue a risky surgery for her daughter, Debbie made a long-distance phone call to her high-school friend Tracy, an oncologist-hematologist in Knoxville. He said go for it. Stephanie, now 27, is proof it was a good call.
A few years later, Tracy encouraged Debbie to attend their high school reunion in Missouri, and a courtship blossomed. By then, Debbie had been forced to sell the family's Oklahoma farm and her beloved horse, Travis, to pay medical bills.
"I knew Tracy was a good guy when he visited us for Christmas. We had had to move to a little house, and Christmas for us had stopped. He gave me a gift box with Travis's show halter wrapped inside. I thought that was really sweet, but he told me to keep going. At the bottom of the box was a certificate for 'one very special horse and a year's board.' Then we drove to the stable, and Travis nickered when I walked in."
A confirmed bachelor, Tracy broke his three cardinal rules of dating for Debbie."He always said he would only date blondes, women within his geographic area, and women with no children. I have brown hair--and for two years, he flew to Oklahoma every weekend to see me because I couldn't leave my three teenagers," Debbie laughs.
When the couple married and Debbie and the children joined Tracy in Tennessee, the girls wasted no time transforming "Pop's" bachelor digs into a family home. A large anonymous portrait, now relegated to a Blackberry Ridge upstairs hallway, had hung prominently above the living room mantel in his Knoxville home. Eldest daughter Mandy promptly replaced it with a portrait of her mom and the girls. "Mandy said, 'How sad that he has to decorate with this picture of somebody he doesn't even know. Now he has us!'" recalls Debbie.
While living in Knoxville, the Dobbses bought Blackberry Ridge Farm and restored its outbuildings--a huge family affair with labor courtesy of Debbie's mom, dad, three brothers, and cousins. Tracy began raising cattle and Debbie started an Irish Draught Horse breeding operation that, at one time, was the nation's largest with 52 horses. Four years ago, they built the house that is now their main residence. Richesin, who had designed their Knoxville home, was brought on board to work with architect Margaret Butler from the ground up.
"Debbie and Tracy wanted to capitalize on the stunning mountain views, so I located a series of French antique leaded and stained glass windows from a home that was being demolished in Provence," says Richesin. "That set the tone of the house."
He stripped and pickled old dark-stained church panels from England to create character in the foyer and integrated a pair of antique turned Belgian columns into the kitchen's refrigerator paneling. "We used old European chandeliers, lanterns, sconces, doors and hardware, architectural fragments, and anything else that would add an aged feel and charm," explains the designer. Even the rooster finials on the roof are Portuguese terra-cotta antiques.
"We couldn't have done it without our builder," injects Debbie. "John Walker is amazing. He was able to take all of the old pieces, like the antique French doors [leading from the dining room into the kitchen], and make them work."
Infusing new construction with old decorative building materials fulfilled Debbie's first goal--"a house that looked like it had been here a long time." Comfort was equally important to her. "I wanted to be able to walk around in my breeches and boots and not feel that I was messing things up. I didn't want anything fussy--nothing I couldn't walk on or sit on, straight from the barn," she stresses. The first furnishing--the living room's tufted leather sofa--set the standard.
To augment the house's rustic beams and flooring, Debbie wanted some sparkle. "I wanted a little bit of elegance without everything being dark and heavy." To that end, Richesin selected a gold-leafed Amy Howard entertainment center to lighten up the living room. Window treatments add another dressy touch with Richesin's signature detailing: silk Scalamandré fringe on the dining room's Cowtan & Tout linen curtains, and onion fringe and a braided header on the living room's 24-foot-long Brunschwig & Fils drapery panels.
An iron-railed gallery overlooking the living room connects the upstairs and downstairs floors. "I picked up the Gothic arch motif from the fireplace and used it in the railing's ironwork," explains Richesin. "I also repeated it on the stenciled frieze, which visually lowers the ceiling to a more human scale."
That human emphasis, for Debbie, is what counts most. "It's not about everything being perfect. It's about the house providing a certain feeling for our family--a comfort level that makes the kids want to come here and veg out." A marvelous cook, Debbie says nothing pleases her more than when the girls lapse into what they call a "food coma" during visits. "This is where our family recharges, and nothing's more important than that."
Photography: Werner Straube
Architect: Margaret L. Butler, Cockrill Design & Planning, 220 W. Jackson Ave., Knoxville, TN 37902; 865/633-9058, cockrilldp.com.
Interior designer: Todd Richesin, Todd Richesin Interiors, 10005 Casa Real Cove, Knoxville, TN 37922; 865/675-5828, toddrichesininteriors.com.
Ceiling-to-floor drapery panels conquer the living room's vertically stacked windows. Nobilis fabric covers a 19th-century spool chair.
Sofa trim is Samuel & Sons.
Todd Richesin designed the velvet-covered niche to add scale.
French bulldog Tulipe rules.
Custom hand-carved Italian chandeliers and antique French chairs grace the dining room.
The custom kitchen hood is copper.
Tracy's old portrait of an anonymous man hangs in an upstairs hallway.
A Lee Jofa check dresses 19th-century bergères in the master bedroom; the 19th-century French bench still wears its original mohair velvet.
The master bath features one of the French antique stained glass windows.
The guest bedroom is furnished with a 19th-century Sheraton-style chest made from beautifully grained tiger maple. Bench fabric is by Schumacher.
Tulipe, Debbie's constant companion, commands the guest room's vintage chaise longue, which is covered in a Brunschwig & Fils check; the floral drapery linen is Cowtan & Tout.
The back of the stucco house faces a meadow.
Horses graze on the farm.
Debbie Dobbs is proud of 5-year-old Cadbury, the first Irish Draught Horse born on her farm.
After the experience of daughter Stephanie's bout with a rare cancer, and being married to an oncologist, it was perhaps natural that Debbie would get involved in the fight against cancer. But Debbie's idea of an annual cancer gala isn't about raising funds for research. It's about honoring cancer patients themselves. "All of the 300 guests are either cancer patients or their families," explains Debbie, who hosts the party with husband Tracy. "The gala is their time to get out and have some fun. Everybody comments on how you can really feel the love in the room. It's a very personal party."
The gala, coming up on its 13th year, also recognizes the one individual or organization in the Knoxville community who's done the most to help cancer patients. "One year's honoree was a hairstylist who had provided patients with wigs. It can be a survivor, an organization, or any layperson who has helped the most," says Debbie. The event is in memory of one of Tracy's patients, Joy Dirksen Baker, the late wife of Senator Howard Baker.
The Dobbses pay for the party with funds that Tracy receives from pharmaceutical companies for experimental drug trials when conventional chemotherapy fails. "He puts that money in a nonprofit fund, and it pays for the party and research," explains Debbie.