Breathing New Life into a Beloved Family Home

By MARILYN TINNIN    Photography by BRIAN FLINT

The best of classic tradition meets a warm contemporary update in this Indianola home renovation

The original façade of the 1917 home did not change at all until a 1963 renovation by the third generation of Greshams. The Greek columns, the exterior shutters, and wrought iron handrails maintained the classic appeal.

     The imposing red brick home on the corner of Gresham Street and Catchings Avenue was home to four generations of Greshams. Built by William Pinkney Gresham and his wife, Mamie, in 1917-1918, the colonial revival’s solid construction effortlessly weathered two world wars, the Great Depression, several ice storms and tornadoes, eighteen US presidents, and more than a few short-lived design trends that never came close to threatening its classic façade. If walls could talk, this home could tell countless stories about the unique ties that bind among friends and families in the Delta.  

     When the last Gresham matriarch and resident, Ann, passed away in 2017, her eleven grandchildren had moved to various places, established their own family homes, and not one intended to return to Indianola to take up residence in the grand old homestead. The big house stood vacant for the first time since 1917, a reminder that times have changed.

     Determined to be good stewards of the home that held so much of their family history and their personal memories, Ann and Bill Gresham’s four adult children searched for a buyer who would love the house, who would appreciate its history, and who would want to make the same kinds of family memories that defined the Gresham family all these years. It felt like a tall order, but never underestimate the power of prayer and the Delta’s social network!

     The lights are on again in the big house as a young family now calls it home. Mary Clair and Noel Cumbaa began a ten-month renovation in early 2021. At the same time, Mary Clair, an interior designer and owner of Cumbaa Design Co., was also opening The Olive Tree, her retail shop in downtown Starkville, and preparing for the birth of their first child, Thomas. Mary Clair managed to meet every challenge with flair. She was doing what she does best—creating a beautiful space. She embraced the spirit of the proud old house, keeping its “bones” true to its origins, seeing herself not just as a designer but as a curator and steward of this treasure. 

     The original house underwent its only previous major renovation in 1963 when Ann and Bill Gresham moved in with their four children. They basically reconfigured the back part of the house, removing a butler’s pantry to add a side entrance and extending a back wall to create a laundry room and a new garage. A screened porch became a breakfast room, and the former garage became a new family room. Three pair of tall French doors open onto a brick porch that looks out on a swimming pool and an expansive brick patio.

The existing bookcases were painted and a finishing moulding was added along with overhead accent lighting, a small detail that adds interest to the focal point of the den fireplace.

    With an old brick wood-burning fireplace at one end, the family room remains the most lived-in room in the house. The warm chocolate-colored Saltillo tile floor is original to 1963. The natural pine paneling is reminiscent of Point Clear’s Grand Hotel, and Mary Clair decided to leave it just as it was. They raised the pre-existing bookcases slightly, finishing them out with molding and painting them with Sherwin Williams Urbane Bronze. The brass arm sconces by Visual Comfort showcase the numerous old wooden duck decoys scattered among the books, all handed down to Noel by his grandfather. 

     In front of the fireplace, a pair of sofas, built under the Cumbaa private label, face each other. They are covered in a sand-colored relaxed linen. The animal print coffee table is actually a custom upholstered ottoman by CR Laine. The Indian Oushak rug in subtle earth tones anchors that end of the room.

     At the other end of the spacious area are two oversized lounge chairs, called a “chair and a half,” also with custom CR Laine fabric. A Brazilian cowhide atop the dramatic chocolate tile floor gives this end of the room its own fun personality. 

     Just beyond the family room is the newly designed open-concept kitchen created by removing an existing wall between the old breakfast room and kitchen. The new island doubles as a workspace and a breakfast spot; its marble countertop in Leathered Bianco Rhino is repeated on the surrounding surfaces. New custom cabinetry extends to the ceiling, providing a display case for Annie Glass. The unlacquered brass hardware, from Brandino Brass in Birmingham, is one of Mary Claire’s favorite finds. And a warm taupe color, Benjamin Moore Alexandria Beige, defines the space and harmonizes perfectly with the neutral backsplash. Both countertops and backsplash came from Renfrow Decorative Center in Gluckstadt. 

Extending the new cabinets to the ceiling and taking out a wall between the old breakfast room and the kitchen was a dramatic before and after change to the living area.

     Parallel to the island, suggesting another dining spot in the open space, is a weathered gray casual dining table flanked by six Parsons chairs in a natural textured performance fabric. Both the chandelier above the table and the lanterns above the island came from Visual Comfort. The soft natural travertine floor from Magnolia Home Center in Greenwood keeps the room light and airy. Easy to keep and virtually indestructible, the floor stands ready to endure future years with active children, pets, and casual entertaining.

     The master bedroom is just down the hallway from the kitchen living area. One of Mary Clair’s first tasks was to pull up decades-old blue carpeting. The white oak wood floors underneath had likely been covered in wall-to-wall carpet of one kind or another since the 1950s. Roberson Floor Service of Indianola expertly sanded off the layers of glue and restained them to their rich dark color. A massive trio of windows form a bay extending across the outer wall. The original wavy cylinder glass panes and double-hung sashes let in the light and offer a view of the lush backyard and pool area. Mary Clair chose to keep the custom drapes of ecru silk with a subtle gold trim, selected by Ann Gresham. The pencil post walnut king-size bed was also a Gresham family piece. Mary Clair balanced its traditional design with fluffy white bedding, accented with an array of throw pillows in a classic toile fabric she found at The Linen Shop in Canton. The bedroom paint color is Natural Choice by Sherwin Williams, and the trim, as throughout the house, is Dover White. She found the perfect French miniature bedside chests at Courtney Peters Interior Design in Jackson, and the matching lamps, which had belonged to her parents, add a pop of whimsy with new cheetah print shades. The India Oushak rug from Tinnin Imports is among the first purchases the Cumbaa’s made when they were married.

     For the reconfigured master bath right off the bedroom, the Cumbaas incorporated a former closet into a state-of-the-art luxury shower, replaced a standard bathtub with an oversize marble tub, and constructed a separate enclosure for the toilet. The floor was updated with porcelain tile from Magnolia Home Center. To compensate for the closet they lost, the Cumbaas repurposed a dressing room and closet on the opposite side of the bedroom, turning it into a large and functional his and her closet. 

The elegant Gracie wallpaper and the crystal chandelier remain timeless in their appeal.

     In the formal dining room, four tall windows on the north wall are framed by cream silk draperies appointed with a cream and gold Stroheim border trim, the handiwork of Charlotte Nichols of Leland. The rich walls in Benjamin Moore Whythe Blue and contrasting crown molding extend twelve feet in height, giving the room a regal and historic feel, reminiscent of Charleston. On one end, original Gracie hand-painted wallpaper remains, but an unusual Italian fragment art piece is now centered on that wall creating a new focal point. The mahogany double pedestal table is flanked by eight Chippendale side chairs and a matching baby highchair that once belonged to Noel’s grandfather, William Coleman of Drew. The chair seats of pale ecru silk and mint-colored embroidery blend perfectly with the other elements in this room. A Louis XVI gold mirror, original to the house, hangs above the Henkel Harris Hepplewhite sideboard which was also handed down from Noel’s grandfather. Atop the sideboard is a crystal punch bowl set, one of several finds from the estate of Jim Randall in nearby Baird, Mississippi. Randall was a beloved coach, and his granddaughter, Sarah Nan Donahoe, is a close college friend of Mary Clair, who delighted in the purchase of several sentimental pieces from the estate. The period crystal chandelier above the dining table is original to the house and will continue to oversee family dinners for Cumbaas just as it has for generations of Greshams. The neutral rug has with suggestions of faint colors that complement the blues and greens in the room came from Rug and Kilm. 

     Beyond the dining room is the library. Warm and inviting, the olive hue, Ruskin Green by Sherwin Williams, sets the perfect mood for a quiet retreat. The original fireplace is now equipped with gas logs behind a French Victorian brass filigree folding fan design fire screen. The screen and a pair of matching brass column lamps, which flank an old hunt scene print on the mantel, are also both special finds from the Randall estate. Symmetrical bookcases accentuated by original single-sash antique beveled glass-paned windows create a focal point, and brown leather contemporary wing chairs on either side of the fireplace are inviting spots for conversation or reading. The saddle leather ottoman belonged to Noel’s grandfather. The zebra print rug infuses a bit of fun and whimsy into this slightly masculine room.

Updating the formal living room involved a new paint color and a mix of traditional and whimsical new furnishings. The Louis XVI mirror remains in its original place and fits in well.

     Nowhere is Mary Clair’s love for blending the past with the present more evident than in the formal living room. The soft apricot walls, Creamery by Sherwin Williams, the wide crown molding, and the mix of imaginative and traditional furnishings can only be described as happy. Immediately to the right of the front door is a gold Louis XVI crested mirror with pedestal that has stood in the same place since 1918! As iconic as the house itself, the elegant piece looks surprisingly appropriate next to the bright white sofa tables with the gold ball studded modern lamps from Worlds Away. The matching chairs—with updated fabric—beside the fireplace were among Mary Clair’s parents’ first furniture purchases from Batte Furniture when they set up housekeeping in the 1980s.  The Chippendale sofa belonged to Noel’s grandfather, and it wears its original mustard velveteen fabric as though it had been purchased for that very spot. The Italian artist fragment panel above the fireplace, like its sister piece in the dining room, came from a shop in Fairhope, Alabama, and it rests between a matching pair of crystal candelabras that originally belonged to William Pinkney and Mamie Gresham.

     A cream antique Italian console table on one wall is another testimony to Mary Clair’s ability to create harmony between contemporary and traditional. A find from the Round Top Antique Show, it has a marble insert tabletop and is sure to be both beautiful and functional through the years. The Turkish Oushakug, with subtle hues in peach, yellow, and blue is a recent purchase from Davis Imports in Madison.

     The sun porch, labeled “the conservatory” in the original 1917 blueprints, was once a staple in Southern homes. This one has been marvelously preserved through the generations. Sisal carpeting now covers the old tile flooring, and three walls of paned glass welcome the morning light. This is the one room in the house where Mary Clair went all white. The sofa, like several others in the home, is custom designed by Mary Clair and a fellow designer friend. It is covered in a bright white performance fabric, with throw pillows in Schumacher’s “Citrus Garden” fabric for a fun splash of color. A Brazilian cowhide rests beneath the mirrored coffee table, and on either end is a contemporary acrylic chair from Scout Design Studio in Dallas. 

     Baby Thomas’s room is masculine by every measure and was designed to be a room that he will not outgrow. Spacious upstairs rooms with ten-foot ceilings allow the brown Thibaut toile wallpaper, “Kingdom Parade,” and its large motif plenty of space to be fully appreciated. The dark pine floors, the texture of the Jaipur wool rug, the brown grasscloth dresser, and the brass baby bed give this room a timeless all-boy appeal. The gingham print drapery fabric and the crib pillow are also by Thibaut. On one wall is an etagere bookcase from Noel’s own childhood bedroom, appropriately arranged with cherished memories including a vintage candy store jar filled with Noel’s old collection of baseballs. Favorite childhood books and other keepsakes hint that this is a family that treasures legacy! 

     The guest room, on the northwest corner of the second floor, has its original mantel and tile-faced fireplace. Constructed as a coal-burning heat source in 1918, it has simply remained as a focal point of the room and a reminder of the past. A Brazilian cowhide rug and sunburst mirror give this traditional room a fresh contemporary update without destroying its proud character. The bright paint color is Sherwin Williams Ancestral Gold. How very appropriate! 

     Mary Clair found the pencil post bed at an estate sale, and it just seemed to belong in this room. The draperies, another creation by Charlotte Nichols of Leland, are ecru linen with a Samuel and Sons border trim.

     The glorious old home on the corner of Catchings and Gresham in Indianola is symbolic in so many ways of the Delta itself. There is a certain spirit that is indomitable and free and solid. The world and the culture may change with the wind, but there are just some things that transcend time—like families and roots.

 

 

 

 

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