Great Indoors: It’s All in the Details
By Elizabeth Licata
Photography by Jessica Kourkounis

great indoors
Part of the extensive patios.
“The Hand-Carved Home.” That’s what Town Tidings, a long-defunct Buffalo magazine, called this mansion in 1930, and the name still makes sense. From the foyer with its massive Black American Walnut staircase (most of it fashioned from one piece of wood) to the library with its mythological beasts (carved from English Brown oak) to the mahogany-lined elevator, the wood craftsmanship in this Museum District home is extraordinary.

But then you tear yourself away from the wood and contemplate the ornate marble fireplaces. Or gaze at the elaborate plaster designs on the ceilings. Or admire the cast concrete fountains in the patio area.

Built by Thomas J. McKinney in 1926-29, this 9,000 square foot house is the result of a painstaking world-wide search for exactly the right craftsmen and materials. The architecture is eclectic, with the brick exterior a loosely defined neoclassic villa, and the interior leaning more toward gothic extravagance. And there are exceptions—the living room and breakfast room are in a much lighter and brighter style than the imposing foyer and library.

great indoors
The entrance.
McKinney was a prosperous and eccentric businessman who had many interests and hobbies, and he did his best to permanently imprint those interests on his living environment. McKinney was a musician, an engineer, a hunter, and an artist; the tools of all four occupations appear in the foyer carvings. Literate and cultured, McKinney installed beasts from Celtic mythology as well as stained glass scenes from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the library. And, although the cars are long gone, even the garage for his Rolls Royce collection has a personality of its own, with its Arts & Craftsish stained glass windows.

The house was built using concrete and steel—including the floors, which were then clad with various woods, mainly cherry. The exterior cladding is Norman brick, with Italian ceramic roof tiles. A new awning in the back patio area is a duplicate of the original 1929 awning.

The current owners have made every effort to restore the house to its original splendor, being careful not to overdecorate spaces already filled with visual interest. They have stripped the cherry floors of polyurethane varnish, bringing back their original sheen. Furniture is minimal and in simple traditional styles for the most part, allowing the eye to appreciate context rather than contents.

great indoors
A detail from the library carvings.
Undoubtedly, the foyer and library compete for the show-stopping award, with the foyer edging a bit ahead. Besides the fireplace, the ceiling is covered with canvas tapestries painted with stylized neoclassic motifs. And then there is the Italian marble fireplace, possibly the house’s most flamboyant. Here you’ll first notice a stylized cherub's face, which appears again and again throughout the house, carved in wood or marble, or made of colored glass. It seems to be a special heraldic symbol for the original owner.

McKinney was unable to find an American wood to his liking for the library, so he imported English brown oak and flew in carvers from all over Europe to execute the designs, first making clay models for the owner’s approval before carving the actual wood. The rugs in the library, as well as those throughout the house, are careful duplicates—either antique or contemporary—of original Persian rugs bought for the house when it was first built.

great indoors
The dining room.
The living room, where the music-loving current owners often stage live concerts, is not wood paneled. It has a neoclassic look, particularly evident in the columns of the fireplace and the detailing of the molding. The 1928 Steinway grand piano is placed exactly where the original owners had their instrument. Overall, the feeling is of light elegance.

Elsewhere, every room screams attention to detail—even the basement, which was kind of an upper class rumpus room, with a limestone carved fireplace, terrazzo floors, and oak-paneled walls. The butler’s pantry near the first-floor kitchen features a special flower sink, with built-in recesses to hold flowers without bruising their petals.

great indoors
The foyer fireplace, library entrance, and ceiling panels.
The source of all those flowers can be found in the landscaped patios surrounding the house. Perennials, annuals, shrubs, and a lane of roses provide a peaceful backdrop for the house. Two beautiful cast concrete fountains will soon be restored, and the owners are currently researching the original gardens so that they can duplicate the layout and types of plants. In 1929, Thomas McKinney had a lawn lifted from the grounds of a French chateau and transported by sea to be installed in front of his new home. The current owners will content themselves with a combination of local turf and grass seed. They explain, “We’re into restoration, but we’re not completely nuts.”

Elizabeth Licata is the editor of Buffalo Spree.


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