From Ordinary to Art
Before a golf course rode the rise and fall of the land. Before water oaks shaded brick-paved streets. Before fences ambled along property lines. Before hedgerows hunkered against the foundations of houses. Before lawnmowers roared on Saturday mornings. Before Augustans sought suburbia in the up-and-coming Forest Hills neighborhood. Before builders laid the first brick of Chris and Drew Cunningham’s ranch-style1950s home.
Before all of this, WWI soldiers and tents dotted the landscape of the then-Camp Hancock, an Army training station for men headed to the overseas war. When Campbell Vaughn, owner of Campbell Vaughn Design Group, and his team cleared the overgrown backyard of bamboo, wisteria and azaleas in 2007, they unearthed relics dating to the Camp Hancock era, including a dummy grenade used for simulated battle situations.
Today, the Cunninghams’ white, painted brick rambler with black shutters overlooks Bransford Road. Trim green centipede grass dresses the hillside. Yellow-blooming mahonia edges the brick walk from street to front steps. A bed of hydrangeas bordered by boxwoods buffers a new parking pad on the down slope. An Asian-themed statue opposite a manicured topiary attends the front door.
Don’t let this restraint fool you. Drew and Chris Cunningham’s house is anything but subdued. The front yard may be toned down, but the interior is tuned up. Drew turns on the color and tears down expectations. Trends do not impress her. She and her muse make decisions about design and décor. Color careens from corners and crannies. Chris jokingly tells people that if they stand still too long, Drew will put a coat of paint on them.
Though their house is more than 60 years old, the Cunninghams are only the third family to live in it. Isaac and Belle Marks owned it first, later selling it to Maj. Gen. and Mrs. John C.F. Tillson. Maj. Gen. Tillson commanded Fort Gordon, 1968-1971, went on to work at Georgia Railroad Bank and later retired in Augusta. “President Eisenhower used to visit here when he would come to play the National is what I hear,” says Drew of the home’s history.
“I feel like this house was just sitting here waiting for us,” she says. Drew and Chris met while they were both employed at Georgia Railroad Bank. She remembers Maj. Gen. Tillson, though she didn’t know him personally. “He was a tall, handsome man,” Drew says. Adding to the evidence that Chris and Drew were intended to live in this house, their friends Susan and Barry Norton, whom the Cunninghams met after their employment at Georgia Railroad Bank ended, visited from Memphis one Christmas and instantly recognized the home as the one in which the Tillsons hosted the Nortons’ engagement party. Susan’s father had been on the board of Georgia Railroad Bank.
Maybe it’s a stretch to say that destiny manipulated this triangulation of people and house, but it is a notable coincidence. Even so, Drew admits she resisted leaving their Scotts Way home of 21 years, where their children, Cash and Lindsey (both married and living in Augusta), grew up. Chris, who had polio as a baby, needed a house without stairs. Their friend Allan Barrett was flipping houses at the time and had bought and updated the Bransford Road home. “Chris came and looked at it without even telling me,” says Drew.
The house had a new roof, new windows, a remodeled kitchen, fresh paint and refinished floors. It was move-in ready. Drew concedes, “All of our furniture fit. The colors were good. It was perfect.” They’ve lived in it happily-ever-after since 2006.
Which isn’t to say Drew hasn’t been busy. If idle hands are the devil’s playground, he’s nowhere near the Cunningham house. When an idea enters Drew’s head, it doesn’t matter what else needs to be done—laundry, dishes or dinner—Drew is going to do the idea. She has transformed the 2900-square-foot, three- bedroom, two full- and two half-bath ranch home into a showcase of her creativity.
Chris and Drew added a second floor to the detached garage almost immediately after purchasing the house. It stores Drew’s treasures and finds until her imagination reveals their new purpose. She laughs, “I know my stuff is just weird to
In the galley kitchen typical of houses of this age and style, she replaced the cabinet pulls with antique doorknobs she’d collected over the years. Patiently they waited for rebirth. Unable to tolerate the bland white cabinets, she sanded off the paint, coated them in the same rye grass shade as the walls, then glazed them. As a final touch she brushed on hints of turquoise. The inside surface of the lower cabinet doors is treated with chalkboard paint. Drew keeps chalk in a small basket mounted near the sink so that granddaughter Sumter can draw her own embellishments.
After removing the cabinet doors to refinish them, Drew decided she liked the open look of the upper cabinets on either side of the under-mount, double sink. She painted the interior of these cabinets black and ditched the doors. A random assortment of furniture legs, some with small wheels still attached, add bulk to the exterior cabinet frames. Next Drew painted the vent hood copper with turquoise accents.
The well-placed details ensure that nothing as boring as “functional” will ever cross the lips of the cook or kitchen help. Interior shelving from an antique sewing machine hangs on a lower cabinet to hold wine. On the turquoise pantry door, a chalkboard surrounded with a frame of chicken wire and papier mache provides a place to take notes. A retired Christmas tree stand on the black granite countertop gathers an arrangement of dried pussy willow. Artwork hides in unexpected places.
and color provide order to a space.
Whether by craft or by luck or by gift, Drew has designed spaces filled with unique items put to original uses. She and her muse make a good team. Maintaining a clean and clutter-free look is as easy as one, two, three: 1) love, 2) repetition and 3) groupings. Drew is attracted to old walking canes, music instruments, empty frames, oyster shells, fig branches, chickens (Chris’s father started WifeSaver restaurants) and the see-no, hear-no, say-no-evil monkeys. An undertone of Asia flows room-to-room. She surrounds herself with the things she loves.
And she repeats them throughout her house. Turquoise turns up everywhere, from the bamboo bench at the foot of the bed in the master bedroom to the bamboo chairs in the living room. Wisps of turquoise paint highlight the upper glass cabinets in the butler pantry.
A set of turquoise monkeys atop the chest of drawers in the foyer welcomes guests. A turquoise buffet sets off the comfortable brown tones in the den. Repetition of objects, textures and color provides order. It connects every room so that the eyes and the mind can settle and enjoy the subtle surprises.
what I’m going to do with it.”
“If you put all the things you really love together, it works,” says Drew. And if it doesn’t, Drew’s philosophy is, “If I mess it up, I can always paint over it.”
Chris lives with Drew in an evolving house. He frequently arrives home to catch her involved with a ladder or a paintbrush. Nothing is ever complete or finished or done or stagnate. Drew stocks the second floor of the garage with purchases from antique shops, consignment stores and junk dives. “I buy stuff that I like then I figure out what I’m going to do with it.”
The dining room is large for mid-century construction. Light filters through a vast set of windows past green silk drapes. At the opposite end, the buffet stands in a recessed nook. An old board (one of Drew’s beach finds) draped with Spanish moss and deer antlers handsomely adorns the glass-topped table. White globe candles rest inside the rims of an assortment of silver goblets distributed among the antlers and moss. Drew disguised the body and chain of the chandelier overhead behind a cloak of driftwood, moss, pheasant feathers and fig branches. The dining room chairs are upholstered with remnants of an oriental rug Drew salvaged from a consignment shop.
Pillows in the wood armchairs on either side of the living room fireplace are made from the same rug. In addition to showing off Drew’s knack for turning the ordinary into art—she made the oyster shell lamp situated on an end table next to the sofa—the living room also reveals the source of the Asian flavor in her home. Drew’s grandfather served as an Army chaplain in Japan and her grandmother taught English while they were stationed there. Many of the objects they brought back to the U.S. are displayed.
A 300-year-old scroll runs the length of wall over the sofa. Drew uses a chest from Shanghai as an end table. Kabuki masks, a kimono and the tapestry hanging between the windows on the far end of the room justify the splashes of red mingling with turquoise. Similar tapestries hang in the dining room and a guest bedroom. Kimono sashes, called obis, are tapped as window treatments in the butler pantry and master bedroom. Stacked vintage suitcases peek from beneath the long church pew. Above the pew, Asian figurines on bracket shelves and oyster shells mounted on wood panels join an entourage of items.
Drew and Chris’s home is a testament to Drew’s artistic eye. She thinks to surround a small picture with multiple frames to give it depth and weight, such as she did in the dining room and on the bamboo-fence headboard in one of the guest rooms. She has the vision to foresee that a laundry room light fixture made from clothespins will be a conversation piece and a utilitarian method for keeping clothespins at hand. It occurs to her to save gold-painted fig branches from her son’s rehearsal dinner and put them in a turquoise vase in her bedroom. Placing a necklace on the neck of the vase seems natural. To Drew, pinning a kabuki mask into the neck of a moss-covered dress form is an obvious finishing touch.
The Cunninghams also celebrate the talents of others. A rendering of the original WifeSaver restaurant, which was built in the front yard of Chris’s boyhood home, hangs in the pass-through between the living room and the den. Around the corner, there’s a molded plastic Eames chair with a tri-metal fleur di lis designed by Ed Elser’s 9-year-old (at the time) daughter, Melinda. He implemented the design for the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library furniture sale fundraiser. Fastened to shutters leaning against the far wall, a pair of dancing chickens by folk artist Earnest Lee elevates the den’s energy.
Closer to home, two pieces of artwork by Drew’s younger sister, Susan Christie, hang in the dining room. The red panel with a Japanese character was done for the Undercover Artist sale to benefit Walton Rehabilitation Hospital. The other, etchings, captures three views of Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. Watercolor butterflies, one painted by Lindsey when she was 10-years-old and the other painted by her mother-in-law, Pat Warren, flitter upon the butler pantry wall. A landscape in oil, painted by Cash’s mother-in-law, Deanna Jaugstetter of Atlanta, hangs in the master bedroom. Chris and Drew’s son-in-law, Todd Folley, constructed the living room’s coffee table. Drew proudly says, “We have lots of real artists in our family.”
The covered patio with outdoor fireplace extends living space and tenders more opportunity for Drew to dabble paint. Ivy grows on the retaining wall that pushes the earth into the hillside. Water trickles from a downspout into the rain barrel. A green carpet of emerald zoysia lies soft and thick under the live oak. Between the deck and the driveway Drew built a screen out of naked mattress springs and blue glass bottles. A gate next to the fireplace opens into the side yard now known as Sumter’s Garden. Everywhere, Drew’s inspiration and handiwork shines. The house that appears to be all business in the front has got a party going on in the back.
Black shutters on the wood deck hide the pole of an umbrella shading a red bench. They echo the tall shutters in the den. Silver trays bought in a lot from Goodwill’s thrift store reflect light. Cows grazing in a canvas meadow look on from their painted presence in a piece garnered from a Junior League attic sale.
Under the vaulted porch roof a chandelier, doctored by Drew of course, sheds light on a round table circled by red iron chairs sporting turquoise cushions. “We eat out here all the time,” says Drew. Their view of the knockout roses and black-eyed Susans planted by Vaughn and his crew eliminates the need for a floral centerpiece. A candle will do.
Wicker and iron furniture with plush pillows square off in front of the fireplace. An iron rooster looks as if it’s sprinting across the hearth. Next to the sofa toys for grandchildren, Sumter, age 2, and Bates, age 3 months, tumble out of a box painted turquoise to match the drum table next to a spring-green wicker chair.
The real draw for grandchildren, however, lies through the gate to Sumter’s Garden, a lighthearted spin on formality designed by Vaughn and tweaked by Drew. A Japanese maple and brick-edged beds impart structure. Ivy crawls the retaining wall at one end of this garden room and painted birdhouses sprinkle the fence at the other.
the world must have been a mighty drab place.
A scarecrow dressed to resemble a pig-tailed little girl watches over planter boxes built by Vaughn’s team. Drew grows rosemary, mint, blueberries, okra, tomatoes and other vegetables with Sumter’s help.
Hopscotch garden pavers skip between the beds and the quirky playhouse Drew bought and revamped. She painted the front door turquoise, of course, and applied a table leg, like those on her kitchen cabinets, for a door handle. In keeping with the chicken theme, a rooster crows on the roof peak. And the interior is irresistible, with a chandelier over the table and a painting on the wall. Metal letters on a wood backing read, Be Nice or Leave. It’s easy to be nice in a place so sweet.
Before the roots of water oaks dug beneath Bransford Road. Before fences divided lots. Before the foundations of houses impressed footprints. Before lawnmowers spat grass on Saturday mornings. Before Forest Hills transformed into a neighborhood. Before Chris and Drew Cunningham bought their 1950s rambler. Before Drew picked up a paintbrush, the world must have been a mighty drab place.