Inside The Shelly Dream House

By+Kathe Brunton

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!

Tim and Meg Shelly recite that old saying with a wry grin and a laugh. And why not. They had only one room left to redo in their lovely house on Riverside Drive in Elkhart when their dream home around the corner practically fell into their hands.

Tim and Meg often took walks in this older neighborhood west of the downtown. They had always admired the colossal neoclassical two-story structure on Strong Avenue that once belonged to musical instrument magnate C.G. Conn. Built in 1884 by Elkhart businessman Samuel Strong, the home was later purchased by Conn, who launched Elkhart as the band instrument capital of the world. A colorful figure, Conn rose to the rank of Colonel during the Civil War, was captured by the Confederates and made three spectacular escape attempts, invented and patented a rubber mouthpiece for cornets after getting his lip badly split during a brawl, built and grew the Conn musical instrument empire that became known around the world, founded the Elkhart Truth, served as mayor of his fair city, went to Washington as a congressional representative for the state of Indiana, and scandalously divorced his wife, moved to California, married a much younger woman, had a son at the age of 70 and died nearly penniless at the age of 86.

Just about anyone who has grown up in Elkhart knows this “grand dame” of the Strong Avenue neighborhood. With an expansive lawn, a two-story wrap-around porch, and 16 26-foot-tall columns topped by three-foot carved capitals, she shines like a diamond among lesser jewels. She is captivating. And for 17 years, she has been lovingly taken care of and slowly restored by the Shellys.

Meg recalled, “I was taking a walk by myself one day and the owner happened to be in the yard. I stopped and jokingly asked him if the house was for sale. He said, ‘It could be.’”  The owner gave Meg a tour of the place and she remembers, “I could see myself living here. I loved the spacious rooms, the tall ceilings, the archways.”
That was in March and the owner wavered several times over the coming months, but finally on Dec. 31, 1992, the 108-year-old historic home became the sole province of the Shellys.

Funny thing, they bought it without even seeing every part of it.
“The owner’s ex-mother-in-law lived in one of the larger rooms on the second floor and she refused to let us  in,”  Tim said. Still, there were no surprises when they finally saw that room. It was like the rest of the place, which, in fact, needed predictable updates and repairs.
At the time, the Shellys had a 4-year-old son and Meg had just given birth to their second child. They didn’t move into the house right away, and since it was winter, they kept the furnace at around 56 degrees to keep the pipes from freezing. Imagine their surprise when after only 19 days they realized the heating bill was already nearly $700. So they quickly added insulation. Their heating bills were still high—after all, it was an old home with 14-foot ceilings, but the bills became much more manageable.

The main entrance to the home is on the side, where wide steps lead to leaded glass, beveled doors. Inside, a gracious foyer is flanked by a library and a parlor. Ahead are stairs to the second story. A dining room, kitchen and family room finish the downstairs, along with a back porch addition that was enclosed in the 1950s and is now a work and storage room.

Upstairs are five spacious bedrooms, two large bathrooms, and a small sitting room off one bedroom where a nurse for Conn’s ill daughter stayed. Meg speculates that the huge third-story attic was intended to be a ballroom but was never completed. It, too, has high ceilings and was wired for lights at hip level all around the room.  A gorgeous piece of curved stained glass graces the street end of the attic. Room by room, year by year, Meg and Tim have been restoring the house. The work has been tedious, difficult, exasperating, time-consuming, frustrating, expensive and…fulfilling.

“This is one house that is not going to go by the wayside,” Meg said emphatically. “Too many older homes haven’t been taken care of. That’s not going to happen to this one.”

In 2007, the Shellys succeeded in having the home put on the National Register of Historic Places. A small plaque now graces the outside of their front door.  Contrary to popular belief, having their house registered does not limit what they can do with it. However, they are driven to stay as true to the original structure as possible. When a storm felled a tree in their yard, it landed on a corner of the roof and crushed two of the capitals at the tops of the columns. They soon found out that only two places in the country make those types of capitals. Even then, they weren’t able to get an exact match.

In the library, Meg points out an original light fixture that was one of the first “dual” lights in this area—meaning that it was both electric and gas. She has learned a lot about the house from her neighbor, whose mother was Mrs. Conn’s sister. Also in the library is a painting of the Colonel, as he was known throughout his life. The Colonel’s grandson, C.G. Conn III, flew from California to look  at the painting. He asked the Shellys to keep it, saying it belonged with the house.

Another unique feature of a home this old is that the interior walls are made of brick. Therefore, the security system and Internet are wired on both floors because the walls are too thick for the signals to penetrate.
One of Meg’s favorite things about the house is that there are at least six windows in nearly every room, allowing an abundance of light to flow into the house. Each interior and exterior doorway also is topped by a transom that not only swings opens but can be turned sideways to control air flow.

“Of course, we don’t have air conditioning, but there’s probably only two weeks in the summer when it’s bad,” Meg explained. “But we have a pool and fans and the transoms help a lot.”

Tim and Meg agree that the biggest challenge over the years has been finding the time to work on the house. Both sons have been involved in soccer and that leaves only so much spare time to devote to house restoration. Now that one son is in college and the other is a senior in high school, Tim and Meg will have more time in the coming years to devote to restoration.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Tim gladly admits.
Another challenge is finding people who know how to do the
job correctly.

“Unfortunately, with this area being heavy into recreational vehicle and manufactured housing, a lot of people know how to do a job quickly and cheaply, but we need people who know how to do a job right,” Tim said. As a member of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, Tim has been able to tap into the resources of that organization to find restorers, contractors and suppliers.

Their biggest joy is completing the restoration of a room. “It’s so exciting when we finish a room,” Meg said. “The parlor took two and a half years, but we can step back and say, look what we’ve done. It’s a process but it’s worth it.”

Tim added, “I often think about what the house looked like when we moved in. The front yard was overgrown. It looked haunted. Pine trees were leaning on the house.”

Not even with the best imagination could one say the house looks haunted today. But with a little wishful thinking, like the Shellys had, anyone can dream it could be theirs.