Any good Southerner (or Southern transplant) knows that historic homes that dot the lush area landscape frequently enjoy storied pasts. Such is the case with the Malvern House, an historic home in Louisville, Kentucky. If its walls could talk, the home would share stories that anyone with a love for Southern living can appreciate. Most cities in the region have such a home, one that you may drive by frequently and wonder about its history, wishing you could take a quick peek inside. Today’s house is just that — and more than a peek we have.
Malvern House is the home of Lee W. Robinson, a Louisville resident who is known for his impeccable style, his talent for design and his eye for the distinguished. He is the owner of the Lee W. Robinson Company, a full-service design firm, and is the designer behind many of the most beautiful homes and spaces in Louisville, including his own.
The story of Malvern House is a mainly a tale of women, for so many of the generations involved here only had one daughter. Here is the unique history behind this historic estate.
The land for the Malvern House was acquired by George Gaulbert, the great-great-grandfather of current resident Babs Rodes Robinson (Lee’s wife). Gaulbert, a Louisville businessman, acquired the property in the 1890s. He was the founder of the Peaslee-Gaulbert Corporation, one of the largest paint manufacturers in the country, inventors of ready-mix paint. This company is credited with helping to rebuild the South after reconstruction by enabling people to paint their own homes. Originally, the piece of property stretched from Brownsboro Road to the Ohio River. (Eventually, a large portion of it was sold to create Interstate 71.) It totaled three square miles, which at the time was one-tenth of Jefferson County.
George and Hattie Gaulbert did not build a house on the property. Their only child, Carrie Gaulbert Cox and her husband, local businessman Attilla Cox, Jr., actually built Malvern House. They hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in Manhattan and all of Louisville’s park system, to design the landscaping. They then hired famed New York architect Ogden Codman, Jr., to design their house. Codman had previously designed The Breakers, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and Kykuit, owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Codman’s work on Malvern House for the Cox family would be the only project he ever did in Kentucky.
Codman completed his design of the house in 1914, but the house was not finished until 1922.
A Family Tree of Women
A brief family history shows the generations who lived in Malvern House.
- Hattie and George Gaulbert purchased the land where Malvern would be located. They had one daughter, Carrie Gaulbert.
- Carrie Gaulbert married Attilla Cox, Jr., and they had one daughter, Harriet Cox.
- Harriet Cox married John V. Collis. They lived at Malvern House, raising their three daughters. Harriet remained at Malvern until her death in 1992, the same year she sold Malvern to a non-family member, Helen Combs (ex-wife of former Kentucky governor Bert Combs).
- Barbara Collis (youngest daughter of Harriet and John Collis) married Joe Rodes, and they had two daughters: Babs and Mary (now deceased). Barbara and Joe Rodes lived across the hill from Malvern, and raised their daughters there.
- Babs Rodes Robinson is the current resident of Malvern, since 2007, with her husband Lee Robinson and their three sons.
When Babs and Lee Robinson brought the house back into their family in 2007, buying it from Mrs. Combs, it had been unoccupied for years. Only a caretaker had been there, tending to the grounds.
The house needed a lot of work and updating, all of which Lee did while still keeping the general décor and feel of the house intact. There was still a small utilitarian kitchen and servants’ dining quarters, which Lee modernized, along with the screened-in porch. However, many original rooms and details still flourish here.
BLENDING THE OLD AND THE NEW
The original architect of the home, Ogden Codman, Jr., was best known for a treatise that he co-wrote with famous author Edith Wharton. Published in 1897, the treatise, entitled The Decoration of Houses, outlined specific rules for the proper planning and finishing of interior residential spaces. All of these elements are put into play in the design of the Malvern House.
Front Doors and Front Hall
The designer preferred French doors, placing them throughout the house as the front doors, terrace doors and interior doors. There are two engraved silver plates, one in the center of each front door window: the left plate has the crest of the Attilla Cox family, and the right has the crest of the Lee W. Robinson family.
The foyer was designed as a rectangle with black-and-white marble floors and plaster walls. This foyer, or front hall, is enclosed on three sides. The living and dining rooms are to the north, the library and music room are to the west, and the breakfast room and service functions are to the east.
Separate Men’s and Ladies’ Bathrooms
Codman designed not one but two separate bathrooms on the first floor, similar to a private club. There is a specific bathroom for ladies and a separate bathroom for gentlemen. Below is the ladies’ bathroom, complete with a sit-down vanity, mirrored panels and a chandelier. Lee added the current furniture and silver leaf wallpaper.
The Living Room
The living room, though paneled in dark wood, enjoys the beautiful north light. It is also known as the “morning room,” as it gets the morning light each day. It looks out to the north with views of the river.
The morning room is a treasure trove of beautiful china, art and collectibles that have been in the family for generations, and every piece has a story. The china displayed throughout the room was lovingly used over the years. There are remembrances of trips, visits with notables, and other antiques and valuables. This room is, in essence, a museum.
Lee has displayed many priceless works of art on stands on a beautiful table, a method of display that lets visitors get up close and personal to the art.
This is the most used room in the house. It has Lee and Babs’ favorite chairs, with Lee’s desk in the back and the big television at the other end of the room, hidden away in an antique armoire. This room is paneled as well, using wood from an old English estate. The entire room was disassembled in England and moved piece by piece into Malvern House.
The Music Room
This room was formerly a screened-in porch when Babs and Lee moved into the house. Lee enclosed the space and added a piano, turning it into a stunning room that’s filled with light.
The Dining Room
The dining room has some of the original wallpaper and a fine silk shantung fabric used throughout the room. Much of their furniture has been in the home for generations.
A silver service that belonged to Babs’ grandmother is used and is now on display after being traditionally kept locked in a special vault resembling a cage, located off the kitchen.
The home’s original kitchen was like many of the time: a small, utilitarian room only used by servants. Lee turned the old kitchen into a butler’s pantry, bar and utility room. He reconfigured the space to add a more modern kitchen with two working islands and a breakfast nook near the windows.
All over this house, the kitchen being no exception, all-things-beautiful-and-collectible are used, not just displayed. Even the hot sauce has its own silver canister, as does the mustard, table salt and powdered sugar (located on the other side of the table, not shown).
Lee uses all of his beautiful barware and julep cups constantly. He displays them on the bar, using them for drinks. “Nothing beats a cold drink out of a julep cup,” he says. He’s definitely right.
The yard is filled with magnificent gardens, designed by Olmsted and recently profiled by Garden & Gun. Here are a few exterior shots of the house and the views looking over the Ohio River.
Despite the incredible grandeur of this estate, it truly is a home. The Robinsons are fortunate enough to live with their ancestry and history constantly, which they consider such a blessing.
Ironically, a simple twist of fate could have led to the demise of this family and their home. In 1911, Harriet Cox (an only child) traveled with her parents Carrie and Attilla Cox to Europe by ship. While there, she contracted scarlet fever, her sickness so severe that the family had to cancel their return trip back to the United States. That return trip was scheduled for April 1912, on the maiden — and only — Titanic voyage. The entire family lineage could have ended had Harriet not been too sick to travel.
The Robinsons enjoy their past while embracing the future in the home in which they were meant to be. That is Malvern House, for all generations.
To learn more about Lee W. Robinson and his design company, visit styleblueprint.com.