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A house with a view

Lawrence Pierce
Former Gov. Gaston Caperton is photographed on the patio of his house, which has a view of the Capitol. Modern sculpture punctuates the lawn below.
Chip Ellis A mix of English and Colonial styles, the house was built in 1922. Eliza Spilman named it Ross Common, after the county in Ireland where her family had an ancestral castle. President Dwight Eisenhower was a lunch guest at the house during a 1958 visit to Charleston.
Chip Ellis Otis Laury is overseeing the remodeling, decorating and landscaping at Caperton's new house. Laury said he found the large wooden bowl in the gift shop at the Huntington Museum of Art; it has been used as a serving dish. There's a bullet in the center of the bowl, which presumably was shot into the tree from which it was made.
Chip Ellis The library is filled with family photographs as well as historic ones, such as the visits of President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to West Virginia. "I like the size of the rooms," Caperton says. "It's a very comfortable house."
Chip Ellis Caperton says he always wanted a house with a view. From his upstairs office, he can see the Capitol and his former office building.
Chip Ellis The dining room table and chairs were made by Gat Creek in Shepherdstown. The chandelier was designed by Otis Laury and made by Matt Wallace, of Charleston. In the background is a painting of Caperton's father by Charleston artist Dolly Hartman.
Chip Ellis The eclectic décor of Caperton's house is reflected in the living room by the abstract painting by Charleston artist Paula Clendenin hanging over the sofa and antique table and desk flanking the entry to the dining room. Opposite the sofa is a wall of windows to take advantage of the view.
Chip Ellis The Caperton house showcases West Virginia artists and craftsmen, such as the maple chairs made by John Wesley Williams and purchased at the Tamarack arts and crafts emporium, one of the legacies of the Caperton administration.
Chip Ellis The handmade furniture in all three bedrooms are from Gat Creek, the Shepherdstown furniture business owned by Caperton's son Gat Caperton.
Chip Ellis The stone foundation and walls needed extensive repair when Caperton bought the house. Laury has planted the garden beds with flowers (including 3,200 bulbs), hostas, grasses and other shrubs. Laury transplanted buttercups that originated in the garden of his childhood neighbor and friend, Gertie Coleman.
Chip Ellis Laury holds one of many photographs yet to be hung. The photograph was taken during a campaign visit to Weirton Steel and shows Weirton Steel President Herb Ellis (from left), Caperton, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Jay Rockefeller.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sitting at a desk in his upstairs home office, Gaston Caperton looks out over the Kanawha River and two manifestations of his achievements.

He can see the glittering gold dome of the Capitol, where he served eight years as governor of West Virginia, and the hilltop office building that was the headquarters of McDonough-Caperton Insurance Co., which he headed for more than a decade.

"I always wanted a house with a view," he remembered telling the real-estate agent showing him a house when he decided to return to Charleston.

Margo Teeter told him to walk around the side of the house next door. He did.

"The view is such a surprise," he said.

"I can see my old office building, the Capitol, the green trees. I thought, This would be perfect.'"

And the 90-year-old English-Colonial house was for sale.

"It was in horrible shape," said Otis Laury, who has been overseeing the remodeling, decorating and landscaping at the South Hills house since Caperton bought it nearly two years ago.

For the past 15 years, Caperton has been living mostly in New York City, where he was president of the College Board until he retired in December.

"I think Charleston is one of the prettiest cities in the world, with its mountains, the river and the beautiful trees. It's very nostalgic for me," he said earlier this month.

To take advantage of the view, a wall of windows was installed in the living room. The view is the focal point of the adjacent dining room. Even an upstairs walk-in shower is all glass so the bather can look for miles upriver.

Outside, there are brick patios and strategically placed benches to gaze at the view and lush gardens filled with flowers, shrubs, trees and contemporary sculpture.

"Otis gets all the credit," Caperton said of his longtime friend. "He's amazing. He's a carpenter, a chef, a gardener, an artist."

He showed off a walkway along one side of the house lined with flowers, ferns and hostas, where only weeds grew before. "Now, it's like a magical walk. Otis did all this."

Inside the house, a visitor could spend hours studying the photographs, admiring the artwork and reading the framed quotations that inspire him.

It seems as if Caperton has surrounded himself with family and friends through the furnishings. He confirmed that sensation.

"It's a very comfortable house. It's all about West Virginia, family and friends," he said.

The handmade dining room table and chairs are by Gat Creek, the furniture manufacturing company owned by his son Gat, as are all the beds, dressers and his office desk. An antique desk and a marble-top shaving table in the living room belonged to his grandfathers.

Throughout the house are black and white photographs taken by son Jeb, a teacher and writer living in California.

Family photographs and portraits are grouped on tabletops and on walls alongside historic ones. Hanging in the library is a picture of President Franklin Roosevelt taken when he visited a West Virginia coal mine. There's a photo taken in China of Caperton and Ron Brown, the commerce secretary in the Clinton administration who died in a plane crash.

There are several photographs of Caperton with President Bill Clinton. Sen. Robert C. Byrd inscribed gracious notes on several photographs of the two of them. Tipper Gore wrote a personal message on a photograph she took and sent him of a poverty-stricken child.

"You know, she is a really great photographer," Caperton said. "The photograph reminds me of the poverty in this world."

He likes photography and collects photos by former Life magazine photographer Ernst Haas, from whom he once took a class.

Caperton's support of the arts, especially West Virginia artists, is evident everywhere.

Three abstracts by Charleston artist Paula Clendenin hang in the living room. Keeping them company is an older abstract by the late Grace Martin Taylor.

Diana Suttenfield, of Shepherdstown, painted the watercolor of the Greenbrier River in the dining room, where Dolly Hartman's portrait of Caperton's father hangs. A wrought-iron chandelier over the table was crafted by Matt Wallace, of Charleston, and designed by Laury.

Laury bought a June Kilgore abstract in a burst of vivid reds and purples that hangs above the library fireplace.

In making decorating decisions, Laury sometimes checked first with Caperton, emailing photographs or sending fabric samples. With other purchases, he didn't, as with the Kilgore painting.

Caperton gave Laury general direction -- he wanted a red office, dark walls in the library, lots of white trim and cabinetry -- and let Laury take care of the details. He knows Caperton well and for a long time.

"My first catering job was for his parents," Laury recently recounted. He was chef at the Governor's Mansion during Caperton's two terms.

Laury selected the rugs and fabric for the upholstered pieces. He bought a couple of chairs at an estate sale and had them reupholstered, as he did the library sofa he found at the Purple Moon.

It was his idea to paint bright red a wall of cabinets in the Darin Fisher-designed kitchen. He found at Tamarack the tall chairs made of tiger maple by John Wesley Williams.

Some of the old appliances that were replaced in the kitchen were moved to the basement, which is being converted to an apartment accessible from the driveway.

The third floor of the house is reserved mostly for Caperton's five granddaughters, ages 8 to 14. When they are all in town, the air mattresses go down in one large bedroom and the "Kids Only" sign goes up on the door to their low-ceiling playroom nook.

"We had 15 here at Thanksgiving," Laury said.

Laury came out of retirement at Caperton's request to manage the makeover, and he'll retreat to retirement when a few more projects are finished there.

"I wouldn't do this for anyone else," Laury said.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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