Saturday, March 15, 2003

Craftsmanship counts in furniture family

Store owners slowly assemble house of dreams in Madeira

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

[photo] Harold and Shirley Verbarg spend much of their time at home in their library. Harold made all the bookshelves in the room.
(Steven M. Herppich photoS)
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Every day, the world's furniture manufacturers tempt Harold and Shirley Verbarg. New fabrics for sofa upholstery. Updated styles for coffee tables. The latest trends for bedroom dressers.

The owners of Verbarg's American Heritage Furniture stores in Kenwood and Amelia see all the whims of furniture fashion.

But they rarely bring them home to the two-story house on a three-acre, wooded lot in Madeira they had built in 1972.

"I used to see things and always think I wanted something new," Shirley says. "But you get over that. I've gotten used to saying, `I like what I have.' "

Take the mahogany table, chairs and buffet in the larger of the Verbargs' two adjoining dining rooms.

[photo] The Verbargs have two dining rooms in their Madeira home.
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The pieces are replicas of a set from George and Martha Washington's Mount Vernon estate that fit perfectly into the Verbargs' slightly formal, 18th century decor. They're also the same furnishings that have been in the dining room since the Verbargs converted it from a living room seven years ago - and they have no plans to try anything different anytime soon.

"We're in the furniture business, but we don't just change everything all the time," Harold says. "The thing I say to people is, `If you'd like to see something new, go up to the store.' "

At home, the Verbargs don't want a showroom. They want a place where their five daughters, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren can relax during an impromptu afternoon visit or socialize during a holiday gathering.

"This house is very traditional, very homey," says Sheri Mitchell, the youngest of the daughters, during one such unplanned visit. "You feel really comfortable here. The furniture is really beautiful and it's all accessorized well, but there are still a lot of touches of home."

Hand-built table

Those touches start at the round, cherry table in the kitchen. Harold built the table by hand in 1957 as a wedding gift for Shirley's sister. When the sister moved to a house that required a larger table, she returned the gift to its maker - and the Verbarg family has been sharing meals around it for more than 36 years.

[photo] Harold built by hand the cherry table in the kitchen.
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From early spring through late fall, the devoted gardener adds her own touch to the table by filling a vase with fresh-cut flowers. Black-eyed Susans, daisies, roses, daffodils, chrysanthemums. "It's whatever is coming out of my garden at the time," Shirley says.

Shirley also has a knack for taking family heirlooms, some of them worn with age, and giving them a creative new look, says Jenny Kent, the daughter who is the manager of the Kenwood store.

One such heirloom, a wax doll that's at least 120 years old and once belonged to Harold's aunt, sits on an antique chair (a gift from Shirley's mother) in the living room. Shirley's other collections are displayed throughout the house. Rows of blue and white plates, purchased during trips to England, Boston, Valley Forge, Williamsburg and other places with colonial ties, line shelves in the kitchen. More antique dolls rest on canopied beds and dressers in upstairs bedrooms. Crystal cups, saucers, pitchers and other pieces, many of them passed down from Shirley's grandmothers, are stored in the breakfast room's China cabinet.

"I collect. I do," Shirley says with a slightly embarrassed laugh. "So much of it has been given to me . . . and other things I've inherited. Every time I look at them, I think she gave me this or that. I remember all of it and I can't get rid of it."

Over the years, the Verbargs have tackled plenty of renovation projects.

"When we moved in, Harold had all kinds of ideas for this house," Shirley says. "But he didn't want to do them right away. He just would take a step at a time."

One project at a time

The first step was finishing the basement into a den and game room. Harold, who launched his furniture career as a refinisher and cabinet maker at age 15, hand-built the basement cabinets out of pine.

"We wanted them to be English-looking," Shirley says of the Tudor-style shelves that line the basement walls. Red and green plaid carpeting completes the British theme.

[photo] The couple's home was built in 1972.
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Next, the Verbargs added a detached three-car garage and "carriage house." The carriage house was an afterthought. The architects designing the garage copied the roofline of the original house, which created an upstairs space. Rather than waste it, the Verbargs decided to finish it into a cozy guest apartment with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and a bay window that looks over the wooded lot.

With the carriage house project complete, Harold turned his attention to the original garage.

"He said we had to have a library because I came with lots of books," Shirley says. Harold spent more than a year building two walls of cherry cabinets.

Shirley still marvels at his craftsmanship.

"It was amazing," she says. "The cherry still had the bark on it. He stripped the wood down and then he designed all that. It's in his head; he looks at it and he does it."

"The only mistake I made was I didn't realize I'd want a big TV some day, and the cabinet won't hold one," Harold says.

Gathering spot

The library, with its old English-style sofa, leather chair and Shirley's collection of porcelain figurines of children, is where the Verbargs spend most of their time when they're home alone. But the Verbargs' daughters, their spouses, their children and grandchildren visit often.

"All the holidays you can think of, they're here," Shirley says.

That's why the Verbargs decided to do the living-room-to-dining-room conversion seven years ago.

"On holidays, we'll have up to 30 people for dinner," Shirley says. "We were setting up tables all over the house."

The second dining room, connected by French doors to the original dining room, allows seating for 24, all close enough to carry on a conversation.

"The dining room is probably my favorite room, because we gather around the table on all the special occasions," Jenny says. "My mother sets the most beautiful table. If it's Christmas, she'll have a beautiful centerpiece - and she'll have one for Easter, Valentine's Day or whatever.

"It's kind of old-fashioned. People don't do that any more, have family gatherings where just about everybody's there. But we do, and we sit around the table for a very long time."

The dining room conversion created the need for a new living room. With the children out of the house, the Verbargs decided the original family room could use a more formal look. Earlier, Harold had replaced the dark green shag carpet with a handmade pine floor. Then he replaced the rustic brick frame on the fireplace with off-white molding. He also painted the dark wood paneling an off white to give the room a lighter, updated look.

The family room cum living room is where Sheri gravitates when she visits.

"I love the windows," she says. "It has bay windows at either end, so there's always a lot of light. ... It's also one of the rooms we're in a lot during the holidays. Even though through the years the furniture has changed, it's the room that feels the most comfortable."

After the living room project, Harold was about to run out of renovation ideas. But he knew he no longer could put off Shirley's 30-year-old dream of adding a covered porch across the front of the house. Finally, he agreed.

Now the porch, modeled after a picture Shirley found on a Christmas card, is a favorite warm-weather gathering spot - and the Verbargs are satisfied that their home is complete.

"We always said we'd work on this house until we got it the way we wanted," Shirley says. "Now, we've finally got it the way we wanted."

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