Standing on the second floor of the 1873 firehouse -- a For Sale sign hung out front -- Catherine Willett peered through a trio of French windows at an ornate Catholic church across the street, and exclaimed, "This is my Paris apartment!"
No matter that the brick building once housed firemen and their horses, or that it mingles with homes and warehouses in an edgy downtown Louisville neighborhood called Butchertown. Or that the muddy brown Ohio River and not the Seine burbles past the city. Catherine and her longtime friend, designer Susan Moloney, shared a vision and turned an unlikely urban building into a cozy home for Catherine, her husband, and their college-aged sons.
One of the biggest jobs of the project was designing a new front door. After the firehouse was shut down in the 1960s, a design firm took up residence and added showroom windows inside the stone entry.
A little hammer-and-crowbar work to remove a soffit revealed a row of curved windows beneath the arch. Moloney replaced the showroom windows with matching glass doors and sidelights that sit flush with the front of the building.
Downstairs, where the vehicles (and wagons before them) once stood -- and where the ceilings tower to 24 feet -- Moloney created a grand foyer and an adjacent living room.
Still intact are the original hardwood floors, a rare configuration of thick boards set on end to support the weight of the wagons. "You can still see the scars of hoof prints," says Willett.
Moloney added a massive, but simple limestone mantel as a focal point, and dressed up the existing staircase with a design inspired by the exterior porch of a neighboring house. Overstuffed seating helps make the expansive space cozy.
"It doesn't feel at all like a Tribeca loft," says Moloney. Rather than cool and spare and sprinkled with modern furniture, the interior of the Willetts' firehouse takes cues from the building's carved limestone Beaux Arts exterior.
In the rear, where the horses were stabled, they added a large kitchen and sitting area, removing the ancient cobblestones (for use in the garden) and adding a limestone floor.
Round windows that looked out from the stables now decorate the kitchen. A beaded-board backsplash and creamy, slightly distressed cabinets make the large space more homey.
Perhaps Moloney's biggest challenge was making this unconventional space feel like home. "To me, a successful job is when I am able to capture the personality of my client," she says. "I could have done this firehouse 16 different ways, but this way is so Catherine."
A second-floor space became the master bedroom; the firemen's kitchen became the master bath. Reconfiguring the space from commercial to residential use did not require as much major construction as Willett and Moloney originally expected.
The master bedroom, overlooking a church, inspired homeowner Willet's "Paris apartment" comparison. With the help of 250 yards of silk taffeta, Moloney made her dream of living luxuriously in a former firehouse come true.
Plush seating and robin's egg blue on the ceiling contribute to the room's ethereal feeling.
On the second floor, an equipment room became a cozy library. Moloney upholstered the walls in a pleasing toile, a job that pushed her upholsterer to the brink. "He almost quit in the middle of the job, trying to keep the fabric straight on the 18-foot-high walls," she says. Comfortable seating and ample storage complete the space.