Written by Amelia Jeffers
Photography by Gary Kirksey
In 1865, Bavarian emigrant David Zenner upended his young family and his Cincinnati business and relocated to Athens, Ohio, so that his precocious 13-year-old son, Phillip, could matriculate to Ohio University. He could not have imagined the changes the Appalachian region would undergo over the next 150 years, let alone the enduring legacy his family would leave. The D. Zenner and Co. Wholesale and Retail Dealers in Dry Goods and Clothing became a staple in the area, and David’s penchant for innovation set the Zenner family up for generations of wealth and opportunity.
By the mid 1920s, the Zenners were among the wealthiest families around and David’s son, Henry, was at the helm of the family business, which had expanded into the printing and binding industry after his father’s paper-clipping device (the prongs used today to hold documents in a medical chart) was patented. Deeply entrenched in the community (and recently widowed), David Zenner did what many do in mid-life: he threw himself into a project.
Enlisting the services of Brandon Smith, an accomplished architect from Pittsburgh, Zenner stewarded the design and construction of a fitting mansion on the “elegant east side” of what had become his hometown. Though Smith was an established and renowned architect who had graduated from residential to significant institutional design appointments, he accepted the commission after Henry Zenner convinced him of his noble vision for the home. Together the pair designed a magnificent Tudor-revival residence reflective of the baronial splendor Smith had helped to popularize in Pittsburgh’s tony Fox Chapel neighborhood. Construction started in 1927 and took nearly two years, with an ambitious landscaping design created to appropriately complement the home.
Sadly, Henry Zenner died a few short years after his vision was accomplished, passing the home onto his children. Eventually, “Zenner House” was passed into the loving care of another successful Athens retailer, Mr. Altman, but the name remained the same – demonstrating the significance of the family who built it. As economic conditions in the area worsened, demand for a 7,000 square foot mansion waned, and the property fell into a state of disrepair.
Enter Jeff Chaddock. I made the acquaintance of Jeff at a mid-day meeting earlier this year after our mutual friend, Rebecca Ibel, insisted we should meet; Rebecca was adamant that Zenner House would be of interest to me and to the readers of Sophisticated Living. Settling into his luxurious office in German Village, we laughed that we had both considered cancelling the appointment because my visit to Zenner House had already been scheduled. Nearly two hours of brisk and gratifying conversation later, Jeff insisted that my visit would now include a dinner party with me and my daughter Abby (an Ohio University student) as guests of honor.
Rehabilitated to be a community asset, Zenner House is a remarkable achievement of design, style, luxury and philanthropy. Chaddock and his partner, Mark Morrow, purchased Zenner House in 2014 to benefit a beloved community. Many would question the investment – a $1,075,000 purchase price and certainly millions of dollars in restoration – but as Chaddock will tell you, his heart is in Appalachia. Zenner House is not just a home, but a part of a philanthropic plan announced by Chaddock and Morrow in 2016 to leave 97% of their estate to charity. With this concept in mind, Zenner House benefits nonprofits by providing a low- or no-charge use of the space for fundraisers, but is self-sustaining through use by for-profit ventures and private occasions, effectively guaranteeing that it will be maintained for generations to come.
An Ohio University graduate, Chaddock grew up in modest circumstances in Belpre, Ohio, but has built one of the largest wealth management firms in the country, Envisage Wealth. Yet Chaddock has not forgotten the people, places and things that have touched his heart along the way: His cadre of friends in the Athens area seems as emotionally invested in Zenner House as he is.
As our Saturday visit approached, Abby and I were near giddy with excitement after researching images and history of Zenner House. The visit did not disappoint. Walking through the grand front door, we were greeted by a hint of the incredible art collection on display: a large-format photorealism oil on canvas by Gary Pettigrew, the former director of fine arts at OU. To the left, a massive Jacobean court cupboard set the tone for the 21st Century interpretation of Brandon Smith’s original vision of baronial splendor. To the right, a sunken living room beckons a scotch and a sit beside the generous fireplace; it is easy to imagine the space decorated for the holidays.
We tentatively ventured past an Andy Warhol, another large Pettigrew and an opulent dining room table set to the nines as we made our way toward the sounds of lively conversation and dishes clanging. In the stunning and comfortable kitchen we found our host, busying about the oven and directing the preparation of salad, hors d'oeuvres and drinks. After some quick introductions and context (at least two of the guests grew up in the neighborhood and shared a few memories), we were invited to explore the castle-like structure. Room after room, we were amazed at the dedication to historic preservation and emphasis on quality and luxury represented by cool marble bathrooms, leaded windows and rich woodwork.
Heading back downstairs to dinner, we peeked through a window to the incredible landscape. Chaddock is an avid gardener who has created an exterior that implausibly rivals the interior. A stunning, modern pool house with walls of windows anchors the expansive grounds and provides a gracious center of operations for outdoor soirees. Over a meal worthy of a fine-dining restaurant (prepared by Chaddock and friends), we listen to story after story of Zenner House escapades, from formal gatherings to raucous parties. Retreating to the lower level speakeasy for pinball, billiards and after-dinner cocktails, I am struck by how easily Chaddock shares his home with others – and how his generosity of spirit has endeared others to him and his legacy.
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