Historic Home In The Clouds

October 1, 2013 | By More

JUDI BAKER FLIPS THROUGH THE PAGES OF A PHOTO BOOK DOCUMENTING the renovations of the 1889 home she shares with her husband, retired Air Force General John Baker. Located near Sunset Point at the top of Mount Nebo, this privately owned structure dates back to the days when the 1,350 foot tall mountain was the site of a thriving resort community. The Bakers acquired the house in 2006, taking four years to restore and renovate the two- story home.

“I couldn’t decide what color to paint house,” Judi explains, pointing to photos of the house under construction. Before they removed the outside boards to install insulation, the house was painted what she referred to as a “Pepto-Bismol pink.” After they replaced the siding with locally milled yellow pine, Judi found that that the tans and creams she first imagined didn’t work well with the home’s original rock base. “So I sat across the street and just looked at the house, and I said, “Okay, you have to tell me what color you want to be because I can’t decide. And I looked down and there was lichen on the rock, and I thought, that’s it!” The soft sage gives off a calming and inviting presence, echoing the colors of the trees and adjacent hills of the Ouachita Mountains.

The home and its outlying buildings were once property of Colonel Tom Steele who built the house while surveying for the railroad. A member of the Mt. Nebo Improvement Company, an organization of landowners who worked to turn the mountain into a tourist destination, he helped to create the Summit Park Hotel, a popular spot for those traveling by steamboat up the Arkansas River. Before the hotel burned in 1918 and the state park acquired much of the land on the mountain, Mt. Nebo was a popular tourist destination boasting a population of 5,000 people during the summer months.

During the early 1900s Steel’s home served as an overflow building for the nearby Mount Nebo Lodge, providing overnight shelter for regional visitors who came to enjoy the cool mountain air and attend the evening dances held in the gazebos. By the 1920s the kitchen doubled as a post office for long- term summer guests. Around 3:30 everyday they’d stroll down the pathways and gather around the back of the house to see if the postmistress called their name, indicating a letter from home.

Eventually Mount Nebo became a state park with several private properties dotting the landscape. When General John and Judi Baker acquired the column-lined two-story structure, it hadn’t been lived in full-time since the 1960s. Green carpet covered the original hardwoods, the windows were nailed shut, and the backside of the house needed foundation repair. Yet structurally, the house was in great shape. “We were able to take our time with it,” General Baker explains, as he speaks of their attention to detail.

The Bakers have deep roots in the region. General Baker’s family first came to Pope County before the Civil War. As a young boy he spent summers exploring the mountain’s pathways and trails with his cousins. By the time he was in high school his parents acquired property on the mountain, turning it into a summer home. When he and Judi were dating in the 1969 they carved their initials on a rock in one of the mountain bluffs not too far from the house. It’s since worn off, but the cornerstone out front reads JB + JW, just as it once did in the nearby stone.

General Baker’s service in the air force took the couple to Japan, Turkey, and cities throughout the U.S. But they regularly returned to the mountain, often taking time to stroll past the house, wondering what might happen to the structure as the years took their toll. As they neared retirement and began looking for places to settle down, Mrs. Baker joked that her husband would have to buy that house for her once his service ended.

After retirement they moved back to Russellville, in part to be near Mr. Baker’s mother who was then in her nineties. John says he was on the mountain one afternoon when he called Judi and said, “Why don’t you and mother come up here?” He suggested they all take a walk down to Sunset Point, leading them right past what was then an empty pink house. As they walked by they noticed the basement door was open and John went down to close it. He walked back over to his wife and mother and asked if they’ be interested in walking through the inside of the house. Judi was concerned about what the owner might think of them wondering around uninvited, John explains. “Well, I have a key,” he replied. “We might be the owner.”

“She almost passed out,” Baker continued as he recounted how he keept the purchase a secret. His mother was equally excited. “She remembered the house from when she was a little girl, when it had a big gazebo across from here and teenagers had dances,” he explained.

They originally estimated about three and a half years of work to ready the home for full-time living. In the end it took about four, in part due to the intense heat of summer and cold of winter. As they labored to bring the home back to life, they made a concerted effort to use resources close to home. “We focused on using local materials and hired regional craftspeople,” explains Mr. Baker.

After removing the exterior siding and installing insulation, they worked with three different lumberyards in the region to acquire the clear, yellow pine they needed to replicate the house’s exterior. It took two years to gather all the wood before they began working with a regional sawmill to mill the boards similar to the originals. The handmade rails on the front porch were created by craftsman Walter Hudson of Russellville and replaced those that were water damaged.

As they turn the pages of the book filled with photos, they talk about Hudson’s skilled labor and his tireless push to restore the home with both historic accuracy and modern conveniences. In the living room, for example, two long columns were added to help break up the space of the large room while also echoing an older design they’d seen in both American and Japanese architecture.

Inside the columns they installed plumbing to allow for bathrooms in both the guest and master bedrooms located upstairs. Near the columns sit two Duncan Phyfe sofas; a square grand piano sits up against the wall and two original Maria Theresa chandeliers hang from the ceiling. All of these items were here when they moved in, remnants of the home’s former life.

The original pine planks can be found in almost all the rooms and the original one-inch bead board paneling covers the walls. It was Frank and Darla Bates of Pottsville, the Bakers explain, who scrubbed the dark walls with steel wool and denatured alcohol to removed decades of dust and dirt. Today they shine with a warm glow, giving the house a welcoming and airy feel.

In the kitchen, ornate white tin tiles cover the celling. Though not original to the house, they date from the same time period and were salvaged from a condemned house on Ithaca Street in Russellville. Near the back wall, where the post office once sat, there’s an old icebox they found in the home. After some reconstruction and a fresh coat of paint, it blends seamlessly with the home’s modern stove and refrigerator.

The house tells a story of the mountain’s history, now interwoven with the regional stories of the Baker family. Walking up the stairs, the Bakers point to a long wall of family photos both historic and modern. In the master bedroom Judi shares the story of the hand carved bedframe, made from a cherry tree that once grew in her grandmother’s yard in Cave Springs. A family member created the bed for her grandmother and she later inherited it. “I played under that Cherry tree as a child and now I sleep under it at night,” she adds.

In Mr. Baker’s study, Air Force regalia line the walls, including a painting of a spitfire plane similar to one that he once flew. Deep blue tiles gathered from their time in Turkey are found above the reconstructed fireplace and beautiful stained glass designs catch the afternoon sun in the bathroom and guest bedroom windows.

Designed by Mrs. Baker and created by local dentist Dr. Bob Griffin, they feature the elegant lines of the Turkish tulip. The original claw foot tub makes its home near a modern shower, complemented by the black and white design Judi created in the floor tiles.

The Bakers laugh and note that people often ask them if they’ve had any experiences with ghosts in their home. So far they’ve experienced no visits from the supernatural. But in the early days when they were working on the house they’d often keep both the front and back doors open. As the clouds would descend onto the mountain the balls of white would “come in and just roll down the hall,” Judi explains, “So I can see why people might think that.” You can see why in the early 1900s, adds John, the mountain was once known by locals as the “city in the clouds.”

In 2012 the Baker’s received the award for Excellence in Personal Projects from the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. In the future they plan to add the home the

National Register of Historic Places. Walking outside, the views from the porches, back deck, and sunroom are breath taking. From the second floor deck you can see Lake Dardanelle; the front porch boasts a view of the rolling mountains. Mr. Baker points to the blue ceiling on the porch. “My mother said painting the ceilings blue would keep out wasp nests.” So far this has proven to be true, making it a perfect spot for taking in the views and visiting with passersby. In the evenings when visitors ascend the mountain and gather at nearby Sunset Point, the Bakers often leave their porch and join them, walking to the edge of the mountain to watch the sun sink below the bluffs.

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