A Starkville Charmer
Story Birney Imes | Photographs Matt Garner
As he motored toward New Orleans in the summer of 2011, interior designer Steve Bengel was concerned about the interview ahead. The prospective client, a widowed father with three grown sons and one of America’s highest paid CEOs, owned houses in the west but wanted to get closer to his roots — he had grown up in Kosciusko and graduated from Mississippi State University.
The Gay House in Starkville was not lacking challenges. For one it was pink (“a pink prom dress,” Bengel has called it); it was Victorian and it needed furniture.
The client’s New Orleans home, where the interview took place, a row house decked out in Napoleonic high style, gave Bengel pause. The objective in Starkville, as he saw it, would be very different, to be refined but not overly sophisticated. Built in 1895, the house started out as a farmhouse.
Back home in West Point, Bengel produced a computerized image of the house, “painting” it with colors found in the front door’s original stained glass. The client was impressed; Bengel had the job.
Richard Adkerson, 66, is president and CEO of Phoenix, Arizona-based Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, one of the world’s largest gold and copper producers. As such, the 1970 MSU grad (MBA accounting) spends much of his time jetting to far corners of the globe, where Freeport owns mines — the western U.S., Peru, Chile, Africa and Indonesia. Increasingly, he travels to Starkville for ballgames and alumni functions. (Adkerson was 1991 MSU alumnus of the year, and the accounting school is named in his honor.)
“He wanted a place he could come back to, a place he could call home,” said Bengel.
One thing you should know about Adkerson that is critical to this story: He loves dogs, everything about them. His are frequent fliers on his corporate jet, and each of his houses is equipped with a kennel. The Starkville house includes beds for the dogs, complete with monogrammed coverlets.
AN ART GALLERY, TOO
Bengel felt some trepidation upon learning the house would serve as a gallery for the executive’s extensive collection of hunting art. He shouldn’t have worried.
“I would open a crate, thinking, ‘Oh God, what’s it gonna be,’ but it really fit,” said Bengel. “I would have wanted it.”
Each project has its unique set of challenges. One of Bengel’s was his client’s repeated insistence, “I don’t want Victorian.”
“I didn’t want to fight the house — I wanted to be reverent — but I wanted to bring it into this century,” Bengel said of the project.
He succeeded, though a walk through the house entails some time travel.
Entering through the front door, the visitor finds himself standing in a two-story entryway surrounded by dark bead-board paneling. The effect is at once disorienting and oddly soothing; it’s as though he has wandered into an earlier age. In a sense, he has.
To furnish the house Bengel ranged from Idaho to Georgia, drawing from estate sales, auctions and antiques dealers. The parlor set, a couch and six chairs in the entry and front sitting room, were part of Queen Victoria’s residence in India. Bengel had seen them at an Arkansas antiques dealer years ago. Three decades later, the dealer still had the set.
Every old house comes with its own set of stories, and the Gay House is no exception. Take the horizontal line on the stairwell — darker above, lighter below. A young man was cleaning the coal dust off the walls when word came he had been called up for World War II. Story has it the boy was one of the first G.I.s killed at Okinawa. The then-owner of the house, a Mrs. Rush, wouldn’t let anyone clean further. It’s still called “the war line.”
The client asked for a dining room that could seat his extended family; Bengel delivered a 20-seater. For the two-story family/trophy room at the back of the house, Bengel added clapboard siding to the walls to give the illusion of an added room rather than use a sheet rock wall inconsistent with the front of the house.
Wood shakes cover the main roof, and it is no coincidence the porch roofs and gutters are copper.
“We were exploring options for metal roofs, and we thought that Richard, being in the copper business, should have a copper roof,” said Bryan Houston, Bengel’s assistant.
In a year-and-a-half, Bengel transformed a down-at-the-heels prom queen into a sophisticated and understated charmer.
By all accounts Adkerson was happy with the outcome. Said Bengel, “He did not return as much as a bud vase or a hand towel.”
The executive spent Thanksgiving with his family at the house.
“It’s become ‘grandma’s house,’” Bengel said.
Adkerson has since expressed his delight with the house — Bengel is at work on a guest house. The early reviews, though, came second-hand from housekeeper Amelia Kohen. Encountering Adkerson on the porch swing with his two dogs Thanksgiving weekend, he said to her, “Look at my beautiful house.”